NFL, meet your doom. - Ezra Shaw
I know we won't get him, but I pray he doesn't go anywhere else in the AFC South. Looking at Chase Thomas, the great linebacker out of Stanford.
Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford
Height - 6'4"
Weight - 251 lbs.
Year - Redshirt Senior, #44
- A technician in the pass rush, he has a huge repertoire of pass rushing moves that he can string together with ease on any given snap.
- Good strength and pad level to hold the edges against the run game.
- Very high football IQ.
- Good zone defender in coverage. Reads QB’s eyes effectively and has a good understanding of route concepts.
- Two time All-American and two-time All-Pac 12 selection. 2012 defensive captain.
- Struggles at times against bigger offensive tackles against the run. While not "small" by any means, he lacks the size and bulk of a defensive end to stack and shed against 300 pounders. He does much better against tight ends and fullbacks.
- Sometimes over-thinks his pass rush and uses his secondary move at the first sign of trouble rather than sticking with his first read and playing loose. This caused him to miss a few sacks this year.
- Very aggressive in man coverage, almost to a fault. Tries to use his hands too much to jam receivers if they come within three yards of him, even when flipping his hips and running is the better option.
Chase Thomas is a criminally underrated and overlooked prospect by fans and national media alike. While SEC standouts like Jarvis Jones and Damontre Moore grab headlines and acclaim, I believe that this fifth year Stanford Cardinal linebacker is not only the best pass rusher in the nation, but quite possibly the best defensive player period. His combination of physicality, intellect, and advanced technical development firmly plant him at the top of my own personal board. I’m not generally a big "stat guy", but the fact that Thomas recorded 7.5 regular season sacks despite only rushing the passer on just 20% of his defensive snaps speaks volumes about his effectiveness when hunting quarterbacks. If he was put in position to rush the passer in Georgia’s 3-4 as often as Jarvis Jones was, I have no doubt that he could and would have lead the country in sacks, tackles for loss, and highlight reel-worthy splash plays.
The defining trait of Thomas is just how many ways he can beat blockers on the edge. He can bull his way through the pocket, he can rip as violently as any 4-3 end, he can burn the tackle on the edge with speed, he can counter spin inside, he can loop stunt as effectively as any linebacker I’ve ever seen, and he can (and repeatedly does) absolutely embarrass blockers with his swim move (Some of my favorites are at 1:20, 1:36, and 2:10 in the Notre Dame video and 18:42 in the USC video.) His play style is very similar to J.J. Watt in that when he pass rushes, he is allowed to freelance with what he sees from snap to snap and take whatever lane he wants to the quarterback. Often times, the defensive line pinches to draw the interior line front and center to the pocket, giving Thomas space to work against the tackle alone on the outside, which gives him a two-way go in either direction. Rather than jumping off the snap to gain position off the edge or momentum in the bull rush, Thomas sometimes likes to approach at half or three quarter speed to read the gaps and plan his moves based on how he reads the play developing. He will bait the tackle into punching early and react accordingly with any number of counter moves that he can dial up at will. His most common and most effective move is the club swim. Not only is his club fast enough to disarm the tackle’s hands before they can even make contact, but he also has the presence of mind to combine that club with a jerk move with his other hand to use the tackle’s forward momentum against him to get him off balance. From there, he disengages his jerk hand and swims with that arm while side-stepping in the opposite direction of his club. There’s a lot of moving parts to his pass rush, and while seasoned coaches teach this kind of advanced technique at the highest levels of the sport, it is still very rare to see it executed to such perfection, and from a college player no less. His hand-eye-coordination is very good, and the speed with which he can neutralize and control an offensive tackle’s arms is truly impressive.
To go along with his technician-like qualities, Chase Thomas is also a very smart football player. He shows a great understanding of the subtleties of the game, and at times I found myself saying, "Wow, why did I never think of that?" while watching his tape.
