These days, most people associate “Black Mamba” with NBA star Kobe Bryant, who assigned himself the nickname in 2007 out of respect for the snake’s ability to, in his words, “strike with 99-percent accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession.”
But if you ask Oregon star playmaker De’Anthony Thomas, who goes by the same nickname, that probably shouldn’t be the case.
“Yeah, I feel like everyone knows I was (Black Mamba) way before Kobe Bryant,” Thomas said. “He was just in the spotlight more than me.”
Thomas, who grew up in Los Angeles, said Snoop Dogg gave him the nickname long before Bryant picked it up.
“I grew up in the Snoop Youth Football League, growing up in Los Angeles,” Thomas said. “My first game against his team, we blew them out 52-0. That’s when he established the name the Black Mamba.”
If you ask draft analysts, the name is well-deserved. Thomas may be tiny — he checked in at 5 feet 9 and 174 pounds at the NFL Combine in February — but there’s no doubting his playmaking ability. In his three years at Oregon, Thomas scored 46 touchdowns in nearly every manner possible. Rushing, receiving, kick returns, punt returns. Thomas affected the game in every way.
“I think Thomas, because of his speed and play-making ability, in today’s NFL is more valuable than he would have been six, eight, 10 years ago,” NFL.com draft analyst Mike Mayock said at the combine. Still, Mayock said Thomas is likely a midround pick, because of his size, and added that whichever team drafts him needs to have a plan in place when it comes to how it wants to use him.
“(You would say) he’s going to be a kickoff guy, plus we have to get him 10 touches a game,” Mayock said. “(Then it’s) how do we find those touches, how do we manufacture eight to 10 touches a game so this kid gets a chance to make plays for us like he did at Oregon? I think that’s some real value to him.”
For Thomas, the answer to the question is easy. Just use him the way Oregon coach Chip Kelly did in 2011 and 2012.
“Yes, I feel that’s the best way to use me as a player,” Thomas said. “And that’s just lining me up to make plays.”
During his career, he returned five kicks for touchdowns and also a punt for a touchdown. But on offense, Thomas played the “taser” position, which is a hybrid slot receiver, tight end and running-back position that Kelly installed in 2009.
“Pretty much, it’s getting one-on-one matchups with linebackers and stuff like that, just out there as a playmaker,” Thomas said.
Thomas blew up at the position as a freshman, rushing 55 times for 595 yards and seven touchdowns while adding 46 catches for 605 yards and nine touchdowns. He then posted another impressive season as a sophomore, rushing 92 times for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns and catching 45 passes for 445 yards and five touchdowns.
But after Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich took over at Oregon, Thomas’ numbers fell a bit as a junior. He still rushed 96 times for 594 yards and eight touchdowns but caught only 22 passes for 246 yards and one touchdown. He did miss three games because of an ankle injury, however.
“It was a lot different — it was a different vibe,” said Thomas, who ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the combine. “Coach Helfrich is a laid-back guy, but he was also a great coach. I feel like when Chip was there, he (had) more enthusiasm.”
Thomas may find that several teams desire his all-around skills. One may be the Chiefs and coach Andy Reid, who selected another pint-sized playmaker from Los Angeles in DeSean Jackson in 2008.
“Me and DeSean, he’s from Long Beach, I’m from south central Los Angeles,” Thomas said. “We grew up in the same area but I feel like we’re two different styles of people. I learned a lot from him, just seeing him go from Cal to the Eagles.”
Thomas said he and Jackson, while equally explosive, are different types of players.
“He’s a receiver and I’m a receiver, but I’m a different style,” Thomas said. “I can get in there at running back and stuff like that. Also, I can catch balls and stuff, and (I’m) also a great return specialist.”
If Thomas proves to be the same type of player in the NFL, maybe he can once and for all make his case as the original Black Mamba, though he holds no grudges toward Bryant.
“It was great to look up to him,” Thomas said. “One day we could do a commercial about it or something.”
Top five prospects for the Chiefs
Note: This list does not include players who project as full-time starters on offense or defense, such as Clemson’s Sammy Watkins or LSU’s Marqise Lee.
1. Dri Archer, 5-8, 173, Kent State
Has a 28.2 career average with four touchdowns on 51 kick returns. Is 22 years old. 8 7/8-inch hands. 4.26 40-yard dash. 20 bench reps. 38-inch vertical jump. 122-inch broad jump. 6.86 three-cone drill. 4.06 20-yard shuttle.
Is very small but an absolute blazer — boasts an elite 40-yard-dash time of 4.26. Doesn’t break tackles and durability is a concern, but is a great athlete with good vision who can break a big play at any moment.
2. De’Anthony Thomas, 5-9, 174, Oregon
Has a 25.8 career average with four touchdowns on 73 kick returns and a 17.1 career average with one touchdown on 16 punt returns. Is 21 years old. 8 1/8-inch hands. 4.5 40-yard dash. 8 bench reps. 32-inch vertical jump. 124-inch broad jump.
Faster than timed speed — can outrun the pack. Small build with small hands. Has the vision to take it the distance. Doesn’t run with power.
3. John Brown, 5-10, 179, Pittsburg State
Has a 26.9 career average with three touchdowns on 52 kick returns and a 13.6 career average with three touchdowns on 78 punt returns. Is 24 years old. 30 1/2-inch hands. 4.34 40-yard dash. 36 1/2-inch vertical jump. 119-inch broad jump. 6.91 three-cone drill. 4.12 20-yard shuttle. 11.4 60-yard shuttle.
Legit speed and playmaking ability. Good-but-small hands. Size will be a concern. Is old for a rookie.
4. Albert Wilson, 5-9, 202, Georgia State
Has a 24.6 career average with two touchdowns on kick returns and a 9.2 career average with two touchdowns on 41 punt returns. Is 21 years old. 9 1/8-inch hands. 4.43 40-yard dash. 10 bench reps. 37 1/2-inch vertical jump. 123-inch broad jump. 7.00 three-cone drill. 4.21 20-yard shuttle.
Has good vision and is built to take punishment. Good speed. Has another gear, fights for extra yardage.
5. George Atkinson III, 6-1, 218, Notre Dame
Has a 24.3 career average with two touchdowns on 88 kick returns. Is 21 years old. 9 3/8-inch hands. 4.48 40-yard dash. 19 bench reps. 38-inch vertical jump. 121-inch broad jump. 7.07 three-cone drill. 4.46 20-yard shuttle. 11.5 60-yard shuttle.
Is very fast and can shift it into another gear once he gets out in the open. Needs to improve his vision, but has the physical tools to be a good NFL returner. Father is former Oakland great George Atkinson.
*All rankings and evaluations are gathered from several sources, including NFL.com, ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and NFL Draft Nasty Manual, in addition to the author’s own film evaluation. Measurements and testing results are from the combine and pro days, according to the resources listed above.