Although he played on both sides of the ball as a prep running back and defensive back, and was recruited to Fresno State as an athlete without a definite position Phillip Thomas' nasty on-field 'tude soon convinced the Bulldogs' coaching staff that he had a defensive mentality, and he became a mainstay in their defensive backfield. In 2009, he impressed in limited playing time; in 2010, Thomas started 11 of 12 games, making 64 tackles, (3.5 for loss), forcing two fumbles, and intercepting three passes.
Based on this, it seemed that Thomas was poised to explode onto the national scene. However, just three days before the 2011 season opener, he suffered a nasty leg injury (broken left leg, dislocated ankle) in, of all things, a non-contact drill. This derailed his season and earned him a medical redshirt year. After almost exactly twelve months of rehab, Thomas returned from the injury better than ever, tallying 84 tackles (12 for loss) and leading the nation in interceptions with eight, including three returned for touchdowns. For his excellent work, Thomas was named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year.
Thomas is athletic and aggressive; like John Madden used to say about Michael Irvin, the man plays without fear. This is a major attribute and also a significant flaw, especially as it pertains to his open field tackling, where, due to his hyper-aggressive nature, he often fails to wrap up, allowing big gains. This can be seen most obviously on the tape in Fresno State's game against Oregon. But take a look at the rest of his game; here he is in action against Tulsa and Boise State. And, finally, we have a lovely highlight video for your delectation.
What think our scouts of Thomas? As the Augustinians say, Tolle Lege: take up and read!
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 9th-rated S; 108th overall
Instincts/ Recognition: Instincts are a notch below elite. Recognizes and reacts to play action quickly. Reads quarterback and flashes above average route recognition. Flashes above average situational awareness i.e. trying to rip the ball out of runners' hands when trailing late. Lined up deep, over the slot and in the box at Fresno State.
Cover Skills: Limited in terms of ability to match up with slot receivers. Tight and takes too long to transition when forced to change directions quickly. However, can get hands on receivers and reroute them. Flashes ability to turn and run when wins with hands at line of scrimmage. Fast enough to cover deep half. While doesn't have elite range quick reaction time boosts range and can play centerfield when takes sound angle to the ball. Times hits well and can separate receivers from the ball. Limits production after the catch.
Ball Skills: Playmaker that tracks the ball well. Can extend and snatch. Times jumps well for the most part and can high point. Locks in and can tip ball to himself when only gets one hand on it. Can be late turning and locating the ball when forced to turn back to the line of scrimmage.
Run Support: Big enough to hold up in box. Does a nice job of slipping blocks and sifting through traffic when plays close to line of scrimmage. Takes too long to get off blocks once reached but doesn't shy away from taking on bigger blockers and willing to sacrifice body to make play. Not relentless but above average effort chasing the run. Inconsistent tackler. Can lower the boom. Can also fail to break down and wrap up trying to level the ball carrier. Angles are sound for most part but again a touch inconsistent.
Intangibles: 2012 team captain. Hard worker in the weight and film rooms. Position coach is Tim McDonald who played 13 seasons in the NFL, was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and won a Super Bowl with the 49ers. First player in Fresno State history to be an unanimous All-American.
CBSSports.com (Rob Rang): 3rd-rated FS; 71st overall
Positives: Well proportioned athlete with good straight-line speed, agility and terrific closing speed. Very good anticipatory skills. Recognizes where the play is going and arrives in time to make a play, whether it be against the run or the pass. Reliable ball-skills. Tracks the ball well, showing good leaping ability and soft hands to pluck the ball from the air. Physical hitter. Lowers his shoulder into the ball-carrier to make the forceful hit and wraps securely to assure the tackle. Possesses the light feet and surprisingly fluid hips to drop down and cover receivers out of the slot. Very good open-field running ability, due to his agility, speed and vision to be a threat with the ball in his hands.
Negatives: May not possess top-end timed speed some teams are looking for in a true centerfielder against NFL passing attacks. Trusts his instincts and will occasionally get burned when gambling on play-action or double-moves by receivers. Missed the entire 2011 season with a broken left leg and dislocated left ankle that occurred during a non-contact drill just three days prior to the Bulldogs' first game.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 4th-rated SS; 90th overall
Positives: Instinctive, anticipatory and aggressive. Fluid and agile. Soft pedal. Drops into the box and fits in run defense. Can mirror tight ends. Leverages the field and takes good angles. Drives on plays in front of him. Productive playmaker (13 career picks). Good leaping ability, ball skills and hands to intercept (see Colorado, San Diego State). Functional tackle strength. Coachable and football smart.
Negatives: Very short arms. Could stand to get stronger. Lacks ideal top-end speed. Not an explosive, quick-twitch athlete (overmatched by speed in the slot). Has man-coverage limitations - was exposed in one-on-one reps at the Senior Bowl. Very average range and recovery. Not a punisher. Inconsistent tackler - struggles to secure in open field, tends to tackle high and misses too many. Is fairly immature and needs to learn what it means to be an accountable professional. Will be a 24-year-old rookie.
Summary: Good-sized, controlled mover who bounced back from a year off the field and was one of the top secondary playmakers in the country. Ball production belies disappointing speed and range, but he compensates with instincts and anticipation, traits which could enable him to earn a starting job. Would benefit from veteran mentorship.
Ourlads (Dan Shonka): 4th-rated FS; 95th overall
Two-year starter who received a medical redshirt in 2011 due to a fractured left ankle. Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. He led the country with 8 interceptions along with 84 tackles. A playmaker who recorded 12 tackles for loss, five passes broken up, four forced fumbles, and four sacks. Returned two of his interceptions for touchdowns versus Colorado. Excellent recognition of run/ pass. Football smart. Accurate key and quick reactions to what he reads. Has a nose for the ball. Disciplined, accurate and dependable. Gets upfield to force the point quickly. Has the size and the strength to string out plays. Can judge and compete for the ball at its highest point. Solid and dependable tackler. Good ball skills and range.
Outside of Rang, our panel of perceptive pigskin pundits places Thomas in a fairly tight range, between picks 90 and 108, which fall roughly on the bend between the third and fourth rounds. Even though its a deep safety class, I think (as does Rang) that Thomas will go earlier rather than later, so I'm placing him on my "little board" firmly in the third round, where the Cowboys hold the 80th selection.
Although I like much about Thomas (his passion, leadership and, most important, ability to generate turnovers), I'm concerned about his ability to match up with receivers, especially with quicker slot guys, and his questionable capacity to play as a single-high safety. Moreover, after looking at the tape, I worry that he doesn't play within himself - i.e., that he's overaggressive, to the point where it takes him out of plays. Whereas that's a liability in a linebacker, its a fatal flaw in a safety who represents the last line of defense. If he becomes a Cowboy in late April, I'll welcome all he brings to the table, scream like a little girl each and every time he causes a fumble or picks off a pass - and spend at least the first few years of his career holding my breath whenever a QB throws a pass to a receiver who is out of the camera's range.
Next up: LSU safety Eric Reid