Thoughts and observations: Phillip Thomas

Redskins Confidential,Sports,John Keim

Taking a look at the Redskins fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas after watching a number of his games and highlights, thanks in part to the videos posted on Draft Breakdown. Keep in mind this is based off a TV feed so it’s difficult to fully gauge all that a safety does, but it still reveals a lot and Thomas played a lot in the box.

  1. He was much more of an in-the-box safety at Fresno State, more often than not lining up in the box. Thomas would play two-deep coverage and there was an occasional single-high look for him, at least in the several games I watched him play. However, the Bulldogs also lined him up often to the wide side of the field. You typically do that for a reason: you trust the guy to make plays on the most dangerous side. It suggest that, while he does not have blazing speed for a safety (combine 40 time: 4.68 seconds), he does have anticipation skills and typically makes good, accurate reads.
  2. Yes the Redskins have a need at free safety, but is it really plausible that Thomas would become a Week One starter? That’s a lot to ask and to think otherwise is to underestimate the knowledge it takes to play the position. Can he do it? Sure; there’s a need and he has skills. Thomas just needs to show he can make more plays than he allows. But the last fourth-round pick who spent the bulk of his rookie year as a starter in Washington was defensive end Sterling Palmer in 1993 (10 starts, 14 games). And of the 25 fourth round picks in Mike Shanahan’s drafts with Denver and Washington, none were full-time starters as rookies, though end/linebacker Elvis Dumervil did play a lot and record 8.5 sacks. Point is, it takes time to learn the game. And Thomas does have a lot to learn.
  3. Most of Thomas’ time was spent at strong safety (as mentioned above), which means he must adapt to playing deep as his primary function. He struggled with open-field tackling this past season. Initially it could have been some rust after missing the previous season. But it also is something he definitely has to get used to and at a greater speed than what he saw in college in the Mountain West Conference (though they did play Oregon last year; Thomas missed a few tackles in that game; sometimes it was bad angles, other times it was being off-balance).
  4. Here’s what former Redskins safety Matt Bowen told me a few weeks ago for my email report: “You draft someone in the third round and they’ll have a tough time beating out Reed Doughty. Fans don’t want to hear that. They want to hear they’ll get a guy who will come in and be awesome on day one. Reed’s been playing a long time. I know he doesn’t have the skill set of Earl Thomas but he understands what motion tells him and he understands what you get out of a bunch formation vs. a stack. So for a rookie to beat him out he has to make a lot of plays in the preseason to the point where the Skins say we’ll have ups and downs with this kid, but he will make impact plays for us. … [Sean Taylor] made a lot of mistakes as a rookie and he’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen in my life.”
  5. Against Oregon he recovered a fumble after he blitzed and then turned upfield to follow the ball. He also caused a fumble on a blitz. In fact, Thomas blitzed quite a bit last season and from various angles – the slot, from 10 yards out, etc. He often went unblocked, but he made plays when he got home on the blitz. The kid has a knack for turnovers.
  6. But also against Oregon he struggled with angles at times. Again, it could have been rust as this was Fresno State’s second game of the season (the only problem: the inconsistent angles were evident vs. Boise State in mid-October. Still, from what I’ve heard his tackling improved and was more consistent as the season unfolded). Of course, this also happened to be the best team the Bulldogs faced. Too often he allowed the back to cut it wide rather than keep him in the middle. However, he did make one nice open-field play from the deep half, where he attacked the proper shoulder and avoided a blocker to trip up the runner. It’s the sort of play he’ll need to make a lot in the NFL. He’ll also need to work on tackling a little lower more consistently. But all of this is correctable.
  7. He did not have a lot of big hits in the run game; any crunching blow seemed to come in the air (in the several games I watched, that is). But there was one run stop in particular worth mentioning vs. Boise State inside the 2-yard line. Thomas was aligned on the outside and the fullback came his way as the lead blocker. A linebacker filled the hole the running back wanted to hit, but Thomas did a fantastic job of staying on the fullback’s outside shoulder and also of holding his ground. His vision was terrific, too. When the back tried to bounce wide, Thomas shed the block and made the tackle, showing good leg drive. Thomas made the play work because of his angle to the lead blocker. Just a smart and tough play. Thomas did get hosed vs. Tulsa when he drilled a receiver, whose helmet popped off. The officials threw a flag, but it was a bad call as they apparently told the Fresno State coaches afterward. It was a vicious but legal hit, the sort a receiver remembers.
  8. In the Boise State game, he came up hard off the end and forced the running back inside. Thomas did not make the tackle, but if the linebacker had gotten off the block the play would have been stopped for maybe two yards. That didn’t happen. Later in that game Thomas took a better angle on an open-field play and, just as important, stayed balanced so when the runner cut back he could still lower his shoulder and make the tackle. Thomas has it in him, he’s just inconsistent. A free safety can’t be inconsistent in the open field.
  9. Thomas showed excellent anticipation skills – again, he comes across as a smart player. When in coverage he seemed to mostly keep plays in front of him, allowing him to drive down on the ball and make a play. That’s how you get eight interceptions. He might not be a burner, but he played with some savvy/instincts that help him move faster. On a quick swing pass to the right vs. Boise State, Thomas anticipated the play and sprinted upfield, taking a slightly wider angle with help coming inside. The slot receiver could not react in time and Thomas blew past him to the receiver, tackling him for a five-yard loss.  From what I’ve heard he’s excellent with his preparation. Thomas offers a lot for a coach to work with, which is why he was a good pick in the fourth round. It’s easy to see why the coaches feel he can develop into a starter because of his intangible skills, not to mention his ability to play the ball in the air –whether intercepting or breaking up a pass.
  10. More big plays: Against San Diego State, playing the deep outside, he made a fantastic one-handed interception. He jumped while running back at an angle, and reached out with his right hand, tipping the ball in the air. Because of the angle of his body, he had to balance it with his right hand before finally pulling it into his body. In 2010, he intercepted a screen pass thanks to a decisive read vs. Illinois and returned it for a score. Actually, the word decisive comes into play with Thomas: he makes a decision, trusts his instincts and reacts. I remember talking to former Redskins secondary coach Steve Jackson years ago about what makes a playmaker. It’s a player who trusts what he sees; that’s Thomas. Other guys see it, don’t react and promise the next time they will. And then they don’t. The Redskins have several players like that, so they need what Thomas offers.


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