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De’Anthony Thomas and “the rookie”

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Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

From the moment Tyreek Hill was drafted the writing was on the wall for No. 13. De’Anthony Thomas is a guy who, like Dexter McCluster before him, had shown glimpses of big play ability, quickness and versatility. Like McCluster, it was always more about potential than actual production.

De’Anthony did have some early success, as the 2014 Chiefs Rookie of the Year. He had a highlight reel 81-yard punt return for a TD that season, and we all thought he would be more productive on offense once the coaching staff figured out how to use him. They never really did.

The 2015 season came, the concussion and the awkward public discussion over whether he was healthy or if he was still recovering his concussion. His toughness was called into question along with his love for the game. The trade rumors came around the draft. All signs pointed to DAT’s stay in Kansas City being a short one.

Tyreek Hill was thought to be the new gadget player in town, which would make DAT obsolete. Tyreek had the speed, the short stature, and the history as a college RB and returner. It made too much sense. Why keep DAT when they just drafted a faster version of him?

When training camp arrived we started to wonder if there might be a spot for both players. Hill was showing uncanny ball skills as an outside receiver, while DAT had a strong preseason in the slot. DATs established himself as an all-around core special teams performer, while Hill moved up the depth charts as a returner.

Roster cuts came and went, and DAT was still on the team. The first couple of games of the season he was inactive. So, why did the Chiefs keep him if they weren’t going to play him? If Hill was the primary returner, and the Chiefs weren’t going to use DAT on offense, why use a roster spot on him? Was DAT going to eventually be a locker room problem, having been demoted and forgotten, watching “the rookie” make plays in his place?

In Denver, I think we saw evidence of how DAT is answering his critics.

In the second quarter, after Justin Houston’s safety, Tyreek Hill showed off his trademark speed with a thrilling 86-yard return of a free kick for his first of three TDs. De’Anthony Thomas was out in front, chipping a linebacker before high-fiving Tyreek on his way into the end zone. It seemed notable at the time, not just because he was celebrating with A teammate but that he was celebrating with THAT teammate.

In the fourth quarter, the Chiefs punted out of their own end zone after an awful sequence (one yard run, sack, sack, penalty). Dustin Colquitt’s punt got to Broncos returner Norwood, and DAT was waiting. Timing his hit perfectly, DAT likely helped cause the muff by closing in on the returner and also helped ensure the Chiefs recovered the ball by taking Norwood out of the play. It was an example of a smart, physical play made by a guy you wouldn’t expect to be making the big hit.

Finally, check out this video of the postgame celebration. DAT was the happiest guy in a jubilant locker room.

That type of enthusiasm for a teammate that most thought would put him out of a job in a game where he caught one pass for four yards ... It says a lot about the character of the person and the makeup of this team. Maybe you have seen De’Anthony’s self-promotion via social media and assumed he was a selfish guy. Maybe you read the rumors about him at the end of last season and assumed he didn’t love the game. Watching that video and the events of Sunday night in Denver, I’m not sure how anyone could still question his heart and passion for his teammates.

Perhaps we’re reading more into what we saw on Sunday than we should. From all appearances, DAT has solidified himself as an indispensable special teams player even when he’s not the returner. He’s making hits on the coverage units and blocks on return units. DAT is proving to be much more physical than his size would expect. Watch DAT play in the coming weeks, and pay attention to how he puts effort into blocking and the other little things that help the team. He’s playing with a lot of heart, even if he’s not in the spotlight.

DAT did have some production last Sunday with a big 41-yard kickoff return to start a drive that ended in a game-tying field goal in overtime. It appears his biggest contributions are now as a blocker, gunner and a good teammate. Enthusiasm, heart, passion and selflessness are arguably as important for a player with a small role. Every championship team has guys who just do their job, while bringing energy and support to their teammates ... I’m not saying, I’m just saying.