Joe Thomas, the Browns' iron-man left tackle since the first snap of 2007, is one of three finalists for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, the league announced Sunday at halftime of the Ravens-Patriots AFC championship game.

The other finalists are Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

This award truly is coveted. It is the only one issued by the league that recognizes a player's off-field contributions to his community as well as his success on the field.

"I am honored and truly humbled to be recognized as a finalist for this award," Thomas said. "Walter Payton wasn't just a Hall-of-Fame player, he was also one of the best people that ever played in the NFL and made a difference in so many lives. Giving back is something that is extremely important and the Cleveland community is very special to me."

About midway through the season players from each team nominate a teammate to receive the award. The finalists were selected from a blue ribbon panel that studied what each play did to deserve being nominated in the first place. Judges on that panel include NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Hall of Famers Anthony Munoz and Frank Gifford, last year's winner, Matt Birk from the Ravens, and Connie Payton, widow of the late Bears great running back Walter Payton.

Thomas has a deep respect for those serving in the military. According to the release issued by the Browns, Thomas "in 2010 traveled more than 14,000 miles round trip to visit troops in Afghanistan through the NFL/USO Tour. To this day, he is still in contact with many of the troops he met during that trip. Upon his return, Thomas supported a national USO campaign to raise additional funds in support of our troops, lending his name to the nationwide effort.