My favorite example came in the third quarter of the 2012 Rose Bowl against Wisconsin on a stunt from the five-technique all the way to the A-gap. Rather than immediately loop all the way around the defensive end off the snap and make his intentions obvious, he ran straight forward just like any normal edge rush. However, instead of bursting from his stance and trying to get around the corner, he was moving at half speed and allowed the end to hit the line first. He watched the right guard the entire time, and as soon as the defensive end crossed the guard’s face and obstructed his vision, he floated in behind the defensive end and slipped into the A-gap untouched to put a hit on the quarterback. It was a very subtle move that focused less on trying to shock the line into a mistake and more on remaining unnoticed just long enough to squeeze through the protection. It’s not very often you find a 23 year old that has the awareness to play a stunt like a smokescreen rather than just a showcase in lateral agility. He understands defensive concepts, as well as his role in said concepts, which is something that is expected out of seasoned professionals more so than college seniors. If his football IQ and already stellar pass rushing technique develops even more after he enters the league, there is no telling just how good he can be.
In coverage, Thomas is a reliable zone defender. His knowledge of the defense helps him with regard to diagnosing which receivers to handle from spread sets and where to position himself underneath long-developing routes by quickly processing where the secondary will be positioned behind him on any given call. He might start by dropping into a hook zone, but if the receiver runs an out-and-up, he will transition to man coverage without hesitation if he knows the safety is already likely bracketing deep and can’t float down to the hole between him and the corner. When playing zone closer to the middle of the field, he doesn't fall for look-offs from quarterbacks and always immediately slips under seam routes after the receiver passes his zone to take away the throwing lanes. His ability to read the quarterback’s eyes, understand where his defense’s coverage is vulnerable, and process likely route concepts all at the same time shows me a higher than average football acumen that should lend itself well to a wide variety of positions on the field.
However, one problem I do have with Thomas in zone is that he puts his hands on the receiver far too much. If any eligible player is still within five yards of the line of scrimmage, you can pretty much bet your paycheck that Thomas will attempt to jam them as they pass by, even if it puts him out of position to make a play on the ball. On drag routes that crossed underneath Thomas, I noticed a tendency for him to try to knock the receiver off balance rather than turning and running with the receiver and taking away that read from the quarterback. Sometimes it would work, but if he missed or couldn't disrupt the route, the receiver generally got massive separation just by Thomas being too focused on using his arms rather than using his hips. He got away with this in college way more than he should have, and if he doesn't control himself at the next level, he will pay heavily against underneath threats like Darren Sproles and Aaron Hernandez.
Even in man-to-man coverage on the outside, Thomas seemed to prefer playing press. Against Joseph Fauria, UCLA’s NFL-bound tight end, Thomas played outside technique while manned up with him in the red zone. Although he wasn't squared up and couldn't jam effectively, he did so anyway and lost his balance, which compromised his ability to turn his hips and take away the read. Luckily enough for Thomas, Fauria was only running a ten yard fade, and he didn't have too much ground to make up between them. When the ball was delivered to Fauria, however, Thomas used the wrong arm to play the ball and not only put himself out of position to disrupt the catch but also committed an uncalled penalty. He was lucky Fauria didn't have forty yards of green grass to separate off the bad jam, he was lucky he didn't get called on a penalty, and he was lucky that Fauria dropped the touchdown. He won’t have that much luck on his side in the NFL. If his pass rushing and run defense technical prowess tells me anything, it’s that he can and will get better in coverage and eliminate his bad habits, but for now I still consider it a very exploitable issue when he’s on the field.
Overall, Thomas might be the most well rounded defensive prospect in this class. He can play the run, he can rush the passer, he can drop into coverage, and he’s a leader on and off the field. I don’t doubt he could effectively play outside linebacker on pretty much every team in the league, regardless of scheme. In fact, I think he could very easily play a "Von Miller" style 4-3 Sam just as easily as he could play a "Clay Matthews" style 3-4 Will. There is almost nothing he can’t do (and do well), and in my opinion, there is no draft pick too high for Chase Thomas.