Former Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas cleared a significant hurdle in his attempt to play in the NFL this past weekend, when he earned a contract from the New Orleans Saints with his play in the team’s rookie minicamp Friday through Sunday.
The next steps for Thomas: Deciding on a position, either cornerback or wide receiver, and learning both the team’s scheme and the position itself. One aspect of the jump that is highly encouraging for Thomas is that there’s a history of players making the same transition.
In 2016, the Ravens drafted Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds in the sixth round and converted him to wide receiver. After a season on the practice squad, he was promoted to the active roster for the final game of the season. Two other fairly recent college quarterbacks to earn jobs at other positions in the NFL are Denard Robinson and Julian Edelman. The former starred at Michigan and has played four fairly non-descript seasons with Jacksonville at running back, and the latter has 356 receptions in the past four seasons with the Patriots after playing quarterback at Kent State.
Thomas is in position to receive helpful coaching. There are two members of the Saints coaching staff who could be particularly useful in Thomas’ development, depending on where he ends up.
Senior defensive assistant Peter Giunta has 26 years as an NFL assistant coach and has had a track record of developing defensive backs. Moreover, he coached at the high school and college level prior to that, suggesting that he has a background in teaching the game and its positions to players relatively new to it. (The secondary coach is former Pro Bowler Aaron Glenn, who is in his fourth year of coaching.)
Should he end up on the offensive side of the ball, the Saints’ assistant wide receivers coach is a name longtime Tech fans should recognize. Ronald Curry was a star quarterback at North Carolina 1998-2001 and then played seven seasons in the NFL as a wide receiver. The fact that Curry successfully made the same transition as the one Thomas is trying to make can only be a positive for him. Moreover, like Giunta, Curry coached at the high school level, so teaching the basics shouldn’t be a problem.
The primary receivers coach also has a connection to Thomas, incidentally. Curtis Johnson was the Tulane coach 2012-15. Thomas led the Yellow Jackets to wins over the Green Wave in 2014 and 2015. Johnson has also coached at all three levels – high school, college and NFL and perhaps most notably was the Miami Hurricanes’ wide receivers coach 1996-2005, where he developed Andre Johnson, Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne, among others.
What Thomas brings are both tangible assets – speed, quickness and coordination, most prominently – and intangible qualities – dedication, football smarts, fearlessness – to give himself a shot. He’ll need patience, both from himself and the team, and ideally a plan from the team to develop him over more than just a few months.
He is also on a team that is willing to keep undrafted free agents, which also is an indication of the value that it places in finding and developing them. The team had four undrafted rookies on its initial 53-man roster in 2016 and four in 2015.
He’ll have to distinguish himself – the roster as of Monday lists seven cornerbacks, another six defensive backs and 11 wide receivers. Being able to contribute on special teams as a returner would obviously increase his value.
As an undrafted free agent, he likely won’t be high on the priority list for coaching time and practice repetitions. The Saints and coach Sean Payton have had a 7-9 record four of the past five seasons. Bringing along a player who may not be able to help them until 2018 won’t be their first objective. Thomas will have to learn quickly and take advantage of opportunities that will probably be limited.
A possible scenario would be one similar to Reynolds’, where the Saints stash him on the practice squad for a season, even two, before he’s ready for the NFL. But it’s also possible that the Saints will decide that the investment in the potential return is too great, or that his best simply isn’t good enough to overcome his size and lack of experience. Injuries could derail him.
But this much would seem certain. The Saints can expect his best.
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