Chip Kelly gave into the NFL urges this year, choosing to leave the Oregon program for the Philadelphia eagles. His Eagles are the NFL’s biggest “wildcard” because of the fact that his team management and philosophies are foreign and unique to the professional model. While other coaching factors make him an intriguing new head coach in 2013, all eyes will be on his ability to transfer his deadly, spread run option offense to the NFL game.
After pumping out three drafted running backs in his days with the Oregon Program (Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James, and Kenjon Barner), Kelly’s still-in-college runner De’Anthony Thomas has the elite speed and zone-read upside that will excite NFL teams. But after a two-year run that ranks as one of the best starts to a running back’s collegiate career, how will NFL teams view De’Anthony Thomas come draft day?
A star in the making since middle school when Snoop Dogg dubbed him the “Black Mamba”, Thomas landed at Oregon as one of the top rated running back recruits in the country. Possessing elite track speed, Thomas was set to lead both the football and track team to national success. As a freshman, he ran the 100 and 200 meters on track team while also winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors, racking up 2235 all-purpose yards and 18 total touchdowns. This year, he racked up 2000+ plus all-purpose yards, controlling the field position for the offense by racking up a 7.6 yards per carry and breaking multiple 30+ kickoff returns. For the track team, he aided in the 4 x 100 team while also posting a 10.31 100 meters and a 21.71 200 meters, both among the country’s best.
The 5’9, 200 pound running back has instant NFL ability as a kick returner, and at the very least he’ll be a Top 100 pick because of that skill set. In a combination of his likely high 4.2 speed, acceleration to get his top speed in just 3 steps, and compact, balanced lateral cuts, Thomas is a tremendously difficult tackle in the return game.
As a runner, Thomas is a slight runner, staying a bit upright at times but also focusing on keeping himself controlled and narrows through holes, exploiting inside zone reads at the highest level. With patient feet and composure running on the inside, his controlled acceleration allows him to time his bursts upfield and allow for downfield holes to develop. His elite jump cut and lateral body control consistently allows him to gain that initial 3-4 yards in both inside and outside zone running plays with just adequate blocking up front.
As maybe expected based on his frame, Thomas seems to lack the ideal core strength to work through interior tacklers at an NFL level. He doesn’t have ample shoulder and upper body strength to gain any leverage when he meets tacklers, and lacks the interior strength to adjust his body through tacklers to gain extra yards. Despite his lack of NFL bulk and power as a runner, he isn’t unwilling to transition and cut back inside, despite his lack of success against an aggressive and talented defense.
He seems to rely on his lower half too often for separation, not adjusting his upper half to set up break-tackle abilities, and needs to learn to be more deliberate with his shoulders to both allow for potential glancing tackles as well as allow for equally gifted lateral quickness defenders another concern when breaking down as tacklers.
When working on the inside, he’s effective (though not perfect) in reacting to his second and third level defender keys. Along with his willingness to cut back inside despite his build, and Thomas’s dominance as a consistent 4-5 yard pickup inside zone runner has a strong chance to continue in the NFL, especially if he’s with a team that’s willing to run it 12-15 times a game with Thomas and another running back. As for his outside zone, he doesn’t seem as comfortable in making his decision to cut back towards the center or stay outside, and too often instantly tries to win with speed on the edge. I expect him to make improvements in that area this year, but it’s a concern for a primarily zone runner at this point. I also expect him to clean up some of his ball issue concerns, which flashed as a problem in 2012.
Thomas possesses rare acceleration, lateral quickness and control, and speed that reminds of almost a combination of Reggie Bush and Tavon Austin. His elusiveness from the backfield, ability to stay narrow through holes, patient feet on the inside, and return dominance remind of Bush’s days at USC. His open field lateral cuts, 2-3 step top-speed acceleration, and overall build are similar to the 2013 Top 10 draft pick Austin.
NFL teams may aim to utilize him the way the Saints envisioned using Reggie Bush early in his career, except with more zone read concepts from the shotgun. Giving Thomas the ability to work as a receiver, returner, flare-route runner, and zone read option is both a tremendous amount of ways to utilize his elite ability as well as a manageable task based on what Chip Kelly and the Oregon staff seem to expect of him this year.
Thomas’s high 4.2 speed and elite return ability alone likely put him in the Top 100 of the 2014 NFL Draft, if he chooses to declare. His inside zone elite ability, controlled acceleration, and his comfort-ability in zone read situations that the NFL is moving towards is icing on the cake that may vault him all the way up to 1st round consideration. While I didn’t agree with Tavon Austin going Top 10 (I think an extremely week draft had something to do with it), the NFL seems to be dead-set on adding unique, speedy playmakers and athletic quarterbacks to run the new generation of NFL offenses.
Multiple NFL teams with openings wanted Chip Kelly to be their next head coach. Part of that was thanks to the way he manages a team, and the other part was his explosive offense and how it could be adapted to the NFL. While those and every other NFL team won’t get the direct coaching of Chip Kelly, they likely will be quietly jostling to get the best running back/chess piece he’s ever coached in De’Anthony Thomas.