The player vying to become the Washington Football Team’s primary red-zone target — its Greg Olsen-esque tight end, its mismatch in coverage, a vital piece of its offense — had been a liability. But moments later, when quarterback Dwayne Haskins led the offense on another red-zone drive, Thomas offered a reminder of why he could be a key piece in Washington’s offense. He lined up next to the left tackle, chipped a linebacker and then ran a corner route before fielding a perfectly placed pass along his outside shoulder. Touchdown.
“The interesting thing is, the guy’s really only been a tight end for, what, three seasons now? You see the growth,” Coach Ron Rivera said last week. “You see him going out there and learning, picking things up. I love his effort. I love how hard he works. I love the accountability. When he makes a mistake, he goes right over to [tight ends coach Pete Hoener] and they talk about it. And he tells me he was wrong — ‘I did this and this’ — and they get it corrected.
“That’s what you want from a veteran guy.”
Over the past eight months, as Rivera has set out to change the culture for Washington’s NFL team, he has compiled a roster that features both savvy veterans and raw athletes, and he has placed an emphasis on character.
Thomas fits the bill as an athletic tight end still learning the position. And despite never playing a down for Washington before signing in March, he knows the franchise well.
The Lynchburg, Va., native played quarterback at Virginia Tech and grew up a Washington fan. He was drafted as a quarterback by the Arizona Cardinals in 2014 but completed only one pass (an 81-yard touchdown, no less) in his first three seasons. In that span, he was cut 11 times by three teams.
So when he arrived at his fourth NFL team, Detroit Lions General Manager Bob Quinn suggested he switch to tight end.
“Honestly, I was tired of sitting at home on the couch,” Thomas said. “If I wanted to have a job and prolong my career, then it was time for the switch. I thought it was the best decision for me and my family, and so far it’s worked out. But I want to take it to bigger heights.”
Last season, Washington’s tight ends accounted for less than 10 percent of the team’s passing targets and ranked among the bottom five in the league in red-zone looks (targets and rushing attempts), receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Despite losing Jordan Reed (released) and Vernon Davis (retired) in the offseason, the team declined to draft another tight end and instead signed three veterans who have limited playing experience; in addition to Thomas, Washington added Richard Rodgers and Marcus Baugh.
But it was Thomas, with his power forward-like build and background as a quarterback, that intrigued the most.
“I had a chance to watch some pretty good tape on him when he was with Detroit, and we really felt that this is a guy who has the skill set we’re looking for to be one of our tight ends,” Rivera said. “We’re going to be a group that we’re going to use one tight end, two tight ends, maybe three tight ends just depending on circumstances, situations. He’s going to be lining up in the down position; he’s going to be lining up in the up position. He’s got enough athleticism that he can be dynamic. We’re pretty excited about who he is.”
Coordinator Scott Turner’s system — a version of the Air Coryell offense that his father, Norv, ran — relies heavily on the position and on multiple-tight-end sets. Turner is one of many coaches Rivera brought with him from Carolina, where they had Olsen, a three-time Pro Bowl tight end and offensive staple.
A player like Olsen can’t be easily replicated, but Thomas is hoping to be that guy in Turner’s offense.
“He’s very multiple with it,” Thomas said. “He gives you a lot of fluidity as well, as you’ve seen in Olsen in past years. He had a lot of big games and a lot of big years. That was a big draw for me, just being able to perform and produce in whatever role they give me. Their tight ends, they’re complete tight ends, and if I want to be a complete tight end, I think this is the best step for me to take, to come here with the staff we have.”
Thomas’s start to training camp was delayed because he tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He said he was asymptomatic; after quarantining for 10 days, he was back on the field.
Now, a week into the portion of training camp that includes practices in pads, Thomas has shown glimpses of what he could be, especially in the red zone, where he has become a top target for Haskins. Last season, Washington ranked 27th in red-zone scoring, with 48.8 percent of its drives inside the 20 resulting in points.
“Even though he’s new to the position, relatively in terms of his development, he’s growing,” Rivera said. “And again, he’s the type of guy you want to grow with.”