As nearly half the teams in the NFL play 34 defensive schemes, the value of pass rushing outside linebacker continues to climb. Stanford's Chase Thomas did not receive high grades from the two combines (National and Blesto) this spring, but from our film study he deserves consideration as a second / third round pick. While every team that runs a 34 scheme would like to find an impact edge rusher like James Harrison or Clay Matthews, the reality is that many successful 34 defenses have been based around good, productive outside linebackers like Shaun Phillips and Mike Vrabel.
Thomas first grabbed our attention during the 2011 season and has continued his impressive play this season. Although he does not have the tremendous first step explosiveness of players like DeMarcus Ware and Dwight Freeney, he still consistently gets pressure off the edge. His sound footwork, excellent use of hands and efficiency of movement help Thomas to consistently defeat pass blocks in a variety of ways. Once he beats pass blocker, he has a good closing burst to the quarterback to finish the sack or at least to deliver a hard blow right after the pass is thrown. In addition, Thomas shows his smarts and awareness by consistently getting his hands up to try and tip passes when his pass rush is stopped.
While Thomas’ pass rush skills are good, he separates himself from many other good pass rushers with his outstanding play against the run. You can observe from watching him play that he has been coached well and learns from that coaching. He consistently carries out his responsibility, maintains proper positioning, has good footwork and uses hands correctly to take on run blocks. When he has “contain” responsibility he consistently is able to control blocker so that the blocker and the ball carrier are kept to his inside. Additionally, when the offense runs a play away he consistently maintains backside responsibility before coming down the line to try and make the play. This enables him to be in position if the play turns out to be a play fake away with a “naked roll-back pass” to the tight end on the backside. He makes it look easy taking on and defeating run blocks out in space as he takes them on with good base and hand-use, maintains position and can shed and make the tackle on runs to his side of the field.
Not only will Thomas’ physical skills and football instincts help him to become a productive starting outside linebacker, but the passion, intensity and aggressive playing style he constantly plays with will separate him from many of the other players he competes with. In the games evaluated, there were many times that he passed other defenders, who were in better position to make the play, while chasing down and making the play in pursuit. This style of play will lend itself to his excelling on special teams coverage units, which is vital so that he can make an impact / contribution to the team while he develops into a starting player.
In the end, Thomas will not be drafted as highly as some other outside linebacker prospects like Jarvis Jones of Georgia and Barkevious Mingo of LSU, but from what we have seen on film and heard from scouts who cover Stanford, he will likely be drafted in the second or third round. His skill set and playing style remind me of current Chargers outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and I expect him to be similarly successful in that role for an NFL team.