Despite bringing back Frank Clark on a restructured contract, the Kansas City Chiefs are paper-thin along the defensive line.
For a large portion of last season, Kansas City attempted to transition Chris Jones from defensive tackle to edge rusher. The results were bad. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo moved Jones back to mostly inside by midyear when general manager Brett Veach swung a trade to bring Melvin Ingram over from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This move was little more than a band-aid to carry the Chiefs through the remainder of 2021— it was never a long-term solution. Earlier this year, Brett Veach stated that his philosophy on roster building was to start in the trenches and move out from there.
Suppose the Chiefs are looking to solidify the defensive line with a high-character player who fights through double teams like a pitbull to get to the ball carrier. In that case, I think they should look at edge prospect Cameron Thomas out of San Diego State University.
Coming out of high school, Thomas was a three-star recruit. He was overlooked by most major programs because he only weighed 235 pounds as a defensive tackle. He redshirted his first year on campus, but his impact was immediately felt once he got on the field in 2019 for his freshman season. He started 12 of the 13 games, tallying nine tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks. He was named a second-team freshman All-American by The Athletic.
Thomas only played in eight games in 2020 but still managed to tally four and a half sacks and was named an All-Mountain West first-team selection by the league's media and coaches.
Thomas made his case in 2021, when he went on a serial sacking spree, getting to the quarterback 10.5 times and totaling 20.5 tackles for a loss in just 14 games. He was shortlisted for both the Chuck Bednarik and the Bronco Nagurski awards.
Thomas officially checked in at 6 feet 4, weighing 267 pounds at the combine. His arms measured 32.5 inches, and his hands are a whopping 10.25 inches. He did not participate in any of the timed drills, but he did partake in the bench press, where he put up 24 reps.
San Diego State used Thomas in various positions along the line, switching him between edge rusher and the 3-technique (a defensive tackle who lines up over the guard's outside shoulder). This is primarily due to the fact that Thomas was by far the best player the Aztecs had along their defensive line last season.
When you turn on Thomas' tape, the first thing that jumps out to you is how much attention he gets from opposing offensive coordinators. He is one of those rare talents that you have to create a specific scheme centered around neutralizing him. The problem with this is that since Thomas lines up at so many positions along the defensive front, it's hard to know where he will attack you from next.
Cam Thomas on the stunt. The guard is slow to switch. Thomas makes him pay for it with the bull rush. Does a good job of swimming the hand free and getting it up in the QB line of sight as he collapses the pocket, forcing the QB to bail into the waiting arms of his teammate. pic.twitter.com/QChZ35KdFi— Rocky Magaña (@RockyMagana) April 1, 2022
In the above clip, Thomas uses his lateral quickness to stunt inside. The right guard is slow to process what is going on and initially turns his attention to the defensive tackle. By the time the right guard figures it out and attempts to shift his positioning back inside, Thomas has already gotten leverage across the guard's torso with his left shoulder, hitting him with the bull rush.
With Thomas bearing down and collapsing the pocket, the quarterback has no choice but to bail and attempt to roll out into the waiting arms of the defensive tackle. This isn't the sort of play that shows up on the stat sheet for Thomas, but the pressure he created enabled his teammate to get the sack.
Just imagine Thomas setting up Chris Jones in a similar situation.
Cameron Thomas dominates back-to-back reps. Lined up inside on the first rep, beats the double team, fights his way past the center before spinning back to make the play. Second rep, active hands, keeps the tackle from engaging. Eyes stay up, makes the athletic play on the RB. pic.twitter.com/OQNCUIQ31Y— Rocky Magaña (@RockyMagana) April 1, 2022
Many players have a relentless motor and play through the whistle, but what makes Thomas special, in my opinion, is the awareness with which he dispenses his tenacity. This second clip shows back-to-back reps by Thomas. In the first play, Thomas lines up at the 3-technique, drawing the double-team from the left tackle and guard. Fighting through it, he (and the rest of the defensive line) closes off the right side, forcing the runner to counter back left. Seeing this, Thomas spins backward to get himself into position to assist with the tackle.
In the second rep, Thomas does an excellent job of standing the tackle up and getting beneath his pads. He uses his forward pressure and active hands to prevent the right tackle from locking him up. Thomas again shows his athleticism as he quickly jumps to cut off the ball carrier and bring him down.
