Blair Miller > COMING SOON TO A SUNDAY NEAR YOU
Throughout the college season TFQ will look past the Heisman hopefuls and surefire NFL players to examine a lesser-known prospect who could later rise through the ranks and make an impact in the pros.
Chase Thomas, Senior LB, Stanford
Saturday afternoon, 17th-ranked Stanford travels to 7th-ranked Notre Dame to add another chapter to their traditional rivalry. Many eyes will be on star linebacker Manti Te’o who is the best all-around ’backer the Irish have seen in a long time, and figures to be a high draft pick in the NFL someday. But the Cardinal have their own stalwart at linebacker, and though he’s not as high profile as Te’o, he should be joining the golden domer in the Big Apple in April for the NFL draft: Senior Chase Thomas, who elected to return for one more year to anchor one of college football’s best defenses.
Thomas didn’t see the field as a freshman (and thus redshirted), but he cracked the starting lineup in Palo Alto in his sixth game as a sophomore and hasn’t looked back. Heading into Saturday’s game against the Irish, Thomas has started 39 straight games for the Cardinal. In his 44 career games thus far, he has 189 tackles, an impressive 42 tackles for loss and 22 sacks. His performance last season earned him first-team All-Pac-12 honors.
So what might pro scouts think? For starters, nfldraftscout.com currently ranks Thomas as the second-best outside linebacker out of 238 pro prospects. At 6’4”, 240 pounds he has been clocked as low as 4.63 in the 40-yard dash. His intangibles are a wealth of assets – strong leadership skills, a high football IQ, and, to use the typical moniker bestowed upon high-stamina whiteboys, Chase plays with a high motor. He also has a clean bill of health, never sustaining a serious injury in his collegiate career.
What’s more interesting is how easy it is to see Thomas fitting in on one particular type of defense – the Tampa Cover 2 defense employed most notably these days by the Chicago Bears. All-Pro LB Brian Urlacher isn’t getting any younger and his bad knee is – by Urlacher’s own admission – never going to be the same. In other words, any season could be Urlacher’s last and that would make the position an immediate and huge need to address for Chicago in the draft, provided how importantly linebackers figure into their defensive scheme.
Urlacher was taken 9th overall in the 2000 NFL draft. It’s highly unlikely that Thomas will be taken that high, but some comparisons are valid. Urlacher’s 40 time was 4.59 at the combine in 2000. (Some reports say 4.54 but that isn’t the official combine time.) At the time he was 6’4”, 258. Reports say that Urlacher ran 4.7 as recent as a few seasons ago, and although he’s still listed at the same playing weight, it’s safe to say he’s leaner than he was as a rookie.
The main difference between the two players is that Urlacher came into the pros as a converted jack-of-all-trades that often lined up at safety at New Mexico. Thomas, on the other hand, plays all over the field for Stanford but often lines up as a down lineman. Last year Thomas led the Pac-12 in tackles for loss with 17.5, and tied for second in the conference in sacks with 8.5. Clearly, then, Thomas possesses a different skill set than Urlacher that could prevent him from playing the centerfielder-type middle LB role in the traditional Tampa 2 defense, but his ability to cover ground quickly and his nose for the ball (he also led the Cardinal last season with 5 forced fumbles, 10th-most in the country) should indicate that he’d fit in just fine on a Lovie Smith defense. It would be a mistake to think of Thomas as limited to being an edge rusher – he was fourth on a deep Stanford defense in 2011 with 52 tackles, and leads the team this year so far with 34.
Who knows what the Bears will decide to do with their higher picks in next years’ draft? (For their sake they had better start finally using some of them on offensive linemen.) But with Urlacher aging on a bad leg, they’d do well to at least consider Thomas to take the torch and instill fear in opposing QBs the way Chicago’s current captain does.