The New England Patriots’ cheapest undrafted free agent might be their most intriguing.
Jeff Thomas, whose Patriots contract reportedly includes just $2,500 in guaranteed money, is a lightning-fast receiving talent who likely would have been selected during the 2020 NFL Draft had he not repeatedly clashed with multiple coaching regimes at Miami.
Fellow UDFA wideouts Isaiah Zuber ($100,000), Will Hastings ($57,500) and Sean Riley ($15,000) all received substantially higher guarantees from New England. But Thomas has a higher ceiling than all three.
Measuring in at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, Thomas was an explosive playmaker for the Hurricanes, using his supreme athleticism and 4.45 speed to threaten defenses on deep balls, like this long touchdown against Florida State:
… and on quick catch-and-run plays, like when he used a perfectly timed spin move to turn this:
… into a 16-yard gain against Florida:
Thomas showed off more of his elite elusiveness in a 2019 loss to Virginia Tech, sidestepping through defenders to pick up 18 yards on one screen pass and later pulling out a lethal downfield spin that left a safety grasping at air. His quickness and ability to force missed tackles should make him a threat on jet sweeps and end-arounds, as well, though the Hurricanes rarely utilized him in that capacity (nine career carries).
The Virginia Tech contest also featured the best route we saw Thomas run in the five games we reviewed for this story. On a third-and-11 with less than five minutes remaining, the diminutive wideout stemmed toward the middle of the field before breaking to the corner, leaving first-team All-ACC cornerback Caleb Farley in his wake for a 25-yard touchdown.
Thomas finished with six catches for 124 yards and two fourth-quarter scores — the most productive outing of his underwhelming 2019 season (more on that later).
Thomas also put on a fantastic performance in Miami’s 2018 season opener against LSU, racking up 132 yards on five receptions. Those included a one-handed grab on a crossing route, a leaping, toe-tapping catch along the sideline that went for 32 yards and a deep, over-the-shoulder completion in traffic.
Thomas isn’t a contested-catch artist — unsurprising given his size — but he has excellent ball skills and very good hands.
In 2018, Thomas led a flawed Miami offense in catches (35) and receiving yards (563), averaging 16.1 yards per reception. More than half of that yardage came on deep balls; on catchable passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air, Thomas caught all nine of his targets for 327 yards and three touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus.
An early-season rout of Toledo featured two such hookups:
Thomas also was dangerous as a punt returner, averaging 24.6 yards per return (nine for 122 yards and one touchdown) in 2018. That one score featured multiple broken tackles, a 15-yard tightrope act along the sideline and an acrobatic dive for the pylon:
Thomas returned kicks for the Hurricanes, as well, averaging 22.6 yards per runback for his career and a personal-best 26.0 yards per return in 2018. And despite ranking in the sixth percentile for wideouts in height, the second percentile in weight and the 11th percentile in arm length, he fared well as a blocker in the games we reviewed.
Those are the positives. The negatives? Let’s start with his inconsistency.
Though he boasted immense potential as the nation’s fifth-ranked receiver recruit, Thomas’ college productivity vacillated. He recorded more than 55 receiving yards in just 10 of his 34 games at Miami (and two of the 10 he played in as a junior last season). He managed just eight receiving touchdowns — two in 2017, three in 2018 and three in 2019.
In his three-year career, Thomas tallied 83 catches for 1,316 yards. Jakobi Meyers, who made the Patriots’ roster as an undrafted rookie last summer, caught 92 passes for 1,047 yards in 12 games in his final season at N.C. State.
Thomas also regressed last year, posting a 31-379-3 line over 10 games with a career-low 12.2 yards-per-catch average. Lackluster quarterback play throughout Thomas’ tenure contributed to his modest statistical output but wasn’t the sole reason for it.
And then there were the off-field problems.
Former Miami coach Mark Richt kicked Thomas off the team late in the 2018 season, reportedly for attitude and commitment issues. Manny Diaz, who replaced Richt last offseason, reinstated Thomas but later suspended him for two games after he again ran afoul of team rules.
Thomas dealt with similar issues — missed practices, frustrating unreliability, etc. — during his high school career in East St. Louis, Ill., the final season of which was chronicled in FOX Sports’ terrific 2017 documentary “89 Blocks.”
In an interview with NESN.com’s Doug Kyed earlier this month, Diaz said Thomas should benefit from New England’s structure and strict, no-nonsense approach.
“I think being in a great culture like New England where the consistency of that program and being able to fit in through that structure — I think that’s what he needs,” Diaz said. “I think he just needs to be able to just allow himself to really focus on his on-the-field craft because there’s a lot of upside in that.”
Thomas will enter training camp as a roster long shot, but his signing carried almost no risk given his minuscule guarantee — tied with quarterback Brian Lewerke for the smallest in this year’s rookie class — and the Patriots have hit on undrafted players with character concerns in the past. Standout cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and J.C. Jackson, for instance, both were dismissed from college programs before joining New England as UDFAs and thriving.
If the Patriots can get Thomas to buy into their system and maintain his focus, he could provide the type of speed and big-play ability that was largely absent from their offense last season.