‘It’s going to get pretty dark’: Cowboys safety Juanyeh Thomas has advice for this year’s UDFAs

‘It’s going to get pretty dark’: Cowboys safety Juanyeh Thomas has advice for this year’s UDFAs

The NFL journey begins soon for a whole slew of Cowboys rookies, as minicamp will welcome in the eight players drafted by the club. But along with them will be those who didn’t have their name turned in on an index card. This year’s undrafted free agents may not have gotten the draft-day moment, but they’ll have the same opportunity to put a star on their helmet.

Juanyeh Thomas knows that route very well, and he has some words of wisdom for this year’s UDFA class.

“Stay committed to the grind,” Thomas said during an appearance on teammate Brock Hoffman’s The 8th Round podcast, so named because he similarly didn’t get the call during the seven rounds of the 2022 draft.

After going undrafted, Thomas recalled feeling extra pressure during camp. He knows this year’s crop of UDFAs will likely experience it, too.

“It’s going to get pretty dark, and you’re going to think that you aren’t useful to the team, but I’m telling you, a lot of things happen, man, and when your number’s called you’ve got to go take that [expletive], for real,” he offered. “Stay focused and stay locked in the whole time.”

Hoffman agreed. Originally signed by Cleveland, the Virginia Tech offensive lineman likened being an undrafted free agent to being a college walk-on.

“Nothing’s going to be given to you,” Hoffman explained. “You’re not going to have four or five chances to make the same mistake over and over again.”

Hoffman was cut by the Browns midseason in 2022 and joined the practice squad in Dallas. Thomas was already there, much to the safety’s surprise.

“I thought I was doing pretty solid,” the former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket said of his rookie preseason. Despite notching an interception during the team’s final preseason contest, he failed to make the Cowboys 53-man roster.

“It was kind of like a punch to the gut,” he remembered. “I feel like that was really humbling. Then throughout the whole year, I was just- I’m not going to lie- I was in a dark place.”

Thomas thought his chance to finally step into the light was coming on Christmas Eve, in a home game versus Philadelphia. He was expecting to be elevated for the first time, but a knee injury suffered in midweek practice canceled those plans.

“They’re fixing to cut me,” he feared. “They’re going to bring in other people. I’ve done nothing to help the team as far as practice.”

Hoffman knows that feeling, too.

“When you’re on practice squad, it’s in the title: you’re there to practice,” he said. “And when you can’t practice, it’s kind of scary. Like, okay, if I get back healthy, are they going to cut me?”

Thomas’s fears, though, proved to be unfounded.

When his coaches told him he’d done “too many good things to be cut,” Thomas used that as motivation to start learning different positions on the defense, all part of an effort to make himself indispensable for 2023.

“No way I’m not making the 53-man roster,” he vowed.

The work paid off. Late last summer, head coach Mike McCarthy singled out Thomas as the player who had made the biggest leap from the previous year.

“That made me feel good but I couldn’t even look at it and relax, because we had a loaded safety room,” Thomas said. “I just had to keep making plays to separate myself.”

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He didn’t have to wait long. A surprise start in the 2023 opener against the Giants, Thomas made his presence felt early when he stuffed New York running back Saquon Barkley for no gain on a 1st-down run during the Giants’ first possession.

Three plays later, he kickstarted the Cowboys’ 40-point avalanche by blocking a field goal that was returned for a touchdown.

“Something- I don’t know if it was an angel that had jumped on my back, but I kid you not- I felt something different,” Thomas said of that play. “I jumped through the line untouched, and I said, ‘Oh, snap, I gotta block this.'”

After he did, everything changed.

“I feel like my whole life slowed down,” he recalled. “Everything was slo-mo.”

Since then, though, things have been a bit of a blur. Thomas went on to appear in all 17 games for the 2023 Cowboys. And though he didn’t log another start and sometimes played on special teams only, he showed more than enough to remain in the gameday lineup.

But now there’s a new defensive coordinator. And it’s time for the 23-year-old to prove himself all over again. Mike Zimmer comes back to Dallas with a long and storied defensive body of work, but he also comes with a reputation.

Thomas has already seen glimpses of it.

“That man likes what he likes and he likes it his way,” he told Hoffman.

But he’s also seen enough of the Cowboys’ new-look defense to make a promise for the coming season.

“If there’s one thing I’m going to tell the fans,” Thomas said with a smile, “it’s that we are going to stop the [expletive-expletive] run. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

For the undrafted free agent who waited a whole year on the practice squad and then used a backfield tackle on one of the league’s premier backs as his 2023 entrance, it’ll be just the next challenge to overcome.

“This season is do-or-die for everybody.”

For the Cowboys. For the coaches. For many of the team’s top players. For the new draft picks. For the undrafted free agents.

Maybe even for Thomas, too.

But it’s far from his first time facing those odds.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire