Defensive End or Linebacker? The Chase Thomas Conundrum
A lad with overgrown dark hair and a notebook sits in front of the tube, furiously writing one-liners about athletes with a cramped hand as the game clock ticks in the wee hours of the morning. He’s turned his focus to a Stanford student-athlete by the name of Chase Thomas, who is sporting the No. 44. He’s rather tall, possesses the kind of muscles that only show when he bundles his fingers up to make a fist and is relatively quick. He’s lined up all over the defensive formation – the 5-technique, 9-technique and the “ghost” 30 and 90-techniques – early into the game. From these alignments, he’s taking turns stunting like a kamikaze into the teeth of the defense and dropping back into coverage, covering zones and men. What position does he play?
That’s the question NFL scouts are going to have to answer about “linebacker” (unofficial, as I see it) Chase Thomas when they sit at a grand roundtable in February at team headquarters and are forced to read their scouting reports in front of their bosses.
I’ve studied plenty of Chase Thomas’ games, dating back to early last season, but I’m still admittedly unsure what position I see him playing in the pros. At times, I am reminded of Baltimore Ravens defensive end Paul Kruger when he was a defensive end-outside linebacker, like Thomas, at Utah. At other moments, I watch Thomas drop into the curl-flat area of coverage and I think to myself, “When did Hunter Hillenmeyer come back into football?” Interestingly enough, Kruger and Hillenmeyer play or played in the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, respectively.
Finding the ideal position for an athlete is one of the first things that should come to mind when studying him but it’s a tough task. There have been a plethora of talented players that have come into the NFL and had their careers ruined because they were honing the wrong craft. When it comes to Thomas, there are a few areas of his game that can be pinpointed as sure-fire things he’s good at:
Stunting/Looping -- Chase Thomas is best getting after the quarterback when he doesn’t have to deal with blockades of offensive tackles; rather, he is quite dangerous as an inside rusher when he’s looping or stunting from an outside position. This allows him to use his quickness and closing speed against heavy-legged, waist-bending blockers.
Facing the Play -- When it comes to pass coverage, he does a good job of reading the quarterback and mimicking with his hips and feet. Thomas is surprisingly light on his feet and shows the flexibility to flip his hips but questions remain about his ability to cover man-to-man. He spends a lot of time dropping to the hashes a la Cover 2 and 4 linebackers.
Athleticism – He’s not going to beat blockers by flattening the edge with great knee-bend when rushing the passer, but he is going to cut through the grass with quick feet, a relentless motor and athleticism that will enable him to work around trash at his feet.
If the three characteristics above have been identified correctly, they help clear up some things about Thomas. As a defensive end in a traditional alignment, Chase Thomas is probably not going to get the job done. He’s not explosive off the line of scrimmage, he lacks great strength and he is simply not going to win as a C-gap rusher because of his lack of straight-line speed.
But he might be able to beat tight ends with quick hands and get after the quarterback like he did against Notre Dame when he disengaged the blocker from the 90-technique and slapped him off-balance to the right prior to rushing the passer.
The characteristics also indicate that perhaps Thomas could thrive as a linebacker. As noted earlier, the Cardinal product has done extensive work as a (zone) defender, repeatedly dropping into coverage as a curl-flat or hook-curl defender and looking good doing so. For the sake of consistency, the image below depicts Chase Thomas as a pass defender (note that he is removed from the box) against Notre Dame in what is Cover 4 (“Quarters”) coverage.
If Chase Thomas is indeed a linebacker, what kind of linebacker is he? Is he a middle (“MIKE”) linebacker? Unlikely. A weak-side (“WILL”) linebacker? Perhaps. Maybe a strong-side (“SAM”) linebacker? Most likely.
At SAM linebacker, he would spend more time on the line of scrimmage (in most cases) lined up over or just outside of tight ends.
He’d also have more responsibility as a run defender, which he still needs to work on but has shown flashes of strong discipline and footwork, and pass defender because of dealings with tight ends. Although he has questions in the latter too, he could prove to be a good man-to-man defender by utilizing great technique and going to a scheme that plays plenty of zone coverage (e.g. NFC North teams). Moreover, he’d also have the opportunity to do damage as a pass rusher in specific situations that see him loop, stunt or twist into the gut of the trenches like he’s done at Stanford.
Chase Thomas’ versatility has drawn comparisons to Chicago Bears’ 2012 first rounder Shea McClellin in recent time and although they both some similarities in their game, McClellin is a superior rusher. Thomas would be best fit on a team where he can play on and off the line of scrimmage as a strong-side (“SAM”) linebacker and attack the ball downhill frequently, such as the Chicago Bears.
All snapshots taken are courtesy of Draftbreakdown.com videos.