Mention Stanford to any fan of the NFL, and the first thing he or she will think of is Andrew Luck. While Luck and his former coach Jim Harbaugh put Stanford back in a prominent spot on the football map in 2012, it was the defense that led the way, and that defense was led by outside linebacker Chase Thomas. Does the aptly named defender's production in Pac-12 portend big things in his NFL future?
Thomas is a high-effort player with a physical edge and great play awareness and recognition. He has a multitude of pass rush moves, and has very active hands when he engages his opponent. Thomas will dominate pass-blockers when the protection scheme does not put an offensive tackle on him. He has a lot of fight in his game, and he is a tone-setter on defense.
As an athlete, Thomas is adequate at best. He can't run with backs or athletic tight ends or cover much range against the pass, and he has trouble changing direction quickly. Thomas won't be an effective edge-rusher to the outside because he can't turn the corner or get upfield fast enough to put the offensive tackle on his heels. Offensive tackles can blot him out on passing downs because Thomas lacks the arm length to go with his big frame.
At 6'3" 244 pounds, Thomas has nice NFL size, but his 32 1/4" arms keep him from being a legitimate defensive end prospect or pass rush specialist. He is probably faster than his 4.91 40 time, but it is still an accurate picture of his main liability as an athlete. His 32" vertical, 9'5" broad jump, and 7.17 three-cone combine measurement complete the picture of a limited athlete.
Thomas leads by example with his intensity, hustle, and physicality. He is a smart, disciplined player who diagnoses the action well. He is a high floor, high character player who presents little bust risk as a prospect.
He mainly lined up 3-4 OLB in the Cardinal defense, but Thomas also put his hand on the ground and played defensive end in four-man fronts and three-man fronts on passing downs.
Thomas is adequate when it comes time to drop into a zone and patrol his area. Sometimes he lacks the correct depth in his drops, and he's not athletic enough to make explosive plays on the ball or receiver. He does see the action developing and make the correct decision on when and where to run, but his lack of speed and initial burst keep him from making plays. Thomas isn't afraid to put his hands on tight ends and attempt to disrupt their routes, but many NFL tight ends will be a massive mismatch for Thomas in coverage.
Thomas has an array of moves that he can use to create pressure on the quarterback, including a spin, swim and club. He uses his hands very well and looks about as sudden rushing the passer as he does in any aspect of his game. Thomas can stunt inside and generally achieves his best results when he goes at the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle.
You won't see Thomas turn the corner get pressure in the classic speed/edge-rusher fashion unless he gets a step on his opponent by anticipating the snap count. He does relish the physical clash, although the results differ greatly depending on whether he's facing a tackle. He can drive through attempts to re-route his rush, and Thomas is also good at getting his arms up to disrupt passing lanes on his way to the quarterback.
Against the Run
Setting the edge by taking a blocker head on comes naturally to Thomas. He struggles to make plays on quicker running backs in one-on-one situations, and Thomas doesn't really have the range to win races to the corner or track down backs in the open field. He does have good ball awareness on run plays, and Thomas will make plays with his motor and hustle in pursuit. Thomas will be able to stack and shed and he has good feet to get through trash in the trenches.
Read and React
It's clear that Thomas has a high football IQ and takes care of his job on any given play as best he can. His physical limitations are what reduces his results, not his mind. For instance, Thomas is lost if he bites on an option pitch, but able to blow up the play when he forces the issue and prevents the pitch. Thomas just can't recover from any false steps or hesitation. He has little margin of error in this area, but he is usually very good.
While he is strong enough to force fumbles and jolt his target, Thomas also misses some tackles going for the strip. He is generally a sure tackler and will make plays on the opponent's side of the line of scrimmage.
Future Role/Scheme Versatility
Thomas will at least be top-notch depth at 3-4 OLB and maybe even get in a few third-down packages as a pass-rusher. He'll be an excellent special teams contributor and an asset to any team's culture. If he makes it as a starter, it will likely be as a strong-side 3-4 OLB opposite a talented edge-rusher on the other side.