De’Anthony Thomas certainly does not have a problem getting his story straight.
All season long, Thomas — a fourth-round pick of the Chiefs last May — had a go-to refrain he’d use for all sorts of questions.
Whether it was about the way he was being used, for example, or his personal expectations for the season, no matter what you asked Thomas, there was a pretty good chance you’d hear him say some version of the same thing — I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team.
The 22-year-old running back said it enough that you couldn’t help but believe it, and at the annual 101 awards on Saturday, he officially received confirmation that he certainly accomplished that goal, as he was named the winner of the Mack Lee Hill Award as the Chiefs’ rookie of the year.
“It means a lot,” said Thomas, who received the honor at the 101 Banquet at the Westin Crown Center Hotel. “I feel like me being a fourth-round draft pick, that was my motivation. I never thought I’d be a fourth-round draft pick, but I was … and I have to deal with it.”
Thomas, who declared for last year’s draft after only three seasons at Oregon, only checks in at 5 feet 9 and 174 pounds, which could have hurt his draft stock. However, he showed flashes of brilliance this season in a hybrid running back-receiver role similar to the position he played in college, where he scored 46 touchdowns in only three campaigns.
As a rookie, Thomas carried the ball 14 times for 113 yards and a touchdown, caught 23 passes for 156 yards, returned 34 punts for an average of 11.9 yards and a touchdown and returned 14 kicks for an average of 30.5 yards.
However, he insists there’s still more work to be done. Though he was listed as a running back and used primarily in Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s zone-read “packaged” concepts, he continually worked with special projects coach Brad Childress throughout the season in an effort to become more comfortable as a slot receiver, a position Thomas — who has tweeted out several pictures of his beach workouts from his native Los Angeles this offseason — clearly believes he can play.
“Yes, I have the ability to run the whole (route) tree,” Thomas said, when asked if he’s comfortable with every route. “That’s what I’ve been working on this offseason. I’m running all those routes in the sand. And once the time comes to come on the grass, I feel like it’s going to be a lot easier because I’ve prepared myself.”
If Thomas is fortunate, he’ll have a 2015 season as big as teammate Justin Houston’s 2014 campaign. The 26-year-old Houston broke Derrick Thomas’ single-season franchise record for sacks with 22, which fittingly netted him the Derrick Thomas Award as team MVP on Saturday.
Houston, who was not in attendance for the banquet due to a family conflict, is set to become an unrestricted free agent when the new league year begins on March 10. In the absence of a new contract, the Chiefs are expected to retain Houston’s services for $13 million in 2015 by designating a franchise player.
However, the deadline to do name franchise designations is 3 p.m. Monday, and the Chiefs — who are roughly $6.5 million under the cap — would need to slice another $6.5 million in salary by March 10 to accommodate the deal, since all teams have to be under the cap by the start of the new league year.
Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt, who was present at the 101 banquet, deferred a question about the possibility of franchising Houston to his football men, general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid, but is appreciative of Houston’s contributions to the franchise.
“At the end of the day, those decisions obviously belong to John and Andy,” Hunt said. “But I’ll say as an organization that we really appreciate Justin and everything that he brings to this football team. The year he had on the field speaks for itself, but he’s also developed into a leader. He’s the type of player that we’d like to have with the Chiefs for the balance of his career.”
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who was also at the banquet to receive the NFC coach of the year award, understands why. He had to gameplan against Houston in the Cardinals 17-14 win over the Chiefs on Dec. 7.
“He creates so many mismatches, because they do such a good job of putting him over at guard, putting him outside,”Arians said. “We tried to keep them in (their) base (defense) as much as we could so we knew where he was and then tried to chip him all the time. We had an extra guy assigned to him all the time.”
For the record, Arians said there are only three or four defensive players in the league that command — his word, by the way — that kind of treatment due to the repercussions of single-blocking him.
“(If you don’t do it), it’s going to be a sack,” Arians said. “Or the quarterback is going to be hit real hard.”
Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell, who was also in town to receive his co-AFC offensive player of the year award, said Houston compares favorable with Texans star J.J. Watt, who was named AFC defensive player of the year.
“He’s a problem,” Bell said of Houston. “J.J. Watt got a lot of pub this year, but Houston is definitely in that same category with him. He wrecks things. Even when he doesn’t make the play, he messes it up and allows someone else to make the play. He was definitely hard to gameplan for.”
Houston, however, wasn’t the only Chief that the attendees had nice words for. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, who won AFC defensive player of the year, was complimentary of Thomas, a player the Seahawks had to gameplan for in their 24-20 loss to the Chiefs on Nov. 16.
“He had a fantastic year,” Sherman said of Thomas, a fellow L.A. native. “The Chiefs found different ways to get him involved and get him the ball. He did some spectacular things on special team … it’s great to see the kid come into his own and develop into a big-time player in this league.”
But if you ask Thomas, there’s still far more out there for him to achieve. It will help that he’ll actually be able to attend organized team activities this spring — he missed those last year due to an NCAA rule — as he seeks to mold himself into a receiver like Pittsburgh’s dynamic Antonio Brown, who caught 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns and shared the AFC offensive player of the year award with Bell.
“I’m very impressed with Antonio Brown,” said Thomas, who is one inch shorter than Brown and 12 pounds lighter. “He’s a great player and I feel like I have the same ability to make the same plays like him and help the team and be that (kind of impact) player.”
Brown, for his part, likes Thomas, and broke into a smile when told of Thomas’ comment.
“I think he’s explosive,” Brown said. “He’s got a lot of potential.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Hunt, who agrees that Thomas — who presumably beat out sixth-round rookie Zach Fulton, who started all 16 games at guard this year, for the award — hasn’t yet reached his ceiling.
“I think he’s very deserving,” Hunt said. “The word I’d use to describe him is ’electric.’ Every time he touched the ball, whether it was on a kick return or it was part of the offense, everybody in the stadium held their breath because he had the ability on every play to take it the distance, and those types of guys are very special.
“I look for him to really build on what he did this year as he becomes more comfortable with the offense. I think both Andy and Alex Smith will incorporate him more as he becomes more comfortable with the offense. He’s got a very bright future.”
Hunt doesn’t have to worry about the award getting to Thomas’ head, either. Anytime he needs motivation to do whatever he can to help the team — there’s that phrase again — all he needs to do is look back at the 2014 NFL Draft, when he fell to the fourth round, something he never expected.
“It still hurts me in my soul,” Thomas said. “But I have to deal with it and I’m still working hard to be the best.”
101 awards banquet notebook
▪ There’s plenty of talk that the NFL is a passing league, a rightfully so. But Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, who rushed 290 times for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns this season, hopes people took notice of the damage big backs like himself, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and New England’s LeGarrette Blount inflicted on defenses this season.
“Myself and other backs around the league are trying to bring the running back position back,” said Bell, who is listed at 6 feet 1 and 244 pounds. “I mean, you look at the Super Bowl and you’ve got two teams that got there running the ball with Marshawn Lynch and LeGarrette Blount. You’ve got to be able to run the ball and stop the run to win in the playoffs.”
▪ Chiefs safety Ron Parker was cut by Seattle prior to the 2013 season, but Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman said he’s still a member of the Legion of Boom, Seattle’s vaunted collection of defensive backs.
“One-hundred percent,” Sherman said. “Ron Parker played some great football last year, and we were proud to see what he was doing. He played a multitude of positions and showed his versatility. We’ll always be proud to call Ron Parker a member of the Legion of Boom.”