Phillip Thomas to Redskins: How Does Safety Fit with Washington?

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2013

Oct 6, 2012; Fort Collins, WY, USA; Fresno State Bulldogs safety Phillip Thomas (16) intercepts a pass against the Colorado State Rams during the fourth quarter.  The Bulldogs beat the Rams 28-7. Mandatory Credit: Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Redskins may have found their starting free safety in fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas. The ex-Fresno State star possesses the range and hybrid skills the Redskins didn't have at the position in 2012.

Thomas can push brittle veteran Brandon Meriweather for a starting spot. He'll also make Redskins fans forget about the struggles of Madieu Williams last season.

What makes Thomas such a great fit is one thing, he's a natural-born playmaker. To use a slightly controversial example, ex-Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins head coach Jimmy Johnson would love him.

A knack for playmaking is what Johnson valued the most. In a 1998 article, Sports Illustrated's Austin Murphy described Johnson's chief requirement for a defensive player:

He pops out of his chair and walks to a framed list hanging on his office wall: 5 MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTICS FOR DRAFT CHOICES. The list was compiled by Johnson's staff, and of the five entries—intelligence, work hard, playmaker, gym rat, character—he seems to put the most emphasis on the middle one. What Johnson wants to know, first and foremost, about every potential draftee or free agent is, Does the guy make big plays?

Using a former Cowboys coach as an example in a Redskins article might be deemed invitation to beating. However, the example of Johnson helps explain what's so great about the Thomas pick.

Because Johnson valued playmaking above all other attributes, he was able to consistently find excellent value. Think of the likes of Zach Thomas in 1996, or Leon Lett in 1991.

Thomas was drafted in the fifth-round and Lett in the the seventh. Neither fit the prototype at their respective positions, but they quickly became productive players.

They were taken because their playmaking skill was valued over elite physical numbers.

The Redskins have done the same by selecting Thomas. They've ignored other more physically imposing safeties like D.J. Swearinger.

The reward for their patience has been acquiring a dynamic starting-calibre safety at pick No. 119. Thomas is a prolific source of big plays at both ends of the defense.

He is an opportunistic ball hawk in deep and underneath zones. Thomas intercepted eight passes in 2012.

In true playmaking fashion, he returned three of those thefts for scores. The Redskins need a safety who can make a difference in coverage, particularly in deep areas.

Thomas gives them a deep, roving spy to leave deep. With Thomas lurking, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett should feel more comfortable about calling his favored seven and eight-man pressures.

However, Thomas's impact isn't limited solely to defense. Despite a lean and wiry frame, Thomas does not shy away from making himself a force against the run.

He made 84 tackles last season, including 66 solo stops. Yet, because he's a playmaker, Thomas didn't make most of his tackles after eight and 15-yard gains.

He instead made 12 tackles for a loss, proving his talent for attacking offenses either side of the line of scrimmage. That attacking mentality will also appeal to Haslett.

Think of how he liked to use LaRon Landry and how safeties attack in the Pittsburgh Steelers-style defense the Redskins have tried to replicate since 2010.

Yet it's the nose for the ball that the Redskins can be most grateful for. Along with the 12 interceptions, Thomas forced five fumbles.

That's exactly what the Redskins want. They want turnovers to give extra possessions to their dynamic offense. Nobody's asking for the '85 Chicago Bears here.

The Redskins instead need a swarming unit that binges on turnovers. Thomas gives them exactly the right player at the crucial spot on their defense.