As a 6-year-old in 1996, a California kid by the name of Phillip Thomas loved to play “Madden NFL” on his Super Nintendo, and every time, he would select the Washington Redskins. He’d make believe that he himself played for the team as he manned the controls.
Now 17 years later, after a successful career as a safety at Fresno State, Thomas is three months away from achieving his dream of playing for the NFL. Thomas has no problem admitting that he’d love it if the Redskins used one of their draft picks to select him in April.
“I hear they need safeties,” said Thomas, who as a senior led the nation with eight interceptions. “So if they pick me up, then I think they’d be getting a good one.”
Thomas actually would be happy if any NFL team selects him, and that in all likelihood will happen. He is projected as a second-round pick. It just remains to be seen if he will still be on the board when the Redskins pick for the first time with the 22nd pick of the second round, and if team officials want to use that pick on Thomas.
Redskins officials and scouts and those from the 31 other NFL teams got an up close look at Thomas this week during the practices leading up to Saturday’s Senior Bowl.
The 6-foot, 210-pound Thomas has displayed the fluidity, athleticism, anticipation and versatility that helped him earn all-American status as a senior (becoming the first Fresno State player in history selected as an unanimous all-American).
Coaches have used Thomas at both free safety and strong safety, as a run stopper, pass-rusher and in man and zone coverages. Thomas hasn’t seemed to struggle.
“I’m good in the box, I can come down the line and make some tackles at the point, and I also have the range to play in the middle and get down the sideline and play the ball in the air,” Thomas says. “It just depends on where a team picks me up and where they want me to be, I can play strong or free. I want to be able to do a lot of things. I don’t want to just sit back deep, because I can do a lot of things. A team that would let me do a lot of things, I’d be crazy happy.”
Thomas credits Fresno State secondary coach Tim McDonald for the success that he experienced during his college career, and his apparent readiness for the NFL.
McDonald, a former Cardinal and 49er and six-time Pro Bowl player during 13 NFL seasons, taught Thomas the importance of dedicating himself in the area of film study. Thomas said doing so has helped him recognize opponents’ formations and tendencies, and thus, helps him play faster.
“You get in that film room and study and see quarterbacks’ tendencies and the offenses, and you can understand and get there a step faster,” Thomas said. “For me, I was looking at teams, and it was like, ‘okay, third and five, what do they like to do? Oh, they like to run stick-routes. They like to run quick out-routes.’ So, I was able to on third and five some times to be like ‘All right, even though I have the deep coverage, or I’m supposed to be getting depth, I know on third and five, they like to go to the sticks,’ and I was able to sit on that and make plays.
“I feel like I can pick up the NFL playbook quickly,” Thomas adds. “It’ll be good.”