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A redshirt sophomore, Thomas is in many ways prepared for life in the NFL than some older peers.
Thomas signed with Stanford as one of the more highly regarded defensive line recruits in the country, spurning offers from powerhouses throughout the college landscape to sign with Stanford, citing both its academics and physical style of play. He redshirted in 2014 but proved an immediate standout a season later, earning Honorable Mention all-conference honors with 39 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks for a Stanford squad that won the Rose Bowl.
The flashy first season led to lofty expectations for Thomas and the Cardinal, alike. Thomas soared even while Stanford sagged, leading the team with 62 tackles from his strongside defensive end role, with 41 of the stops being solos and 15 coming behind the line of scrimmage, including eight sacks. At times, he simply dominated opponents, recording a career-high 12 tackles against Notre Dame, seven tackles (including 2.5 for loss and a sack) against Colorado, three tackles (including two for loss and a sack) and a 42-yard touchdown off a fumble recovery against UCLA and seven tackles (including two for loss, a sack and multiple pressures) to earn MVP honors in what turned out to be his final game for the Cardinal, a Sun Bowl victory over North Carolina and its projected first round quarterback, Mitch Trubisky.
In a draft flush with edge rushers, Thomas' pro-ready game stands out. He is not only quick enough to beat blockers off the snap, he is powerful, showing the grown-man strength, advanced hand technique and high-revving motor to make plays even when initially contained. Further, Thomas possesses many of the intangibles that project well to the challenges of life as a professional athlete, including the intelligence, maturity and even worldliness (he lived in Australia for five years) that should help ease his transition to the NFL.
Given his size, the greatest question regarding Thomas might be his fit. Smaller than most defensive tackles and lacking the burst and bend scouts generally prefer off the edge, Thomas is not exactly a traditional defensive lineman. He is powerful enough to handle two-gap responsibilities, however, and possesses the quickness to penetrate, projecting as a difference-maker almost regardless of scheme.
STRENGTHS: While shorter than ideal, Thomas sports a power-packed frame with excellent overall weight distribution including broad shoulders and heavily muscled limbs that serve as a testament to his commitment to the weight room. He possesses excellent initial quickness to slip gaps, exploding off the ball and showing good core flexibility and strength to get skinny and fight through tight spaces. Thomas possesses a variety of pass rush techniques to complement his quickness, including a classic over-arm swim, as well as club and rip moves, demonstrating quick, explosive hands to knock away the attempts to reach him by would-be blockers, including recognizing cut blocks. Further, Thomas possesses good leg drive and possesses a natural leverage advantage (due to his height) to push the pocket on the bull rush as well as set the edge to funnel backs back inside. He locates the football quickly, anticipating where it is going and actively spinning away from blocks to pursue laterally and downfield. Thomas runs well for a player of his size, accelerating fluidly to stalk ball-carriers from behind and showing the fluidity to change directions quickly to break down in space. Thomas is a powerful, imposing tackler who is willing to leave his feet to deliver the big hit but is just as likely to wrap, twist and simply toss ball-carriers to the ground. Thomas has no known injuries over his career and possesses athletic bloodlines. His father (Chris) played basketball in college and mother (Martha) ran track, both at Wooster. Uncle, Jon Thomas, was a four-time Big Ten 400 meter champion in the hurdles.
WEAKNESSES: Will be viewed by some as a 'tweener lacking the bulk to be an every-down defensive tackle or the burst and bend of a classic defensive end. Production may be inflated due to Stanford's willingness to run stunts and loops to free him up... Hustles to the ball but does not possess ideal straight-line speed to chase down ball-carriers from behind. Lacks the height to disrupt passing lanes, failing to knock down a single pass or kick in his two years at Stanford. Comes off the ball too high, at times, occasionally getting knocked off the ball.
IN OUR VIEW: Knock Thomas' lack of ideal length or speed all you'd like, he was as disruptive or more than any defender in the entire country in 2016, bar none. Sure, there will be questions as to where he fits best in the NFL but, frankly, if Thomas doesn't fit an NFL team's scheme, it might be the coaches that need to adjust rather than the other way around.
COMPARES TO: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams: Comparing anyone to a disruptive presence like Donald (a legitimate Defensive MVP candidate, in my opinion) seems like hyperbole but it is hard not to see the resemblance to the 6-1, 285 pounder given their similar initial burst, functional power, advanced use of hands, and non-stop hustle.