Can Steelers ILB Matthew Thomas prove his athleticism?
With Steelers training camp opening this week, the Trib is spotlighting a handful of the 90 attendees who might not be big names but who are fighting for a roster spot and potentially could make an impact on the 2018 team. This is the first in that series that will run leading into reporting day at St. Vincent College on Wednesday.
When the Steelers didn’t take an inside linebacker with their first-round pick April 26, most assumed they’d end up with one over the next two days of the draft.
Technically, those people were correct: while the Steelers did not draft a linebacker this year, they did acquire one by the end of the day of the draft’s final four rounds.
And that player was one of the most physically-gifted inside linebackers available.
The Steelers signed Florida State’s Matthew Thomas in the moments after the draft ended. Thomas was one of the top high school recruits in the country five years ago, and at the NFL combine this past winter his performance was commensurate with early-round inside linebackers.
“I can definitely be the type of playmaker (the Steelers) are looking for,” Thomas said during minicamp last month.
No linebacker at the combine jumped farther in the broad jump or vertical leap than Thomas. Only three linebackers in the past 10 years have had a better vertical jump than Thomas’ 41.6-inch leap - two of them, coincidentally, are the Steelers’ Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree.
Thomas ran the sixth-fastest 40 time (4.58) of the 27 linebackers who ran at the 2018 combine.
The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Thomas also was productive - at times - at a high level in college (leading FSU in tackles the past two seasons, managing 3 ½ tackles for loss in the 2016 Orange Bowl).
So while Thomas wasn’t drafted, he certainly profiles like somebody who should have been.
“I feel like I fit in here (in the NFL),” Thomas said. “I think I will get better in time. But I definitely feel like I fit in.”
The Steelers could sure use him doing so as they search for a way to compensate for the loss of Shazier. For now, the starters at inside linebacker are Vince Williams and Tyler Matkevich, with veteran Jon Bostic also in the mix.
“I felt like (the Steelers) was a good place for me,” Thomas said. “Especially when they didn’t draft any inside linebackers, I felt like it was a good sign.”
The scouting knocks on Thomas concern his instincts and, as his official NFL.com draft profile put it, “he doesn’t always play with a competitive demeanor.” Thomas also served a six-game suspension in college and missed a season because of academic ineligibility, each of which could have hurt his draft status.
But when it comes to pure ability, Thomas can stand out in an offseason practice setting.
“Matt is a very good player; he comes with a lot of athletic ability,” inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky said. “We were happy to sign him and we will see where he goes.”
As an undrafted free agent, the Steelers invested relatively very little in Thomas and he comes with little risk. The potential reward could be landing the speedy sideline-to-sideline playmaker from the middle of the defense that the organization craves (it did, after all, use first-round picks on Shazier and Lawrence Timmons since Mike Tomlin became coach).
Thomas will have to prove his worth, though, starting at training camp this week. Undrafted rookies start from the bottom; Thomas understands that, and he’s eager to show his stuff on special teams.
“I definitely want to come in and try to learn the best I can and contribute the best I can - however that is,” Thomas said. “I definitely think I can play here and up to the level of those guys (Shazier and Timmons). It’s just all a matter of time and putting in the work.”