The Kansas City Chiefs went defense with their first two picks of the 2014 NFL draft. No matter how good those picks turn out to be, they were in desperate need of an offensive weapon who could make an immediate impact.
When the fourth round finally rolled around, the Chiefs drafted offensive weapon De’Anthony Thomas, who played running back at the University of Oregon. He drew instant comparisons to wide receivers Dexter McCluster and DeSean Jackson, two guys that head coach Andy Reid turned into productive players.
Thomas solves—to a large degree—the Chiefs’ need to give Alex Smith an offensive weapon. Thomas should be able to find at least a small role in the offense immediately, but it could expand once he learns the system.
He isn’t realistically going to absorb all of the 53 receptions that McCluster had last year or turn into one of the best field-stretchers in the league like Jackson, but he has that potential in Reid’s offense.
Thomas’ game is built on his speed and athleticism, but he had one of the worst combine performances of any running back. He clocked in with a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, put up just eight reps on the bench press and had a 32” vertical and a 10’2” broad jump, per NFL.com.
The good news is that he improved his time at his pro day, clocking in the 4.3-second range, according to CBSSports.com. It’s reasonable to guess that some sort of injury at the combine may have slowed him down.
It’s also possible the discrepancy between the two times lends credence to Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com’s criticism that he “needs to learn to appreciate the preparation process and would benefit from working more at his craft.”
Maybe Thomas just didn’t train hard for the combine but then got his act together for his pro day.
If that’s the case, head coach Andy Reid is one of the best at dealing with those types of players. He gave Jackson a long-term extension when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles, but Reid's replacement Chip Kelly got tired of him after a year and released him.
Any questions about Thomas pale in comparison to those of Jackson when he came out of college. The presumption should be that Thomas will be just fine with the Chiefs because his pro-day time more closely aligns with what his speed looks like on video.
His durability is a minor concern considering how the Chiefs will use him, which is not as a back who runs between the tackles. Thomas isn’t going to play behind Jamaal Charles or Knile Davis at running back.
Thomas doesn’t have good size at 5’9” and 174 pounds, so he's not going to break off huge chunks of yardage after contact. He fits with the Chiefs because he won’t have to do that to be productive in Reid’s offense.
Reid will find ways to get him the ball in space, something he has done with offensive players consistently over the years. Manufacture a few touches per game for Thomas, and one or two of them might just be a game-changing play.
Outside of running back Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs don’t have another offensive weapon who can make those types of plays. As long as Smith is the quarterback in Kansas City, game-changing plays will have to come in the form of a player getting them on his own.
The Chiefs have been in talks with Smith on a long-term contract extension since April, according to Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star. It’s now likely they will be stuck with him for the foreseeable future.
It only makes sense to give weapons to Smith that he can properly utilize. A converted running back with speed who can take a five-yard pass for 40 yards is the type of player that the Chiefs will need in order to be consistently successful on offense.
The fact that McCluster was nearly as effective as Dwayne Bowe last season is perhaps evidence enough that Thomas is a good fit. While many college wide receivers were available to the Chiefs at pick No. 124, few of them could provide his versatility.
Taller, slower receivers who can’t eat up yards after the catch don’t really help Smith as much as a player with top-end speed. The Chiefs' options were mostly limited at wide receiver at pick No. 124, so general manager John Dorsey went outside the box.
Fans would likely have preferred a player who could serve both as a chain-mover and a big-play receiver, but that ship sailed when the team selected outside linebacker Dee Ford at No. 23 overall. The choice between the two different types, however, is an easy one.
Adding to Thomas’ value is the fact that he was a top-notch return man in college. In total, he returned 73 kicks for 1,885 yards during his three-year college career. He had four touchdowns on kick returns including two last season, when he averaged 27.3 yards per return.
The Chiefs had the best kick-return game in the league in 2013, finishing with an average return of 29.9 yards. That’s 3.5 more yards per return than the team in second place.
Defensive back Quintin Demps and Davis returned kicks for the Chiefs, but there’s no reason Thomas can’t push for that job as a rookie. In some ways, he could be even better because coverage teams will have a hard time seeing him behind blockers.
Thomas may also provide value on punt returns. McCluster returned all but one of the Chiefs’ punts last year, so that job is also open. He had two touchdowns and averaged just 11.8 yards per return in 2013, so the Chiefs need a good option to replace him.
Thomas returned 16 punts during his college career with good success. He averaged 17.1 yards per return and had one touchdown. The Chiefs should give him a shot to earn the job in the preseason.
Fans and the media sometimes underrate the importance of special teams. Without a great return game in 2013, the Chiefs would have been in serious danger of losing games when their offense was sputtering.
Thomas gives Kansas City a versatile piece on offense and a good return man. He is just the type of player that Smith needs to continue to steer the team in the right direction.