Another 3rd and short against SJ St. Except for this time, the Aztecs have Cam Thomas lined up in the 3T. Thomas beats the guard off the snap and easily swim moves to slide behind the block and swallows up the running back for a loss. pic.twitter.com/DrbICybyTM— Rocky Magaña (@RockyMagana) April 1, 2022
Thomas processes the game quickly, as demonstrated above. As soon as the ball is snapped, he realizes the left guard is pulling right. Using a simple swim move, Thomas allows the guard's own momentum and bad positioning to carry him out of the play as he slides in behind him, swallowing up the ball carrier for a loss.
On 3rd and short Cameron Thomas comes up with a clutch sack. Nice get-off on the snap, hits the RT with a solid bull rush. Heads up play getting the left arm up to discourage the QB from dumping the ball into the flat. Fights his way back inside to get the sack. pic.twitter.com/3eTQEszZiB— Rocky Magaña (@RockyMagana) April 1, 2022
Thomas' primary move from the outside is the bullrush. He relies on his strength and power a little too much at times. Once in the NFL, he will need to continue to develop additional pass rush moves — he will not be able to simply push offensive linemen around. Despite this, his intelligence and athleticism will produce enough plays to make him a productive pass rusher at the next level.
There are a lot of little things that jump out when watching him, like the fact that he consistently gets his hands up to block the quarterback's line of sight, to discourage him from attempting to dump the ball off to his check-down receiver.
Cameron Thomas struggled in the Frisco Bowl as seen below, allows himself to be easily stood up by the guard, loses all leverage and his footing. By the time he recovers, the center has rotated over to help, taking him completely out of the play. pic.twitter.com/D3Bz85XblX— Rocky Magaña (@RockyMagana) April 1, 2022
There are moments on tape where Thomas' aggression and motor cause him to overpursue, and it takes him out of the play. Thomas played poorly in the Frisco Bowl against the University of Texas at San Antonio. The Roadrunners came into the game committed to double-teaming Thomas, and it worked for most of the night, causing Thomas to have one of his most forgettable performances.
At the Senior Bowl, Cameron Thomas said that he feels his most natural position is on the edge. I can see why. The Aztecs tried to line him up in the 3T quite a bit in the Frisco Bowl, and in most cases, he was either put on the ground or ushered harmlessly away from the play. pic.twitter.com/lwB9W4j0YA— Rocky Magaña (@RockyMagana) April 1, 2022
Despite being utilized frequently on the interior while in college, Thomas isn't big enough to line up over the guard in the NFL. If he is going to succeed, I think it will be solely on the edge, where his power and lateral agility are not bottlenecked, and he will be free to move in space and make plays.
How he fits with the Chiefs
The Chiefs haven't had a player with Thomas's power on the edge in quite some time. The only proven edge rusher who is currently on the roster is Frank Clark, and he is known to win more with speed and length than horsepower.
At 6 feet 4 and 267 pounds, Thomas has the size that the Chiefs like in a defensive end, and he is the type of player they envisioned Chris jones being when they experimented with him on the edge in 2021. Although the Chiefs desperately need an injection of pass-rush talent, the best part of Thomas' game is that he is so much more than a situation pass rusher. Due to his stellar run defense, he's an every-down player who you can leave on the field in any situation.
The bottom line
Some analysts have compared Thomas to JJ Watt due to the way that he uses his strength to overwhelm and disengage from would-be blockers with relative ease. While I see where they are coming from, I don't want to oversell him. There are definite areas in Thomas' game that could use improvement: namely, remaining in control and not letting his aggression carry him out of the play.
Although Thomas was an extremely productive player in college, it remains to be seen if this will translate to the NFL. He played the majority of his games against non-Power 5 schools, so he will have to prove that he is more than a big fish in a small pond.
That being said, I think that Thomas is cerebral enough to put it all together and make the adjustments needed to succeed and be a game wrecker. He is the sort of player I envision starting off slow but getting better as the season progresses and making a clutch play in the postseason when it matters most.
I'd be willing to take Thomas in the first round with pick 29 or 30, but if he is still there in the second round at pick 50, I think you are getting a steal.