As discussed in our free agent spotlight on linebacker Jonathan Casillas, the New York Giants have been forced to upgrade the linebacker position in free agency because of their failed attempts to do so from the college ranks. After four seasons, the Giants decided to part ways with Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger and sign Casillas from the New England Patriots and J.T. Thomas from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Giants signed 26-year old J.T. Thomas in March 2015 to a 3-year, $10 million deal that included $4.5 million in guaranteed money and $1 million escalators in 2016 and 2017.
Thomas – a three-year starter at the University of West Virginia – was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He spent his entire rookie season on Injured Reserve after suffering a hip injury in the preseason. In February 2012, Thomas was arrested on a misdemeanor drug possession charge (marijuana). He played in all 16 games for the Bears in 2012, but did not start and finished the season with six special teams tackles and one forced fumble.
The Bears waived Thomas in August 2013. He was immediately claimed off of waivers by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Thomas played in 15 games with the Jaguars in 2013, starting two contests and finishing the season with 17 tackles (12 solo) on defense and six special teams tackles (third on the team). Thomas also blocked a punt that resulted in a safety.
Thomas remained a back-up at the beginning of the 2014 season, but started the last 10 games of the year at middle linebacker after Paul Posluszny got hurt. He finished the season with 84 tackles, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles.
“I really like J.T. Thomas,” said Jacksonville Jaguars’ Head Coach Gus Bradley after the Giants signed Thomas. “Really, the good thing about J.T. is flexibility. He played at all three positions for us. He can go in at all three positions at any time and play extremely fast, as far as knowing what he’s supposed to do.
“He took really good command of the defense. When (Posluszny) got hurt for us, we were scrambling a little bit. When J.T. came in he settled things down. It’s very important to him. I can’t say enough good things about J.T.”
In the week 13 match-up against the Giants, Thomas finished the game with 12 total tackles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Head Coach Tom Coughlin pointed to that game as a significant factor in the team’s evaluation of Thomas, who also had double-digit tackle numbers in games against the Colts and Titans.
Despite that productivity, the Jaguars still saw Thomas as back-up material as the team signed Dan Skuta from the San Francisco 49ers to start along side Posluszny and Telvin Smith.
“What his role would be for us, with a guy like Puz coming back, it would be more a role where he was a back-up,” Bradley said. “He saw himself more as a starter.”
Right or wrong, the Giants seem to think Thomas can be a viable NFL starter too, ideally at weakside linebacker to replace Jacquian Williams. On the surface, this does seem to be his best position given his size (6’1” and 236 pounds) and overall athletic ability (4.65 speed). The Giants also think Thomas will improve their special teams.
“We think Thomas can be a WILL ‘backer,” said Coughlin. “Casillas is basically the same kind of guy. Both are excellent special teamers. They’ll make contributions in both ways.”
Thomas lacks ideal size, but is a good athlete. In a nutshell, he is a run-and-hit linebacker who is at his best when he is protected and does not have to take on blockers at the point-of-attack. Thomas is intense, instinctive, and involved in a lot of tackles. While Thomas is not afraid to stick his nose into the scrum, he is not a strong or physical player. He won’t shock you as a hitter, and many of his tackles are of the down-the-field variety. Thomas is good in coverage and should help the New York defense deal with the plethora of tight end and running back receiving threats in today’s NFL.
In terms of intangibles, Thomas has some off-the-field issues in his past. Aside from the drug charge, in college, Thomas was arrested for being involved with a stolen laptop. On the flip side, he is known for his charity work with children with medical issues. Thomas also has the reputation for being a hard worker and team leader. His on-field personality is demonstrated when he was mic’d up in a December 7, 2014 game against the Houston Texans.
How does J.T. Thomas fit in with the Giants? He is probably the favorite to start at the weakside linebacker spot though he will face competition from Jonathan Casillas. At worst, he could be a valuable reserve as he can play all three linebacker spots and is a good special teams player. The big question with Thomas is what is his upside? Jacquian Williams was the heir apparent to Michael Boley but he couldn’t handle the job. Is Thomas another placeholder or can he be a 4-5 year starter at the position? Thomas wanted the opportunity to prove himself, and now he has it. He seems to be a hungry player.
“I am an aggressive player,” said Thomas when he signed with the Giants. “Bang, bang plays, turnovers – that is my thing. I am good at getting the ball back (by) creating turnovers. I think that is what will help us win ballgames, and that is my goal.”