Leading up to the NFL draft on May 8-10, Shutdown Corner will examine some of the most interesting prospects in the class, breaking down their strengths and weaknesses.
Running back/offensive weapon
5-foot-9, 174 pounds
2013 stats: 96 rushes for 594 yards, 22 catches for 246 yards, 10 total touchdowns (8 rushing, 1 receiving, 1 return)
40-yard dash: 4.50 seconds (official time at NFL scouting combine)
The good: Speed, of course. Thomas was known in college for his ability to get the ball in space and outrun everyone. Forget the 40 time at the combine, on a football field he was always the fastest guy. He returned five kicks for touchdowns in three seasons, and in total had 15 touchdowns of 30 yards or more in his career. Against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl his freshman year, he had two rushing attempts, and turned them into 155 yards and two touchdowns. Players like Thomas, small and ultra-fast offensive weapons without a true position, have found homes in the NFL. Tavon Austin was the eighth pick of the draft a year ago. Dexter McCluster was a first-round pick a few years ago and signed a three-year, $12 million deal with Tennessee hours into free agency. Thomas isn't nearly that coveted, but the team that gets him is getting a player who, if put in the right situations, can hit some home runs. That will never go out of style.
The bad: Thomas isn't the same player as Austin, who easily projected as a do-everything slot receiver, or even McCluster. Oregon got creative with Thomas and would split him out at times, but he did most of his damage as a spread read-option running back. He can catch the ball, and showed that even on deeper passes, but he would need a lot of work at receiver to make it there. And not many 174-pound running backs thrive in the NFL. The fact is, he really doesn't have a true position in the pros. And while it would be foolish to ignore the game speed he showed on tape, the fact is his 40 time of 4.5 seconds (tied for 11th among running backs, far behind the similarly versatile Dri Archer's 4.26) was disappointing for a player whose calling card is supposed to be the ability to run by everyone. He also wasn't the same dynamic player as a junior that he was his first two years. An ankle injury cost him four games. When he came back he had one play from scrimmage longer than 20 yards, a 24-yard catch against Arizona. Last season raised flags about his durability, and if Thomas isn't breaking huge plays, he's not going to see the field much in the NFL.
The verdict: Thomas is an interesting third-day pick. He's small, he doesn't have a position and his junior season wasn't tremendous. Maybe his upside is Dante Hall, with a few great years as a returner but never finds a role on offense before breaking down (and there's nothing wrong with having Hall's career). And if you're making that type of luxury pick, why wouldn't you take Archer instead? However, maybe the right coach drafts him and figures out how to use him as a (small) chess piece, linking him up all over and getting him in space. But he can't go to a team whose offensive coordinator plays checkers. He'd be wasted at a conventional position. You watch his elusiveness and speed his first two years at Oregon, and there's something there. Assuming there isn't a team ready to pounce on him in the first three rounds, the price is pretty low considering he was a top recruit (fifth overall in the 2011 class) who then starred in college. With the right fit, maybe he can make some of the same plays he did at Oregon. But he definitely needs to be drafted by the right coaching staff.
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