In setting out to review Kansas City Chiefs fourth round pick WR / RB De'Anthony Thomas on tape, I made a decision. I was going to view everything he does with a "How does this compare to Dexter McCluster?" mindset.
The reason is simple: Dex was the Chiefs slot receiver last year, but he was generally considered a guy without a clear position. He at times lined up in the backfield and was often motioned all over the field. He took handoffs, ran wheel routes, and also did regular-Joe slot WR stuff. He was a jack of all trades. And, of course, he did a heckuva job returning punts last year (though Dave Toub had something to do with that, being a wizard and all).
When Chiefs fans talk about Thomas, the comparisons to Dex are inevitable. Both are small guys, with Dex listed as 5'8, 170 pounds and Thomas weighing in at the combine at 5'9, 174 pounds. Both played multiple positions in college. And both come into the league without a clear idea as to what position they'll be playing. The general thought among Chiefs fans seems to be that Thomas (or DAT, if you will) will get a shot at slot WR. I'm not sure I agree with that, but we'll save analysis for later.
It's with that comparison in mind I watched six games of De'Anthony Thomas, three in 2012 and three in 2013. I walked away with some things I liked, some things I didn't, and a few things that made me say "Whoa."
Of course, you could always watch an insanely long highlight video of Thomas, but it's a lot more informative to look at every snap he played in various games, not just the "wow" plays. I'll embed that video at the end of this article (cue half of you skipping to the end), but first let's talk about the tape on Thomas. As I've been doing previously, I'll attach links to GIFs to keep the page running smoothly.
(And as always, I urge you to check out the available film on Thomas, which can be found here. Don't just take my word for how he looked as a player. There's no substitute to watching for yourself if your job allows you to take quick 3-4 hour breaks during the day.)
Let's get one thing out of the way right now. De'Anthony Thomas is fast. Not just "quick" the way Dex is, but FAST.
The idea that Thomas isn't all that fast came out after the Combine, where Thomas ran a disappointing 4.5 40-yard dash. Whispers of "more quick than fast" emerged, and when the Chiefs drafted Thomas every Chiefs fan had visions of seeing Dex take a little too long to get to the edge, or getting run down from behind on crossing routes.
I could talk to you about the fact that Thomas proceeded to run a 4.37 and 4.34 at his pro day (and to those who say "It's unofficial," it's worth noting Dex was never able to bring his 40 in that range, even at his pro day). I could talk to you about Thomas being a track star at Oregon. But instead, I'll just show you this...
Notice that when Thomas gets open space, he accelerates instantly. That, we've seen with Dex. But that top end speed to flat-out outrun two defenders with an angle? That's a whole different ball game. Thomas has genuine speed that Dex just doesn't possess. You'll see plenty of it in the highlight video (cue those left skipping ahead to the video), but here's one more GIF just to really emphasize my point.
In addition to being fast, Thomas DOES have that that in-a-phone-booth quickness we've grown used to seeing with Dex. He's got jukes on top of jukes, and he definitely is one of the quickest players I've ever watched. He also know how to use that quickness to get to the open field.
That's absolutely filthy. I'm not even sure they should allow that kind of thing on television. Think of the children, man! Or even more so, that poor Stanford player probably had family watching. That's just mean.
Another thing to note from that GIF is that Thomas is running up the middle. He actually did this a lot more than I expected. Now, he wasn't always successful, but he showed a willingness to lower his head and try to gain tough yardage. I like that in a player. He played with an edge and didn't back down when guys twice his size tried to get physical with him. The Chiefs offense needs more of that.
Thomas's running ability isn't limited to speed / quickness, either. That's what really surprised me about his tape. I don't know if it's that he's got more lower-body strength than Dex, better balance, or what, but he shook off tacklers MUCH more often than I expected. Now don't misunderstand me, he's not Steven Jackson (or even Jamaal Charles, who has become really good at plowing over secondary players. Off topic, I love Jamaal Charles with a passion that frightens me). But he's not a guy who just goes down when a defender gets a hand on him.
Now, that play involved speed just as much as any real ability to stay upright when a defender gets his hands on you. But how many times did we see Dex get dragged down at any contact? Now, don't get me wrong, Dex was great at AVOIDING that contact. But generally speaking, once Dex was hit he was down. Here's another example.
That's a really nice stiff arm. Of course, one could argue the defender shouldn't have gone so high, but the reason the defender ended up going high was the stiff arm. Thomas is a small guy, but he's got some strength to him. I don't think he'll be shaking off defensive linemen anytime soon, but when he's able to get one-on-one with secondary players he's able to use some power as well as his unreal quickness / speed. When you combine those traits, you get big plays.
That particular play displays another trait of Thomas that surprised me: he displays patience to follow blockers and wait for the play to develop. He also has good vision (which shows up on kickoff / punt returns as well) and is more than just an athlete with the football. The ability to wait for lanes to open rather than just run blindly ahead can be the difference between a short gain and a first down, as demonstrated on this play.
Overall, there's a great deal to like about Thomas as a playmaker. He has absolutely elite quickness, very good speed, enough lower body strength to shake off the only guys on the field who can catch him, vision, balance ... he's very much the complete package (minus 20 pounds) with the ball in his hands. If he weighed 200 pounds he would have been a first round draft pick (well... maybe second round in today's NFL, where running backs don't go in the first round anymore). There just aren't that many players who can make runs like this...
Of course, the question most Chiefs fans want answered is whether or not Thomas can play slot WR. On this, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that he lined up as a WR more than a few times while at Oregon.
The other side to that good news is that Thomas demonstrates good hands. He didn't catch with his body that I noticed, instead snatching the ball out of the air very naturally. He showed comfort with running short, quick routes where his quickness created an advantage over most secondary players.
The bad news? Thomas didn't line up as a receiver all that often, and I didn't see him run a variety of routes. He didn't look natural trying to track and catch the ball over his shoulder on one of the few go routes I saw him run. As a receiver, he looks like a guy who needs quite a bit of time and work. That's one disadvantage over Dex, who came to the Chiefs already an exceptional route runner.
Because he seems more limited as a WR, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Thomas was used mainly in returns and out of the backfield (maybe in two-back pistol formations with Jamaal Charles? Lord, please let me see this happen). I think he'll be impactful as a guy who adds explosive speed to our offense, but not as a full time slot WR. He'll line up all over the field (at least I'm guessing), though. And his high top-end speed will allow him to be used effectively in certain plays where Dex wasn't able to make an impact (crossing routes with downfield blockers, for example).
The comparisons to Dex are, as I said, inevitable. But really, Thomas is a different kind of player. Less refined in his routes, but with more speed and lower body strength. I don't think Andy Reid (and Dave Toub) will have any trouble finding uses for a guy with this highlight reel