Anyone following me on twitter knows that I'm not a huge fan of Phillip Thomas. In fact, a few days before the draft I tweeted saying the two guys I didn't want the Redskins to draft were Thomas and David Amerson. Of course, that meant the Redskins were always going to draft both guys. So I spent some time recently to go back and re-watch everything I could on Thomas to look for things I may have missed and how he fits in the Redskins defense.
We'll get to those positives shortly, but first lets touch on the concerns I had and still have on Thomas. My two biggest problems I had with him was his tackling and his vulnerability to misdirection. He's a big hitting safety, but when it comes to making a key tackle, Thomas missed more plays than he should have. Here's a play against Oregon.
He comes charging up to the line of scrimmage and is in position to make the tackle, but the runner just bounces off of him. What should have been at most a 10 yard gain ended up being a 50 yard touchdown run, which could have been stopped well before that had Thomas made the play he was in position to make.
Thomas can get sucked in by misdirection and end up out of position on certain plays. In the same game against Oregon, we have a perfect example.
On this play, Thomas is completely sold by the quarterback running right with a pitch option. The running back that actually has the ball is level with Thomas before Thomas even realizes. The play results in a 10 yard gain and a first down. Oregon are very difficult to play against, I'll concede that point. However, Oregon's coach Chip Kelly is now the head coach of the Eagles. Thomas will have to face plenty of misdirection plays twice a year against the Redskins divisional rival.
Because of these aspects of his game, I personally don't see Thomas as a free safety. The Redskins require their free safety to play a lot of single high coverage, requiring them to be disciplined and have very good at locating the ball. However, I can see Thomas being a strong safety, he certainly has the range and hitting ability to play in a deep zone in cover two, as you can see here.
A penalty was called on that play, but replays showed it was a fair and legal hit. To have the range to cover half the field and the hitting ability to intimidate receivers is a big plus for Thomas. The Redskins use two deep coverage often enough for this kind of play to be relevant in their scheme.
Strong safeties in the Redskins scheme also have to be able to rotate down and cover slot receivers and tight ends. At the Senior Bowl, Thomas displayed a nice press coverage ability, using his size to be physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Thomas had great coverage on the receiver right up until he fell over late in the play. He won the jam and forced the defender to the sideline, closing the throwing window for the quarterback. Thomas then sticks to the receivers inside hip and turns to locate the ball once he's secured the route. Unfortunately he slips and falls over, but that's just about as well as you can ask a safety to cover in press coverage (until the slip, that is).
With that kind of ability in press coverage, I wonder if the Redskins may use him as the nickel back in nickel sub-packages. The Redskins tried just about everyone, including DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, as the nickel back at times last year, but couldn't find the right guy. Thomas is more physical at the line of scrimmage than anyone currently on the Redskins roster.
But the other side of playing nickel back is the ability to blitz. As we saw often last year, the Redskins love to send their nickel corner on blitzes. This is something I think Thomas can thrive on. Fresno State sent him on blitzes from the slot all year long.
Here he covers a lot of ground in quick time to get to the quarterback from the slot. He misses on the tackle (see above) but forces the quarterback to step up into other rushers. The ball eventually lands incomplete.
Later on in the same game, Thomas was sent on a blitz again.
This time he doesn't miss. Coming off the edge unblocked, Thomas lands a huge hit and the quarterback fumbles the ball, which is recovered by Fresno State. Interceptions aren't the only way to create turnovers for defensive backs.
The idea of blitzing from the secondary is the offense doesn't see it coming, allowing the blitzer a free rush. But Thomas showed at the Senior Bowl that he is capable of taking on and beating blocks. In this drill, Thomas faces tight end Nick Kasa, one of the better blocking tight ends in this draft.
Thomas stutter steps before exploding inside as Kasa over-extends himself to the outside. Thomas displays good awareness and read Kasa like a book. That inside move to get Kasa to kick-slide to the outside before going back inside is something we've been looking for from Brian Orakpo for quite some time now.
Overall, Thomas has a lot to work on with his fundamentals, but his size and athleticism are things that cannot be taught. I may have been a little too harsh on him before the draft, but in the fourth round, Thomas offers enough to work with.