Initially, he planned to lead the Washington Redskins to championships while becoming one of the NFL’s top wide receivers. Thomas expected stardom. He thought his future was clear. After several wrong turns, however, Thomas is finally in a good place and headed to the league’s biggest game.
Finally all grown up, Thomas has a niche on the Giants, and that’s enough for him at the moment. The former Redskins second-round draft choice did what he had to do to remain in the NFL, and his heads-up work helped the Giants outlast the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game. The Giants have one more game left, Feb. 5 against the AFC champion New England Patriots in Indianapolis, and Thomas is hoping to provide more big plays on special teams.
The Giants benefited from his sharp work against the 49ers, scoring their final 10 points, including the winning field goal in overtime, after Thomas recovered two fumbles on 49ers punt returns. Since joining the Giants, Thomas has been focused on football, and that’s not something I figured I would write.
“I’m always alert, and I’m always trying to make plays,” Thomas said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’m just trying for moments like that, to do something in clutch situations, all the time.
“You’ve always got to be on alert. You have to always be ready. I’m not saying I can do that [recover two fumbles] all the time. But I always have to try to put myself in the right position to have a chance.”
He was well-positioned twice Sunday during the second half at San Francisco.
Thomas recovered the first fumble in the third quarter. San Francisco second-year returner Kyle Williams, playing for the injured Ted Ginn, Jr., erred in getting too close to a bouncing punt and the ball grazed off his knee.
In overtime, Giants rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams stripped the ball from Williams and Thomas pounced on it at the San Francisco 24-yard line. A few plays later, Lawrence Tynes made a 31-yard field goal to send the Giants to the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons.
Obviously, anyone could get lucky and recover fumbles. There’s no skill in that.
But Thomas, with the help of Giants coaches, was always around the ball. He prepared for success. Realizing Williams lacked experience, Thomas figured the Giants’ punt coverage team would have chances.
In practice and film study before the game, Thomas zeroed in on Williams, “because with the backup returner being back there, you’re really thinking that he might cough it up. You have to understand the situation and look at different ways you can help your team.
“On a rainy day like that, ball security is a huge emphasis. You add that to it, and then it’s your job to make sure you’re always where the coaches tell you to be. That’s the most important thing. You have to know what your assignment is and get to where the coaches say.”
Devin Thomas? The guy who used to anger Redskins coaches with his lack of discipline?
While covering the Redskins, I doubted Thomas possessed the drive to succeed, at any role, in the NFL. The former Michigan State standout simply didn’t meet expectations after the Redskins selected him in the second round with the 34th overall pick of the 2008 draft. I certainly didn’t think he was selfless enough to become a special teams standout.
There were some flashes. During a loss to the New Orleans Saints in 2009, Thomas finished with 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns. At times, he impressed as a kickoff returner. Overall, though, Thomas just didn’t earn the coaches’ trust.
Then, Thomas landed a role in a music video while also dabbling in modeling — the kinds of things that don’t fly with Coach Mike Shanahan.
Thomas made the opening 53-man roster in 2010, Shanahan’s first season in Washington, but was released in October. He appeared in one game for the Carolina Panthers, who also cut him, before landing with the Giants.
Humbled and with one foot out of the league, Thomas got his head together.
He embraced being a core special teams player and had a smashing Giants debut in 2010 against, of course, his former team: two tackles, a blocked punt and a downed punt inside the Redskins 5-yard line in the Giants’ 31-7 victory.
The Giants’ special teams ace this season, Thomas has played in every game. He had just three receptions for 37 yards during the regular season but gets it done on special teams.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” Thomas said. “With the all-star cast of receivers that we have, I’ve got to find a spot to do what I need to do.”
Only 25, Thomas still dreams of becoming a productive NFL wideout. “I’m patiently waiting. I’m staying on top of my game for when my opportunity comes.”
Already, he has seized an unexpected one.