What do JJ Watt, Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox, Von Miller, Geno Atkins and Khalil Mack have in common?
Well, besides being the best defenders in the NFL, they are also a few of the best athletes in the world. JJ Watt ran a 6.88 second 3 cone at 290 pounds. Von Miller ran a 4.42 second 40 yard dash at 242 pounds, the best ever for an outside linebacker at the combine. Aaron Donald had a 116 inch broad jump at 285... The list goes on of the insane athletic feats of these elite NFL defenders and a big part of their success is due to their truly world class athletic ability.
So, when scouring the college football landscape for the next star defender, it is a good bet to focus on the players who possess great physical skill sets, skill sets that are uncoachable, and try to mold the aspects of their game that are. This draft class is among the deeper classes in recent memory when it comes to defensive line talent and one of the class' most intriguing players is a redshirt sophomore from Stanford.
That is Solomon Thomas, 280 pound defensive linemen for Stanford, winning football game by himself.
That burst of the line of scrimmage and ability to close on a ball carrier is exactly the type of explosiveness that is so rare, but also so important to being a high impact defender. Solomon Thomas had an especially impressive bowl game against UNC, but it capped off a season filled with bright moments.
Solomon Thomas is a stoutly built player at 6-3 and 280 pounds, and he carries the weight incredibly well, looking more like a ripped linebacker than a defensive lineman. Due to his thicker build and dynamic athletic traits, Stanford felt comfortable lining him up all over the place on their line. He was lined up anger where from the zero to the nine technique on any given down, based on situation and they had no reservations about using his quickness on stunts and twists to help him find lanes to the quarterback.
His versatility is exciting for the next level because you can line him up at wide defensive end and he can give you this:
That quickness to carry him on the twist to create pressure on the quarterback is incredibly rare and a testament to his ability.
Or a team could line him up closer to the ball to get moments like this:
It is quite obvious what Thomas brings to the table in terms of his potential to absolutely destroy a play from anywhere on the line, but unfortunately that is not where the story ends with Solomon Thomas.
That is the same explosive player from before, just kinda enjoying the game as an observer, doing a bit of a pirouette in the process. This is not exactly a rare issue with Thomas either...
So Thomas has some motor issues, but they also stem from basic technical issues. It seems that if he does not win initially on the snap, he has a tendency to just give up on a play. Thomas is a great athlete, no doubt, but he has built a dependency on that athletic ability to guide his production. He will launch himself into an offensive line, rarely with any sort of awareness or proper usage of his hands. This can work quite a bit at the college level because he is just so much stronger and faster than a lot of college players, he can just operate as a human car bomb to disrupt an offense. However, the NFL has a lot of great athletes along the offensive lines and they are also much more refined technicians than at the college level. Those linemen will give Thomas hell if he is not consistent in his technique or does not develop a better motor.
There is some politics to being a college defensive lineman, however. Without getting into it *too* much, asking 280 pound guys to play balls to the wall for 50-80 snaps a game while they are not collecting pay checks is quite a bit to ask. They have bigger health risks than most players and it is not rare to see a lot of these motor issues disappear when these defenders get an NFL paycheck and it is honestly hard to chastise that. However, the lack of technique that Thomas plays with is a bigger concern to me than his motor because although great defenders in the league are world class athletes, they have refined their craft because you rarely can "out-athlete" your opponent.
NFL Comparison: Both athletically and dynamically, Solomon Thomas is a lot like Preston Smith while he was at Mississippi State. Smith is playing outside linebacker now for Washington and is a bit lighter than he was in college, but he was playing all over the formation for the Bulldogs and his size and athletic ability made him incredibly difficult to handle when he was on.
Despite pretty harsh criticism, Solomon Thomas is a seriously good NFL prospect. Yes, he has lots of technical flaws to fix and he needs to improve his motor, but his "on" moments are as impressive and disruptive as any defender in this class. He is likely going to test very well and the type of athleticism he possesses is just so damn hard to find. Oh, and he just turned 21 two weeks ago, so there is so much time for him to continue to grow athletically and as a player.
Is he a top five or ten pick? No, but he is absolutely a player to draft in the mid or late first round. For the Eagles, there is a need to add more talent to their defensive line. Yes, Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are outstanding, but adding a player like Thomas who can rush inside or out next to those guys is a pretty amazing prospect. If the team decided that they wanted to add some more bang to their front seven in the first round, investing in Thomas' upside could be a move to make the defensive line special.