STANFORD, Calif. — When Solomon Thomas had his interview with the Seahawks at the combine, they had him put on a Russell Wilson jersey and took his picture. They couldn’t get over the Stanford star’s resemblance to their quarterback.
Thomas laughs as he shares this. We’re in a Stanford film room breaking down his Sun Bowl game against North Carolina. “I don’t see [the resemblance],” he says, “but a lot of people see it.”
That was probably the closest to Wilson that the Seahawks will ever want to see Thomas; he has emerged as a leading candidate to be selected second overall by NFC West rival San Francisco. Thomas is viewed as the best defensive end in this class not named Myles Garrett, and the Niners, who are installing a 4-3 scheme under new head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, need an edge rusher.
But here the discussion takes a fascinating turn. Thomas, like every defensive line prospect, says he can play any position up front. And, given his talent, he’s probably right. So where would Thomas best be put to use? Put on his film and it’s crystal clear: inside. Contrary to what the vast majority of draft analysts assume, Thomas’s skill set is more that of a defensive tackle than defensive end. He’s most dominant in confined areas, not space.
Thomas himself would agree. He is given this hypothetical scenario: If he could only play 100 NFL snaps, and how he performed on those 100 snaps determined the size of his next contract, where would he choose to line up?
“I’d probably split it up,” he says after careful consideration. “40 snaps as a three-technique (defensive tackle), 40 as a “wide-5” (base defensive end) and 20 as a wide-9 (edge rusher).”
This amounts to 80 percent of his snaps being played more in traffic than in space. Not coincidentally, this is exactly how Stanford viewed Thomas. Privately, their coaches say that he’s best applied inside. Publicly, they affirmed this by aligning him at defensive tackle on (by Thomas’s estimate) 85% of their plays.
Thomas has come to be viewed as an edge guy because of his weight; NFL defensive tackles weigh in the neighborhood of 300 pounds. At 273, Thomas would be the lightest in the league. “Got to play low,” he chortles when told this. But there’s a template for players like Thomas: Seattle’s Michael Bennett. In the Seahawks’ base 4-3, the 274-pound Bennett plays defensive end opposite the tight end. But in nickel–which, last year, according to Football Outsiders, Seattle plays on two-thirds of its snaps–Bennett slides over to defensive tackle. And his play there is why he has earned nearly $40 million in Seattle since 2013.
This raises the question: When projecting defensive linemen to the NFL, what position should we be projecting them to? Projections most often emphasize how a player fits a team’s base defense. (Is he a 3-4 end? A 4-3 tackle?) But most teams only play base a third of the time. The rest of the game they’re in nickel or dime. This overhauls the equation for defensive linemen.
The Michael Bennett scenario is Thomas’s most likely role in the NFL. But Bennett and Thomas, stylistically, are different. Bennett is 6' 4″ and has 33.6-inch arms. Thomas is 6' 3″ with 33-inch arms. On paper, that seems negligible. But when you look at their film, Bennett is much lankier and better suited for space. Thomas is more disruptive in tight spots.
Remember, weight can change. Thomas, a five-star recruit, says he weighed just 240 pounds upon arriving at Stanford in 2014, and that getting up to 295 now would be no trouble. And just because Thomas isn’t big doesn’t mean he plays small. His initial quickness allows him to dictate the action to blockers. Mix in refined technique, plus football awareness, and you have a player who can win with leverage-driven power.
This was evident throughout Thomas’s performance against North Carolina.
“Before the play I can see the guard coming to me,” Thomas explains as we watch him destroy a third-and-10 pass protection. “With the center and running back splits, I know the center is probably coming towards me, especially with our Mike linebacker to the left. So I just slide and make a quick inside move and … just try to use power and get to the quarterback.”
On a third-and-5, this time in the fourth quarter, Thomas got home for a sack. It had been third-and-10 but he’d been flagged, incorrectly, for offsides. “I’m really pissed off,” he says as we watch him line up. “We get a call, a nut stunt, I’m supposed to come pull up the center, he pulls up to me, I have to destroy him, get under his chin. Now his hands are off of me, the quarterback is right there. Just try to throw him down, and I’m mad so I have a lot of energy right here and just going crazy.”
Thomas was named the game’s MVP but came away feeling that he left three sacks on the field. And, though in the technical sense he refuses to blame officials, he was blatantly held on three different plays on which no flag was thrown.
“People didn’t know me until the UNC game,” Thomas says.
Those who do get to know Thomas can’t help but be charmed. Though built like a machine, he has a soft energy about him. Coated in a thin layer of shyness, he speaks quickly, laughs easily and acknowledges everything you say. Ego is undetectable. After our film study, we walk around the Stanford campus. Thomas gladly takes a detour so I can drop off my bag at the car. On the way, we discover that the track field we’d hoped to cut through is closed for an upcoming meet. I suggest he just tell the security guard he is Solomon Thomas. “It’s just not like that out here [at Stanford],” Thomas says. “That’s one thing about it. Whoever you are, every person is pretty special. It’s very humbling.”
Later during our stroll, he cites movie-watching as one of his preferred non-football activities. Asked to name his favorite flick, he admits to having never thought about it and then says, “I love The Notebook. I watched it with my mom and sister when I was young. They kind of made me a sucker for love.”
Nobody stops Thomas as we walk around. He says he’s heard that Andrew Luck can still traverse campus mostly uninterrupted. Proximity to the sports facilities is a factor though. Earlier, when Thomas was leaving Stanford’s spring football practice and walking back to the athletics office, he was stopped every dozen steps by well-wishers and fans. The last was Burke Robinson, a Stanford lecturer who addressed Thomas with the austerity of an experienced pedagogue. “This will be an interesting new chapter in your life,” Robinson says. Thomas grins submissively. “Yes sir.”
“His class wasn’t easy so I had to spend some extra time with him,” Thomas later explains. At Stanford, athletes don’t receive the same academic assistance as they would at many universities. Thomas, a junior, lived in regular dorms and, like any student, was mostly responsible for arranging his own tutors. A communications major, he plans to return later to earn a degree.
For now, it’s all football. In a few weeks, he’ll finally know where he’ll play. In which city, that is. His position may still be TBD.