When Oregon star De’Anthony Thomas ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in February, eyebrows went up among draft analysts, team executives and others across the league.
But no one was more surprised than Thomas himself. Thomas, a 5-foot-9, 174-pound running back-receiver hybrid who maintains he was never caught from behind in college, fully expected to run a 4.3 in front of everyone to validate his tape.
Instead, he posted a time he says is more reminiscent of what he was running in high school.
“I ran a 4.5 in the ninth grade,” Thomas said.
So, Thomas set out to improve his time at Oregon's pro day, which was held roughly two weeks later. But after a three-year college career in which he scored 46 touchdowns, it seems one man he didn't have to impress further was Trey Koziol, the Chiefs' West Coast scout.
“You have to look at what you see on tape, too,” Koziol said. “The one thing that the Pac-12 does have is a lot of speed (and) you don't see this kid being caught from behind, you see him pulling away from the pack.
“The speed on the tape doesn't lie.”
Which is a significant reason the receiver-needy Chiefs, who actively search for unique traits when they are out on the road scouting — whether it be long arms, football instincts, unusual strength, etc. — to pull the trigger on Thomas in the fourth round of the NFL Draft on Saturday.
But it's not just Thomas' speed that makes him special, Koziol said. Thomas' acceleration — the ability to get to top speed quickly ― is also top-notch.
“The ability to start and stop and separate, that's where he really makes his bones,” Koziol said. “He can get from Point A to Point B faster than most guys on the field.”
After spending his first two years at Oregon playing a hybrid running back, slot receiver and tight end position designed to get him the ball in space, Thomas primarily played running back last season and averaged more than 6 yards a carry (594 yards in 96 attempts), despite his lack of size.
In more than a few ways — including his 40-yard dash time and lack of height and bulk — he is similar to Carolina's Kenjon Barner and San Francisco's LaMichael James, two other speedy, highly-productive Oregon running backs who entered the draft in recent years.
Both have struggled to make an impact with their respective teams, but Chiefs general manager John Dorsey is confident that coach Andy Reid will know how to get the most out of Thomas' skills.
“You have a coach like Andy Reid who is really good with those types of players,” Dorsey said. “In the kind of offense that Andy runs, he's going to create situational match ups for this type of player.”
In fact, Reid has already displayed how he can use a player with Thomas' talent. Diminutive slot receiver Dexter McCluster (5-8, 170) had a career year in his first season under Reid last season, notching career highs in catches (53), yards (511) and receiving touchdowns (two) before signing with Tennessee as a free agent in March.
“You know, I think he offers a lot of the same traits in terms of being both a very good receiver out of the backfield and as a runner,” Koziol said of Thomas. “I think you see similar traits in the open field, guys who can make people miss, guys who are a threat to take it to the house.”
Don't forget about the return game, either. While McCluster returned two punts for touchdowns last season and made the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career, Thomas might be equally dynamic. He’s returned four kicks and one punt for touchdowns in his career.
“He was the most explosive guy in my area,” Koziol said of Thomas. “When you look at being Oregon's all-time career leader in kick-return yardage, and then their all-time leader in punt-return average, averaging over 17 yards a punt return, I think those numbers speak for themselves against top competition.”
Koziol's area includes the Pac-12, which featured two dynamic return threats in Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks, who went No. 20 overall to the Saints, and USC receiver Marqise Lee, who went No. 39 overall to the Jaguars.
Chris Ballard, the Chiefs’ director of player personnel, said the club is excited about seeing what the team's respected special-teams coach, Dave Toub, can do with a man of Thomas' talents. In addition to McCluster's two punt-return touchdowns last season, they also had two kick-return touchdowns.
“Let's not underestimate what (Toub has) been able to do in his career with unique talents at returner,” Ballard said. “He did it in Chicago. I was with him. I watched him take four guys and all were very good players, then he came in here and did what he did with Dexter McCluster and our kickoff returners.”
Dorsey said Thomas will have an opportunity to compete for playing time there and at slot receiver, where he will face competition from former CFL player Weston Dressler.
Thomas and Dressler, who is 5 feet 8 and 179 pounds, are roughly the same size. But while Dressler is no slouch in the speed department, it's safe to say the difference between their “field speed” is the reason Thomas was taken in the fourth round while Dressler went undrafted in 2008.
Indeed, Thomas' reputation in that department precedes him, which is why he took that “slow” 40 time at the combine so seriously and why he immediately set out toward rectifying it at his pro day, which he promptly did by blazing a 4.3 40-yard dash and thus, solidifying the exact reason why NFL teams like the Chiefs were so interested in him.
“I redeemed myself going back to that pro day and running a 4.3,” Thomas said. “It was a big relief.”