Fourth Round, 119th Pick
The safety position is shaping up to be one of the better and deeper positional groups in the 2013 NFL draft class. Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas is one of the top safeties available.
Coming from a school not known for producing NFL talent on the defensive side of the ball, Thomas made history, broke records and led the nation in statistical categories normally reserved for those who could only be described as "playmakers."
Thomas possesses a good combination of size and strength coming from his safety position.
He checked in at 6’0", 208 pounds and has the frame to add a bit more weight if he’s asked to at the next level. He has the quickness and agility to cover a lot of ground and breaks on the ball well once it’s in the air. He’s a ball-hawking safety who led the nation in interceptions (eight) last season at Fresno State.
Thomas shows above-average closing speed when running downhill toward a ball-carrier and will announce his presence with authority. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there and will lay a big hit when given the chance. He displays impressive strength and drive at the point of contact and does a good job of running through the tackle.
Thomas showed to be versatile enough to play either safety position, both in the box and back deep, and can come off the edge on a blitz. He’s a playmaking safety that in addition to the eight interceptions he had last season, in which three were returned for touchdowns, he also had 12 tackles for loss and four sacks.
Of all of Thomas’ strengths, the most impressive skill he possesses is his ability to get the ball back to his offense.
His ball skills are elite. He’ll go up and make a play out in space and get the ball at its highest point. He breaks well on out-routes and has the change-of-direction agility to hop those out-routes and take them back to the house.
It’s easy to watch the tape on Thomas against Oregon and see a whole lot of things that are concerning regarding his ability to take proper angles and tackle out in space.
While De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner aren’t the easiest players to tackle out in space within the Oregon offense under former Oregon head coach and current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, it’s not like it’s going to get a whole lot easier in the NFL.
Thomas had trouble taking the proper angles to make a tackle from both a deep-safety position and within the box. He would over-pursue and allow the runner to cut back on him or he’d give up outside contain and let the runner get a lane to break it outside and up the field.
He also needs to do a better job of getting to the point of contact under control when out in space.
He showed against Boise State that he’d fly in out of control without properly establishing his lower half, making it much harder to redirect to mirror the offensive player in order to make a tackle out in space. It wasn’t just because of Oregon’s speed that these issues would arise. DJ Harper and Jay Ajayi of Boise State are both 200-plus-pound running backs, and both put moves on Thomas in the open field during their game.
Thomas possesses all the physical tools to be a starting safety in the NFL. He’s physical at the point of contact and has the change-of-direction agility and quickness to make plays out in coverage. His ball skills separate him from some of the other safeties in this draft. If the ball is in his vicinity, there’s a good chance the defense is taking one away.
He’s got the athletic fluidity to play man coverage in the slot against tight ends and can cover backs out of the backfield. You won’t mistake him for a cornerback out in man coverage, but his fluidity and change-of-direction agility are more than good enough to play the safety position.
Thomas came back healthy in 2012 after a gruesome leg injury that occurred in a non-contact drill at practice just three days before the start of the 2011 season. He suffered a broken leg and a dislocated ankle which caused him to miss the entire 2011 season.
The soft-spoken Thomas was named a team captain in 2012 and became Fresno State’s first-ever unanimous All-American. He was also named a finalist for the prestigious Jim Thorpe award that goes to the nation’s top defensive back.
Fresno State adopted the 3-4 defense under new head coach Tim DeRuyter before last season and modeled it after Dick LeBeau and the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. DeRuyter is quoted as saying, according to SI.com, Thomas is "our Troy Polamalu."
Thomas would line up all over the place for the Bulldogs defense. He’d line up as the deep safety in a single-deep look and then would be up in the box coming off the edge on the very next play. He’d line up against the slot receiver head-on and play both man and zone coverages from the same look.
They’d play man under with two- and three-deep looks where Thomas would show his impressive range and instincts in making plays out in space.
Thomas gravitates toward the ball and has a great feel for the game while out in coverage. His instincts to hop routes and anticipate throws are what helped him lead the nation in interceptions last season. He shows the ability to make plays on a ball in the air from all different angles and understands how to use his body to shield off a receiver when making a play on the ball.
Thomas is physical at the point of attack and uses his frame well when driving through a ball-carrier.
He needs to get better at getting off blocks against the more physical wide receivers. He can navigate through traffic well to make plays in run defense and is a sound tackler in traffic. He’s not afraid of contact and looks comfortable playing in traffic within the box.
Thomas will have a tendency to fly in and not properly sink his hips to take down a ball-carrier out in space at times. He’ll overrun the play or take an improper angle and easily allow the back the outside release. He has the straight-line speed to deliver crushing hits in run defense but doesn’t seem to have the same level of athletic ability when moving laterally in a one-on-one situation.
Thomas has the change-of-direction quickness and fluidity in his hips to turn and run with backs and tight ends down the field. He has excellent closing speed and has a knack for getting his hands on the ball. He jumps routes well and accelerates quickly when coming out of his back pedal.
He showed during Senior Bowl week practices that he has the athletic ability to lock up outside and run down the field with the more physical receivers that were down in Mobile.
Thomas showed an impressive ability to redirect out in space and react to a quarterback’s progressions out in zone coverage. He can cover a large area when asked to play deep, and his athleticism combined with his instincts is why he’s such a dangerous player in terms of creating turnovers.
He won’t get lost in space and does a good job of keeping his eyes on the quarterback while feeling routes through his zone. He will jump play-action due to an aggressive demeanor against the run but is a solid coverage safety while in zone.
Thomas is a fundamentally sound tackler that uses his size and strength to his advantage when meeting the ball-carrier at the point of contact. He’ll deliver big hits inside the box and out in space with proper leverage and lower-body force.
He’ll need to work on his ability to get off blocks and make tackles out on the edge and to stay under control when in one-on-one situations with a ball-carrier in space.
Future Role/Scheme Versatility
The good thing about Thomas’ versatility is that he was asked to do everything at Fresno State. He lined up all over the place and showed the athleticism and physicality to be moved around at the next level. He’ll be able to interchange between the two safety positions. He’ll just need to learn to be a little more physical getting off blocks.
Thomas was also a solid special teams player and gunner on the punt team at Fresno State, so he should be able to make an instant impact on special teams as a rookie.