Aj Thomas is a name that may not ring any bells for your casual NFL fan, chances if you’re reading this…that title doesn’t apply to you. You my friend are a part of the spring football crowd, where one-time NFL practice squad players can build a name for themselves and end up a household name in the NFL. Guys like Pj Walker, Taylor Heinicke, or most recently Kavontae Turpin. 

Watch for A.J. Thomas to be another player who could parlay one season with the Stallions into a long term seat at the NFL table. He’s got all the athletic ability you can ask for, prototypical size, and the ability to potentially play linebacker or safety. In a corresponding move the Stallions chose to release Eli Walker, which might hint at where and how they expect to use Thomas.

Prototypical NFL Linebacker in the Modern Game

A.J. Thomas is a guy who entered college as a cornerback, and graduated a linebacker. Not the transition you would expect on the surface but when you see how it came about it makes much more sense. Thomas committed to Western Michigan as a 6’2 190 pound cornerback who was a four sport athlete in high school. Growing up in Detroit he stayed close to home attending WMU while majoring in Business Management. 

Originally he saw time on special teams before earning more reps on defense as he grew into his frame. He still made a significant impact with a scoop and score, as well as 8 tackles on the year. 

From year one to year two, Thomas gained five pounds of muscle, and went on to earn the starting nod in nine of his ten appearances on the season. He would have a solid year collecting 47 tackles, 3 for a loss, 1 interception, 3 pass break ups, and 1 fumble recovery. 

Moving to Safety from Cornerback

Coming into year three, he had gone from 195 pounds to 210 pounds, and made the full-time transition to playing safety. This ended up being his first season as a full-time starter as he would start all 13 games. Not only did he shine as an in the box player but he finished the year ranked as one of the top coverage safeties in the Mid-America Conference. He set career highs with 67 tackles, and 6 pass deflections. 

In a shortened 2020 season he would start all 6 games, playing four at safety and two at cornerback. This would be his final season as a full-time defensive back, and it paid off in showcasing what might be his best attribute. His ability to read and react in real-time which contributed to a career high 9 tackles for a loss, and 2 sacks. He also collected 46 total tackles, which had he played 13 games would have had him on pace for 99 tackles. He also logged his second career interception and touchdown, adding 2 pass break ups. 

Finally a Full-Fledged Linebacker 

Allowed an extra year of eligibility due to Covid 19, the team and Jackson agreed that he would make the move to linebacker. This came with the understanding he would add some more weight, but it would play into his new found strength…playing on the opposing side of the line of scrimmage. Playing in 11 games after his move to Linebacker he collected 53 tackles, 2 for a loss, 1 sack, and 5 pass break ups. 

Playing linebacker took his 4.6 speed, and took it from being a slight disadvantage as a cornerback, and made it an advantage as a linebacker. He could run with the most athletic tight ends in the conference, and match-up size wise at 6’2 220 pounds now. He had no trouble covering most running backs, and could still occasionally line up over a wideout when needed. 

At his pro-day he measured in at 6’2 214 pounds, with a 79 1/8 inch wingspan, putting up 13 reps in the bench press, part of what made him so good in coverage. He had the length, and strength to get his hands on a guy in press coverage and impose his will on them, disrupting timing and helping him play well in that area. His 4.6 40-yard dash looks a lot better lining up as a WILL or ILB than it does as a cornerback matching up with 4.4 or better wide receivers. 

His 1.58 10-yard split, 33 inch vertical, and 7.03 3-cone drill all put him in the upper echelon athletically as he was above average in his 40, vertical, and 3-cone drill for the average NFL linebacker according to NFLSavant.com. 

Beginning of his Professional Career 

After the draft he was signed as a UDFA by the Chicago Bears. He would go on to play in all three preseason games making a good impression along the way. Despite finishing his career in college as a linebacker, Chicago used him primarily as a free safety. He played in 131 total snaps, 87 came at free safety, 15 at cornerback or in the slot, and only 29 in the box. 

According to PFF.com he was graded at a 63.4 overall, 65.8 in run defense, and 61.5 in coverage. He logged 5 tackles, but was credited with 2 missed tackles. Something that ultimately hurt his chances of making the active roster. He was targeted 4 times allowing two receptions for 20 yards. 

In 2022 he was coached very closely by a very deep and experienced staff when it comes to their experience in the secondary. Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams has coached defensive backs steadily since 1998. James Rowe defensive backs coach had 8 years experience coaching defensive backs or coordinating defense. Andre Curtis was the safeties coach at the time, in his 14th season coaching defensive backs in the NFL. David Overstreet II was the assistant defensive backs coach, a former collegiate safety who once signed with the Bears as a UDFA, and joined the coaching ranks at the JUCO level in 2015. 

Coming into 2023 he actually played even better in the preseason even though his defensive backs coach James Rowe left for USF, and was replaced by Jon Hoke. Hoke has been coaching defensive backs since 1982, and once played defensive back for the Bears and Chiefs. Phillip Snow was hired as a Senior Defensive Analyst and has coached defensive backs since 1976. In short, Jackson received some of the best coaching he could have asked for during his first two seasons. 

In 2023, he again played in all three preseason games. His grade in every category rose, but none improved more than his tackling. He went from 2 missed tackles in 2022 to none in 2023. He logged 12 tackles, and 1 interception. He was targeted 3 times, and allowed 2 receptions for 35 yards. In 2023 he played a higher percentage of snaps in the box than he had in 2022. 

In 2022 he was lined up in the box 22.1% of the time, while in 2023 that rose to 26.1%. He played 23 snaps in the box, 52 at free safety, and 14 at cornerback. Jackson would stick with Chicago on their practice squad again. This time until late October. After that he was not signed but saw interest from the Patriots, and the Buccaneers. 

Signing with the Stallions

This left him available for the Stallions to pursue. The question I have at this point is where will he play? In my opinion he has an NFL future as a linebacker but not necessarily as a full-time defensive back, unless it’s primarily in the box. He’s the type of player who CAN line up at no less than every position in the secondary, and linebacker too..but does it make sense? There’s nothing wrong with being a queen on the chess board able to do it all, but in this case I think he’s possibly better off focusing on his duties as a knight and mastering one position. 

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Sam Just

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