DE Bryan Thomas will try to exorcize all the demons of last season in 2003
- Overwhelmed and underweight.
Those two words summed up Bryan Thomas's rookie campaign in a nutshell. For all intents and purposes, the Jets number one pick in 2002 didn't have the impact that he and the coaching staff had expected.
Having played in relative obscurity at Alabama-Birmingham, Thomas was a bit like an out-of-towner caught in a taxicab's headlights when he reached New York City. Who could blame him? It's a big jump from Conference USA to the National Football League.
Thomas, who was force in the 2002 preseason, had a pretty good debut in the season opener at Buffalo. He recorded two tackles and had a pressure on Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe. But that was the highlight of his season. Playing in 15 of 16 games, Thomas registered a dismal 11 tackles and half a sack as a reserve defensive lineman.
Not exactly the return the Jets were expecting on their multi-million dollar investment.
"He's a guy that came from a little town in Alabama," said coach Herman Edwards. Maybe he was a bit overwhelmed coming to New York City. It was probably like, 'Here we go Toto.' It's tough. It's not like I was a worldly guy when I was growing up in California. Then the next thing you know, I'm in Philadelphia. Some time it takes a little time to adjust."
A combination of living up to first round expectations, homesickness, immaturity, and some outside elements toyed with Thomas's psyche. So much so that he dropped nearly 30 pounds in the process. He was a shadow of the pass-rushing demon the Jets fell in love prior to the draft.
Edwards said he could relate to Thomas's ordeal.
"He's a first round draft pick and gets all that money. Millions of dollars," Edwards said. "How do you handle that? I know 30-year-old people who win the lottery that can't handle it. Can you help him? How do you help a 21-year-old reach the maturity level of a 40-year-old? You can't. You can advise him. You can do the best you can. But they have to go through it themselves.
"Now he understands his expectations. He's been a guy who's been here in the off-season. He's been here on the weekends. He's been running. We tell him to go home and he says he can't, that he has work to do. He's matured a lot."
Thomas may only be 24-years-old chronologically. But having survived the anguish of 2002, he's about 34 in football years. He's grown up awful fast and his dedication and preparation speak volumes.
He participated in around 25 of the Jets' Organized Team Activities prior to training camp. He's also worked extensively with John Lott, the team's strength and conditioning coach, and has adhered to a strict diet, coupled with a lot of protein shakes.
The result: Thomas is bigger, faster, and stronger. Better yet, he's now a rippling 270 pounds.
"I want to go out there hard and contribute and help the team," says Thomas. "I want to go out there and prove to everyone that I am capable of playing at this level."
He added: "I don't feel like a rookie because I have already been through this once. Now, it's better because I don't have the butterflies in my stomach. I can go and just be relaxed and not have so much pressure on me."
Edwards, defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, and defensive line coach Rubin Carter have noticed a huge difference in Thomas. It's a change for the better. And they are more than willing to turn him loose and see what he can do.
"I think mentally he's a different guy," says Edwards. "Physically, just look at him. He is playing under the radar screen. I think that's good for him."
With Thomas regaining his form and his confidence he is ready to rattle some helmets and disrupt opposing offenses. Lining up alongside John Abraham, Shaun Ellis, Dewayne Robertson, Jason Ferguson, Chester McGlockton, and eventually Josh Evans has Thomas reflecting back to the days of yore, when a bunch of guys named Klecko, Gastineau, Lyons, and Salaam manned the trenches.
Suffice to say, the Jets' defensive line has the potential to be a wrecking crew.
"You already know how good John Abraham is," Thomas says. "I want to add to that just like the Sack Exchange. I want to get it back to that, so we have more than one person making an impact."
Did someone say Sack Exchange II?