On the surface, undrafted rookie wide receiver Jeff Thomas does not seem like a natural fit for the New England Patriots.
But if the Patriots, who signed Thomas after the draft, can reel the talented receiver in and figure out how to extract his full big-play potential, he has the upside to be the offensive version of cornerback JC Jackson, who has gone on to become one of the most statistically dominant defensive backs in the NFL since going undrafted in 2018.
Thomas led Miami in receiving yards two years ago despite playing just 11 games prior to exiting the program late in the season.
Miami’s head coach at the time, Mark Richt, cited the Hurricanes’ “high standards for excellence, for conduct and for the commitment to team for all of the young men who wear our uniform” in a statement on Thomas’ dismissal Nov. 21, 2018. Thomas said the decision was mutual.
The speedy wideout had decided to transfer home to Illinois before Richt retired a month later. Manny Diaz, who had been Richt’s defensive coordinator at Miami, was hired to become Temple’s next head coach before the Hurricanes’ job suddenly opened up. Diaz instead signed back on with Miami to succeed Richt and convinced Thomas to stay.
“I at least wanted to have the chance to talk to Jeff and let him know my vision for the program,” Diaz told NESN.com on the phone this week. “And then really see if he really wanted to leave, which at the end of the day, I think he wanted to stay, and that’s what ended up happening. …
“Obviously Jeff has some dynamic ability and you want to at least be able to lay out your discipline structure and see if it could be something where it felt like it could help him on and off the field.”
The story didn’t necessarily have a gratifying ending, and Diaz didn’t talk about Thomas with the exuberance of most head coaches who see a player make the pros.
Thomas caught 31 passes for 379 yards with three touchdowns in his junior season before declaring for the 2020 NFL Draft a year early. Thomas started seven of 10 games but was suspended for two games in October for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
“I’m happy for Jeff that he stuck with what he started,” Diaz said. “And stayed with his teammates and ultimately gave Miami another season.”
The Athletic’s Dane Brugler wrote in his 2020 NFL Draft guide that Thomas “likes to play football, but isn’t necessarily interested in all the work, practice and preparation that goes on between games.”
While “The Patriot Way” is mostly known for the Matthew Slaters and Devin McCourtys of the world who are supremely dedicated to football, head coach Bill Belichick has had success through the years finding players like Thomas who might need more nurturing. Jackson and former Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, like Thomas, both were dismissed from college programs before signing with the Patriots as undrafted free agents. The Patriots have seen varying degrees of success by taking risks on other “character concerns” like Aqib Talib, Randy Moss, Corey Dillon, Albert Haynesworth, Ryan Mallett and Antonio Brown through the years.
Diaz believes the Patriots could help Thomas achieve his full potential.
“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 is undersized at 5-foot-10, 174 pounds, but he has deep-threat potential with a 4.45-second 40-yard dash. He caught 9-of-9 deep targets for 327 yards with three touchdowns in 2018, per Pro Football Focus.
Jeff Thomas was a legit deep threat during his time at Miami.
In 2018 Thomas caught all 9 catchable passes aimed 20+ yards downfield for 327 yards and 3 TDs. https://t.co/U73FYj66QH
— PFF NE Patriots (@PFF_Patriots) April 26, 2020
“I think the first thing that stands out is his ability to blow the top off of the coverage,” Diaz said. “He caught a post for a touchdown, a long touchdown in the Florida State game this year.
Jeff Thomas, Patriots UDFA WR ? pic.twitter.com/ejDPsBXCHZ
— Louie Benjamin (@PFF_Louie) April 27, 2020
“He’s made big plays across the middle of the field. Where a lot of your slots at times can be short-area quickness guys, which he has that, but he also has the long speed to run by you. It’s not a matter of just winning with making a move but it’s the fact that he can just step on your toes as a safety and run by you. I think there’s a lot of value in a guy who can do that at the slot position.”
Why Thomas wasn’t more productive at Miami is a complicated question. He came to the program in 2017 as a four-star recruit and the No. 5 wide receiver in the country. He ranked behind drafted receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tee Higgins and Jerry Jeudy and in front of first-round picks Henry Ruggs and Jalen Reagor.
He caught 83 passes for 1,316 yards with eight touchdowns in three seasons. He also added nine carries for 64 yards, 54 kick returns for 1,219 yards and 14 punt returns for 265 yards with a touchdown.
“Well, obviously we had inconsistent offensive play in the time he was here,” Diaz said. “So, that’s part of it. We had some inconsistent quarterback play, so that would be a part of it. And then just on his own inconsistencies. I think they all go hand in hand.”
Diaz believes Thomas’ own inconsistencies are fixable, and it’s obvious the head coach is rooting for the wide receiver after giving him a second chance at Miami.
“Absolutely, everybody matures,” Diaz said. “Everybody looks back and sees things they would have loved to do differently. I think he’s got that opportunity to do that now.”
Diaz said the Patriots are getting, “A quiet person, but he listens to everything that’s being told to him. I think he trusts people who are consistent and upfront with him.”
The Patriots certainly aren’t going to put up with any nonsense from an undrafted rookie. While he was one of the Patriots’ more high-profile undrafted additions, he only received a $2,500 signing bonus from the team as part of his three-year, $2,287,500 rookie contract.
Without the off-field concerns, Thomas almost certainly would have produced more at Miami and been drafted, possibly as high as Jeudy, Ruggs and Reagor in the first round. Time will tell if the Patriots got another undrafted steal in the Miami product. First, they’ll need to see if he’s a culture fit in their strict organization.