The New England Patriots do not have many needs in the secondary, but safety depth looked like an issue headed into the draft. Projected starter Duron Harmon showed flashes filling in for Steve Gregory at times last year, but it is unclear if he can hold up under significant snaps.
The Pats bought themselves a bit of insurance at the position in Georgia Tech's Jemea Thomas. Thomas fits the profile of a prototypical strong safety, though that designation is changing in today's spread-oriented NFL.
So what can Thomas provide to the back end of the New England defense? Here's a look at Thomas' potential role in Foxborough.
Despite his Lilliputian size, Thomas (5'9", 192 lbs) plays with toughness and willingness against the run. The ex-Yellow Jacket is most comfortable when in the box and moving forward, as his understanding of angles and gap fits allows him to thrive as an early down asset.
Consequently, Thomas compiled 88 tackles last year as a full-time starter. ESPN Boston's Field Yates highlighted Thomas as an under-the-radar prospect to watch before the draft, noting his coverage ability in the deep half of the field. Yates was not alone in his evaluation, as other draftniks also had Thomas pegged as high as a Day 2 selection:
3) I'm higher on him than most, but I gave Ga. Tech's Jemea Thomas a 3rd round grade as a versatile nickel DB who is better than advertised— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) April 14, 2014
Besides his on-field skills, Thomas is another high-character selection for the Patriots. A highly respected four-year starter, Thomas' impeccable makeup continues a theme of stocking the roster with passionate and intelligent players. NEPD's Mike Loyko verified the scouting report sentiment in his one-on-one time with Thomas:
Jemea Thomas played rover as a true freshman, rotated between CB and Safety. One of the most passionate players about the game I came across— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) May 10, 2014
With adequate short-area quickness, Thomas has enough movement skills to survive. Though he does not add much size to a relatively small safety corps, his toughness is a different style that adds some diversity to the defensive backs. Thomas' upside is likely a third safety or nickelback, but in today's NFL, that equates to playing roughly half the snaps. If a sixth-rounder evolved into such a role, that would be a terrific return.
Of course, there's no getting around Thomas' size, which makes him a heinous mismatch against nearly any tight end. Considering how huge and athletic the position has gotten, Thomas may very well be a coverage liability his entire career in New England's man-based single-high safety scheme. That would seemingly paint Thomas as a better fit in a Cover 2 system, where he could provide read-and-react support.
With stiff hips, Thomas gives up too much ground in man coverage against tight ends. He also has less range than a starting free safety should have, though his quick diagnostic ability does help in this regard.
Moreover, though Thomas compiled six interceptions his final two seasons, iffy hands have led to numerous dropped picks. That Thomas still had a respectable number of interceptions illustrates how often he is around the ball, but it hurts that he is not more efficient in creating turnovers.
Most importantly, Thomas would likely not prove suitable if Devin McCourty ever went down. Harmon played the deep center field role in Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills, a game McCourty missed with a concussion, though Harmon is similarly limited by stiff hips and range restrictions.
It's not necessarily Thomas' fault, as he does provide early down value if Harmon falls flat in 2014. However, considering how important the free safety is to single-high coverage, the Pats are taking a risk in leaving themselves with no real plan B behind McCourty.
Like fellow sixth-rounder Zach Moore, Thomas provides nice upside and value at a position of need. If Thomas had more size, he likely would have been an early round selection when accounting for his excellent run defense.
Have the Patriots done enough to address the safety position?
Now that the Patriots have the ultimate luxury in Darrelle Revis, New England might get more creative with its blitzes. Safety blitzes have been rare occurrences since the halcyon days of Rodney Harrison, but Thomas did have three sacks last season. While Thomas does not appear to provide much sub-package value at first blush, could he be part of some change-up zone blitzes on passing downs?
Regardless, New England needed to supplement its safety corps at some point in this draft and received a solid projectable player in Thomas. He's not the flashy early round addition some desired, but if Harmon can bear a larger burden, than Thomas will be a good third safety to have around.