Pittsburgh Steelers Draft Countdown: Making the Case for De'Anthony Thomas

Andrew WatkinsCorrespondent IApril 28, 2014

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 7: De'Anthony Thomas #6 of the Oregon Ducks celebrates after rushing for a one-yard touchdown in the first quarter of the game against the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium on September 7, 2013 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In the past year, the Pittsburgh Steelers' running back depth chart has done a complete 180. Gone are Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

In their places are the pieces for what could prove to be one of the league's better one-two punches. Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers' 2013 Rookie of the Year, came on slowly but finished strong with over 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight scores.

Then, this offseason, the Steelers went out and made arguably their biggest offensive acquisition through free agency since Jeff Hartings in 2001: LeGarrette Blount. Blount is firmly in his prime at 27 and has proven worthy of double-digit touches with at least 770 rushing yards in three of his four professional seasons.

That being said, Pittsburgh should still be in the market for a change-of-pace back when Day 3 of the draft rolls around. Bell and Blount should prove more than formidable as primary ball-carriers, but each is better than 240 pounds and would best be characterized as a grinder.

To put this backfield over the top, Pittsburgh needs to add a back who could bust a big gain at a moment's notice. And, of course, that would be made significantly easier if opponents have had to contend with two big, bruising backs all game long.

EUGENE, OR - APRIL 27: De'Anthony Thomas #6 of the Oregon Ducks cheers on his teammates on the field during the second half of the Oregon Spring Game at Autzen Stadium on April 27, 2013 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

That's where De'Anthony Thomas comes in.

While he was never the lead back at Oregon, Thomas still managed to make a sizable impact on one of college football's best offenses. In fact, Thomas compiled better than 2,300 yards from scrimmage and 36 total scores in his first two seasons with the program.

Those who didn't follow Oregon closely throughout Thomas' tenure might wonder how a back who never saw even 100 carries in a season could've been so productive. The answer to that is simple: Thomas impacted the game from virtually every level.

The diminutive speedster made his limited carries count with an average of almost eight yards a tote. That includes 595 rushing yards on just 55 carries as a true freshman. He also lined up at wide receiver and flashed soft hands atypical for a player whose primary position is running back.

That begs the question: Does Thomas have a primary position? Though listed as a running back, Thomas will likely be utilized where matchups dictate he's best suited in the NFL. Whether that is as a running back, receiver or return man, he's got the physical ability to impact a game from the moment his rookie season begins.

What should really appeal to Pittsburgh, though, is Thomas' ability as a returner. Right now, the Steelers' only weapon in the return game is team MVP Antonio Brown. Due to Brown's immense value in the passing game, coaches might be reluctant to trot him out on the return team much moving forward.

If drafted, the Steelers would gain an immediate answer to their returner problems. Thomas took four kicks to the house during his Ducks career and managed a punt-return score on just 16 total opportunities as well.

Of course, there are some concerns surrounding Thomas. An injury-hampered '13 combined with his svelte frame has some questioning his durability. But it's not as if the 5'9", 174-pounder is new to being the smallest man on the field, nor does he have a history of debilitating injuries.

Another concern with Thomas stems from his underwhelming combine. The back didn't blow anyone away in any event, but his 4.50 40-yard dash was particularly disappointing for a player deemed one of the fastest in this year's class.

But, as has been stated time and again, there's a difference between timed speed and football speed. The aforementioned Brown ran a similar 40 (4.47), and nobody would dispute that he's among the most dangerous open-field runners in the league.

Sure, Thomas could go the way of former Steelers draft pick in Chris Rainey and find that it's tough sledding for an undersized running back in the NFL. Or, he could prove to have a Darren Sproles-like impact on a team for several seasons.

Whatever the case, it'd be foolish of the Steelers to not be the team to find out at the price of just a fifth- or maybe even sixth-round pick.