Experience, film study put Thomas a cut above
He has 12 years' experience and seven Pro Bowls on his résumé.
He was a former fifth-round pick that rapidly developed into one of the most feared and respected linebackers in the NFL.
This defender is incredibly reckless with his body and -- according to NFL head coaches -- just as dangerous with his mind.The smartest defensive player in the NFL is Dallas Cowboys linebacker Zach Thomas, according to ESPN.com's survey of head coaches. Thomas spent the past dozen years making his mark in the AFC with the Miami Dolphins before signing with the Cowboys as a free agent in February. "There is a reason he's played for 12 years," former teammate and Browns guard Seth McKinney said of the 5-11, 228-pound Thomas. "He does a lot of film study and puts the time in. There are definitely guys that are faster and stronger, but Zach beats them to the play due to [intelligence]. He does a good job of that."
NFL Coaches Survey
ESPN.com surveyed NFL head coaches for their take on a range of issues, including the league's smartest offensive player (non-QB), smartest defensive player, dirtiest player, best owner and best referees. Thirty-one of the 32 coaches participated on some level. Each head coach received anonymity for his candor.• Smartest offensive: Hines Ward
• Smartest defensive: Zach Thomas
• Dirtiest player: Rodney Harrison
• Best owner: Dan Rooney
• Best refs: Mike Carey, Ed Hochuli
• More: Can teams ostracize refs?
• Watch: NFL Live on 'dirtiest'
• Watch: NFL Live on 'smartest'
"So it's up to you to know what teams like to do on second-and-1, third-and-5, third-and-long. Once you break those things down, you can eliminate certain things."Browns starting center Hank Fraley agreed that translating film study to the field is key for defenders. Knowledge and anticipation, even if they provide just a split-second advantage, can lead to big defensive plays in the pros. "If you know where to be and what formation it is, it's going to help you make plays," Fraley said. "That's what good defensive players do. A lot of cornerbacks when they make interceptions will tell you, 'Hey, I already knew that play was coming because it's what they run on second-and-10.'" Thomas and Lewis helped the linebacker group get the most votes with 14. Defensive backs were not far behind with 11 votes and defensive linemen had five. One coach who was surveyed chose not to vote for this category.
James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com