DE Bryan Thomas had his best game as a Jet last week with six tackles and 1.5 sacks against Baltimore. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
When Jets DE Bryan Thomas was drafted in the first round of the 2002 NFL draft, expectations were high. Thomas was expected to come in and help a poor run defense. But Thomas has struggled throughout his first three seasons.
It seems Thomas may have turned the corner after making six tackles and 1.5 sacks against the Ravens. Thomas started at DE in place of Shaun Ellis, who was sidelined with a groin injury. Thomas made a huge play on the Ravens first drive of the game, as they went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Jets goal line, stuffing RB Jamal Lewis.
Jets Head Coach Herman Edwards talked about Thomas’ performance.
“He played well,” Edwards said. “It's good to see. It really is.”
After an outstanding career at the University of Alabama-Birmingham where he was a four-year starter, the Jets drafted Thomas with the 22nd pick in the 2002 draft. Many fans and critics were shocked when the Jets drafted this little known small schooler with such a high pick, especially when the team seemed to have more glaring needs at other positions. At the NFL draft at Madison Square Garden that year, there hadn’t been that many boos from Jets fans since they drafted DE Jeff Lageman 13 years earlier.
GM Terry Bradway and the Jets front office liked Thomas’ resume and thought he’d be a great addition to a defensive line that added two first round picks two years earlier in DE John Abraham and Shaun Ells. In college at UAB, Thomas set school and Conference USA career records with 35 QB sacks. He recorded 148 tackles with 56 stops for losses of 320 yards, two fumble recoveries, and eight forced fumbles during his four years. He earned first-team All-Conference USA honors as a senior when he recorded 46 tackles, three forced fumbles and 14 sacks. The Jets hoped Thomas would be able to put up similar numbers in the NFL.
During his rookie year, Thomas played in 15 games, seeing action as a reserve DE. He finished the year with 11 tackles and a half sack. Thomas learned playing behind DE John Abraham. His first year was also plagued with nutritional and conditioning problems where he lost a lot of weight due to a poor diet.
Last year, Thomas fixed his problems, bulked up and with Abraham suffering through off-field problems and a groin injury, Thomas filled Abraham’s starting DE spot and in 10 of 16 games. The DE finished the season with 58 tackles and only one sack. Thomas and the rest of the defensive line struggled against the run, finishing 28th in the NFL.
Thomas read the papers and the criticisms affected him.
“If you lose sleep, you’re not going to play well,” Thomas said. “When you think a lot what people say about you, it hurts.”
Thomas decided he would no longer read what was written about him.
Among the defensive changes made in the off-season was Rubin Carter being fired as d-line coach and Denny Marcin being hired as defensive line coach.
Marcin came across the river from the Giants where he coached a very successful run defense. When Marcin met with his players, he told them they had a clean slate. Thomas talked about what he worked on with Marcin over the summer.
“My eyes, my feet, my hands,” Thomas said. “He told me what he expected.”
Marcin saw that Thomas had the potential to be a solid player.
“Everyone was worried about him but me,” Marcin said. “Working with me every morning over the summer, he did an incredible job.”
Edwards is known for keeping his players motivated and made sure Thomas did not get down.
“He told me to be positive, keep my head up, and you will get your number called,” Thomas said.
Thomas finally got his number called in the Jets 17-9 win over Miami on October 3, finishing with two stops.
Thomas has steadily improved each game. In the Jets 13-7 loss at New England on October 24, Thomas made an outstanding play, chasing down RB Corey Dillon from behind 44-yards down field, preventing a touchdown.
Against Buffalo on November 7, Thomas did a nice job filling in for Shaun Ellis, who left the game with a groin injury. Thomas made two tackles, including a stop on RB Willis McGahee on third-and-5 with 5:09 left in the game.
DT Jason Ferguson was impressed by Thomas’ performance.
“I think he knows what is expected of him and he had to step up and he did the job,” Ferguson said. “He always steps up, whenever an end goes down, he is the guy to step up.”
Edwards said the difference in Thomas this year is his confidence.
“I just think his confidence level is up,” Edwards said. “He's more confident now. He's a more mature guy. He's a lot stronger than he was his first year. He's been around it now. He's played in some football games. He's kind of feeling, ‘Hey, I can be a good player, too.’”
As a back-up, Thomas knows he has to be ready at all times.
“I am confident,” Thomas said. “I am excited that coach wasn’t nervous about putting me out there. I am not nervous about (replacing) anyone out there. If somebody goes down and your number is called, step up. Go out there and prove yourself.”
Thomas is part of a much improved defensive line that is fifth in the NFL in rushing defense, giving up only 104 yards a game after giving up 143 yards on the ground last year.
Sitting behind All-Pro’s John Abraham and Shaun Ellis has helped Thomas learn.
“Coming in I was nervous (especially) being around good competition,” Thomas said. “That makes you a better player too. Being behind good players, that makes you better. If I wasn’t sitting behind somebody getting sacks like Shaun (Ellis) and John (Abraham), how would I get better? I wouldn’t know who to guide myself after. It is good having them around and learning that way.”
Thomas is a versatile player who has played both on the exterior and interior of the Jets d-line this year. Ferguson was impressed by Thomas’ ability to play different positions.
“Sometimes we put him in a hard position,” Ferguson said. “We put him at tackle and he is a defensive end. There are different steps there, just that alone he got back on the end and got back in his regular position.”
Thomas 1.5 sacks against the Ravens totaled his total sacks from his first two years in the NFL. Thomas would rather win a championship than have large sack totals.
“If you win a Super Bowl, it doesn’t matter what stats (anyone) had,” Thomas said. “If you win the Super Bowl that is the main goal for everyone. Later on down the line, you probably think about it after your career is over with but during this time, it is about winning championships.”
Ferguson knows Thomas has so much potential.
“His play has definitely picked up,” Ferguson said. “ It is just learning the rules and learning the ropes right now. He is a raw talent. He has it all, he is just now learning how to use it.”
Marcin said the key for Thomas is now to be consistent the rest of the season.
“You've got to continue on,” Marcin said. “One game in this league doesn't make a guy good, bad, or whatever."
With Ellis returning this week, Thomas most likely will return to the bench and his back-up role. Confident and mature, Thomas will be ready whenever his number is called.