A black mamba has electric moves, dazzling speed, dizzying agility and a lethal bite. The Oregon Ducks had a black mamba of their own in running back De’Anthony Thomas. Now the NFL will soon have its own black mamba after Thomas is drafted onto an NFL team in May.
Thomas, deemed “black mamba” as a teenager by Snoop Dog, was the crown jewel of Oregon’s spread offense the past three seasons. If a team could shut down weapons such as LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner or Marcus Mariota, they would still have to deal with Thomas lining up all over the field and equipped with home run speed.
On the college level Thomas was unmatched when it came to breakaway speed. He was the one player in the country who always had the turbo button held down as soon as the ball snapped. It didn’t matter if he was in the backfield, lined up in the slot or returning kicks. The punt return touchdown against Colorado and 91-yard rush in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin come to mind to demonstrate the dynamics Thomas brought to the field.
After declaring for the NFL Draft following Oregon’s 2013 Alamo Bowl win speculation began as to where Thomas would fit in in the NFL. On one hand the argument is that he’s to small and that NFL defenses have the speed and size to make him null and void. On the other hand is that he brings so much dynamite that as long as he can touch the ball, he has the potential for large gains of yards and touchdowns.
The questions grew greater after an average combine performance by Thomas in February. He was pegged by many to post the fastest 40-yard dash time, but was clocked in at a “stone footed” 4.50. At Oregon’s Pro Day he managed to improve his time to a 4.34, which is in line with what many people predicted he would be measured at.
One thing is for certain, and that is that Thomas won’t be a starting halfback at the NFL level, at least not initially. The role of scat back is becoming increasingly important though as NFL teams move away from traditional featured backs. One of the poster boys for NFL scat backs is Darren Sproles, now of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Sproles has made a name for himself since coming into the league with the San Diego Chargers in 2005 as LaDainian Tomlison’s backup. He managed to become a threat in the return game, passing game and rushing game helping pave way to successful tenures with San Diego and New Orleans. Sproles lacks Thomas’s height, but could be on the high end of an NFL comparable for Thomas.
A lot of Thomas’s question marks will be addressed by where he is drafted in the draft. If a reunion between Thomas and former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly could materialize then Thomas would be put to good use and fulfill his potential. Philadelphia seems almost a too good of fit for Thomas. He’d be reunited with Kelly and good friend DeSean Jackson. However with Philadelphia’s acquisition of the aforementioned Darren Sproles it seems unlikely they’ll draft the former Duck.
On the flip side if Thomas is drafted by a team who doesn’t use him correctly he could struggle to find a place in the league. Still he’ll find a niche as a successful return man no matter who drafts him. Former Oregon teammate LaMichael James has fallen victim to this by being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers organization. James hasn’t found his footing after two years in the league, but has proven to be a reliable return man. A team that drafts Thomas with plans of sitting him or keeping him in only one position on the depth chart will make it hard for Thomas to have an impact at the NFL level.
At the very least if Thomas strikes out as a scat back and special teams specialist at the NFL level he has enough skill to switch sides of the field to play cornerback if need be. He came out of high school playing as a defensive back, and he does posses the hands and speed to match up with receives as a nickel or dime back if needed.
If the right opportunity presents itself Thomas could carve out a nice career as an NFL player. He could even become an NFL fantasy football stud if he could maintain his high touchdown to touches ratio from college. His lack of size and inside running game will mean that he’ll have to find his success doing whatever his team tasks him with, which is the way Thomas played at Oregon.