(Lawrence Thomas photo courtesy of the new York Jets)
By Rick Gosselin
Talk of Fame Network
The NFL whiffed on Lawrence Thomas.
His talent was there to be watched, evaluated, graded, slotted and drafted. Thomas was a two-year starter on one of college football’s best defenses at Michigan State. He started all 27 games over his final two seasons, and his Spartans won 23 of them. He was invited to play in the Senior Bowl and then attended the NFL scouting combine.
But come April, Thomas disappeared from draft boards. The 32 NFL teams selected 253 players, including 43 defensive linemen. But no Thomas. Defensive linemen were chosen from Central Arkansas, Grand Valley State and Manitoba. But no Thomas.
So Thomas signed as an undrafted college free agent with the New York Jets. He became one of only 72 undrafted college rookies to win spots on NFL opening-day rosters this season. But it gets better. Thomas became one of only two undrafted college rookies to start on opening day, joining cornerback Brian Poole of the Atlanta Falcons.
So where did the NFL go wrong with Thomas?
Thomas redshirted as a true freshman in 2011 as a linebacker. He was moved to fullback in his redshirt freshman season in 2012 and started three games there as a lead blocker for Le’Veon Bell. He also caught seven passes, including a 17-yarder against Nebraska. So he has ball skills. That should have been a plus.
But the Michigan State coaches switched him back to defense in 2013, moving him from linebacker up front to end. He played seven games but missed half the season with a back injury. Thomas then started every game the rest of his career, lining up everywhere along the defensive front. He started 12 games at nose tackle in 2014 and 13 games at defensive end in 2015. He also started one game apiece at defensive tackle each of those two seasons. So his versatility should have been another plus.
“Lawrence was viewed as a tweener,” said Phil Savage, the former general manager of the Cleveland Browns and now the director of the Senior Bowl. “But his versatility as a run-down defensive end and a sub-package defensive tackle made it surprising to me that he was not drafted. He’s a rotational piece of a defensive-line puzzle. I thought he’d be a solid contributor and a value (draft) choice between the fourth and sixth rounds.”
The fact Thomas graduated from Michigan State last December with a degree in sociology should have been another plus. He can finish what he starts.
But the biggest plus was his game tape. Thomas made 30 tackles in the NCAA’s top-ranked run defense in 2014 and chipped in 38 more in the ninth-ranked run defense in 2015. He had three tackles in an upset win in Columbus over unbeaten and third-ranked Ohio State last November when the Spartans held Big Ten MVP Ezekiel Elliott to 33 yards on 12 carries.
Elliott finished the season averaging 6.7 yards per carry and 140 yards per game and became the fourth overall pick of the NFL draft.
Thomas collected six career sacks, including one of Bryce Petty in the closing seconds of the 2015 Cotton Bowl that clinched Michigan State’s 42-41 upset of Baylor. He also had a sack of Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014 and another of Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg in 2015.
Mariota became the second overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft and Hackenberg a second-rounder in 2016. He and Thomas are now teammates of the Jets.
“It shows that at every level of football, it’s not a total science,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “LT is an outstanding football player. He came here as a five-star recruit playing linebacker, and we also had him play fullback before moving him back to the defensive side of the ball. He’s an extremely versatile player. He has great size, but can run effectively, jump well and has good change of direction, along with excellent ball skills.
“So it’s no surprise to me that he made the 53-man roster with the Jets and is showing results.”
Thomas started the opener against Cincinnati in place of former first-round draft pick Sheldon Richardson, who was serving a one-game suspension for violation of the NFL’s personal contact code. Thomas collected three tackles, including one for loss, against the Bengals.
“He earned his way onto the team, and he’s earned some playing time,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said. “He’s very smart and is a solid player who can do a lot of things for us.”
Thomas isn’t the first player the NFL missed on and won’t be the last. Kurt Warner went undrafted and became an NFL MVP. Priest Holmes went undrafted and became an NFL rushing champion, and Wes Welker went undrafted and became an NFL receiving champion. Offensive tackle Joe Jacoby went undrafted, and he was a 2016 Pro Football Hall-of-Fame finalist. Cornerback Everson Walls went undrafted and became the only cornerback in history to lead the NFL in interceptions three times.
Evaluation mistakes happen. Still…
Thomas was one of only six undrafted college free-agent defensive ends to earn spots on the NFL opening-day rosters this month. Another of the six was his Michigan State teammate Joel Heath, who signed with the Houston Texans. A year earlier, Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough earned a spot on the Texans as yet another undrafted college free agent.
Maybe the NFL talent evaluators ought to spend more time watching Michigan State tape.