National Football League
Rookie WR Brian Thomas Jr.’s speed a boost for Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars offense
National Football League

Rookie WR Brian Thomas Jr.’s speed a boost for Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars offense

Published Apr. 30, 2024 5:00 p.m. ET

After the first day of the NFL Draft, Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke kept it real. 

He was asked if Brian Thomas Jr., Jacksonville's first-round pick, would've been identified as one of the team's top prospects if Calvin Ridley had been re-signed in free agency. 

"Probably not," Baalke admitted. "Not with that pick."  

Ridley's departure was a major loss for the franchise, one not completely made up for by the addition of Gabe Davis in free agency. Ridley last season was the Jags' leading pass-catcher with 1,016 receiving yards and their only top wideout to play 17 games. The No. 23 overall pick, Thomas is tasked with not only filling Ridley's void, but also helping to bring the best out of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who had a disappointing 2023 season.  


One way Thomas figures to do that is with his speed. 

He ran an official 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, second-fastest among wide receivers. And his acceleration is even more eye-popping. His 1.78-second "flying 20" was the fastest among all players at the combine. He also had the second-highest athletic score among all players at his position at the event. 

Thomas' ability to get behind defenses was evident at LSU, where he led the FBS with 17 receiving touchdowns in 2023. On throws of 20-plus yards last season, he had 15 receptions on 22 targets for 670 yards and 12 touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. 

"Just my ability to use my speed, be able to get open, create space on defenders," Thomas said in describing his game. "I would say that's just a big role in how I play."

In Ridley's departure, Jacksonville lost its most prolific speedster. His average maximum route speed was 22.11 miles per hour, more than two mph faster than any other skill player on the roster, according to Next Gen Stats. Ridley's average route speed of 14.2 mph was also the highest among the team's skill players who ran at least 50 routes last season. 

Jacksonville is getting some of that speed back in Thomas. 

"You're adding a skilled receiver," coach Doug Pederson said of the rookie. "You're adding depth. You're adding a guy that has an element of speed that we haven't had probably since Calvin last year. … I think it can only be a great asset for us on offense to not only open up the field, but I think open up some other elements of the offense."

That can include the intermediate passing game. 

Between Thomas and Davis, who was sixth in the NFL last season with 16.6 yards per reception, the Jags could have a deep passing game that opens up the middle of the field for tight end Evan Engram and receiver Christian Kirk, who's at his best operating out of the slot. 

There could be opportunities there for Thomas, too. 

"There's going to be some different coverages that he's going to see here at the NFL level. A lot of teams try to keep that at bay, they try not to get receivers behind you," Pederson explained. "But it's our job as coaches to make sure that we create opportunities to do that and utilize that speed. 

"What that does then, is open up the second-level area. That's where those 12-to-15-to-20-to-25-yard ranges are really important. That's where you can spend a lot of time and make a lot of catches in those areas with what we saw on tape, with Brian being able to separate at the top of the route and use that athleticism and use his strength and his size to create some openness there in that second level."

At LSU, Thomas was half of the FBS' most dynamic wide receiver tandem last season. He got behind some of the SEC's best defenses with ease.

It will be more difficult in the NFL, where the defensive backs are smarter, faster, stronger and more physical. The matchups are more even, sometimes tipped in the defense's favor. 

That's the space in which the Jaguars need Thomas to thrive to fill Ridley's void.

"It's going to take some time, it's going to take some new learning with a new system," Pederson said. "But I'm very confident. We've got rookie minicamp coming up and then the rest of the offseason program. We're going to do everything we can to get him caught up to speed as fast as we can and get him plugged in."

Lawrence's success — the team's success — may lean heavily on it.

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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