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De'Anthony Thomas: Where's The Best Fit?

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Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images.
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

De’Anthony Thomas is, without a doubt, one of those special players who does something spectacular almost every time he touches the ball. His usual routine includes darting off after tucking the ball, spinning around two defenders and then stopping dead in his tracks, only to start up again at full speed while three other defenders are caught on their heels. By now, he’s already headed for the end zone because he’s lightning fast as the crowd watches in awe.

Thomas can return a punt and a kickoff, he can run a route and catch, and he can take a handoff and surge up the middle. But there is one problem, a good problem to have actually. Where on the field do you put him? Is he more effective when lining up as a slot receiver or when he’s in the backfield?

Is He A Receiver?

When you have a player like Thomas on your team, your main concern is getting him the ball in any way possible. He’s 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, and is the fastest guy on the field at all times. Oregon has thrived when setting him up for screens, swing passes and quick slants. He caught 46 balls for 605 yards and 9 TDs as a freshman in 2011. In 2012, he caught 45 passes for 445 yards and 5 TDs. He has great hands and is best when running short routes over the middle, although he makes big plays with a deep post or deep out to the sideline. As a receiver, Thomas is best operating in the slot, with a game similar to a Percy Harvin or a Tavon Austin.

Is He A Running Back? 

In 2011, Thomas averaged an astounding 10.8 yards per carry. On 55 attempts, he ran for 595 yards and 7 TDs, including a 91-yarder in the Rose Bowl. Last season, he ran the ball more, carrying it 92 times for 701 yards, averaging an impressive 7.6 yards per carry. He ran for 11 TDs in 2012, scoring 18 times in total, matching the number of TDs he had in 2011. Surprisingly, Thomas runs the ball well up the middle. He’s slimmer than you’d want your running back to be when crunching between the tackles, but he’s able to take hits and bounce off defenders. He’s got such a quick burst up the middle, and that’s one of the key attributes that people sometimes forget when evaluating running backs. A guy could be big and fast but it may take him a few seconds to accelerate. Thomas reaches his top speed as fast as anyone I’ve seen in recent memory, and when he’s sprinting in open space, there may not be an NFL cornerback who can catch him.

The Best Place For Thomas

Thomas is more explosive as a running back than a receiver. There were times in 2012 when he would make a great catch and when turning his body to accelerate up the field, he was caught by a defender. There’s no problem with sending him out for a bomb or a deep post every possession, but he needs to get the ball as much as possible. And the best way to do that is to get it to him behind the line of scrimmage. Give him the ball with some space away from the defense and he will give you a chance for the big play every time. By putting him in the backfield, you are able to fully utilize his rare playmaking ability. If he can’t get through up the middle, pitch it to him and get him free on the outside. In the shotgun with a four-receiver set, you can send him in motion and set up a bubble screen or a swing pass over the middle. With Thomas in the backfield, there is a much wider selection of plays to choose from as opposed to lining him up as a receiver.

When a player as blazing fast and as instinctive with the ball as De’Anthony Thomas comes around, the coach will find a spot for him and the easiest way to get him the ball. Thomas is more than a Wildcat or option-type player; he is a running back with great hands. He’ll have success in the NFL as a punt returner and a running back who can carry the ball 10-15 times a game while also going out for a handful of passes. He is as exciting as they come. Look for him to be selected late in the first round of the 2014 Draft.