There is a reason that Matthew Thomas, the rookie inside linebacker out of Florida State, did not get drafted by a team this past spring, and it’s not just because of some of the off-field concerns teams might have had about him, including the fact that he missed the 2016 season due to academic ineligibility.
While he is an above average athlete, and has gotten the chance to show off his impressive speed a few times already this preseason—not limited to nearly running down a wide receiver from behind on a breakaway 80-yard touchdown catch-and-run—the knock on him has long been that he doesn’t know what to do with all that athleticism, or how to control it.
That is at least until now, because he has put together a couple of solid games’ worth of tape now, and looked good in training camp as well. Beat writers reported back in the spring that the coaching staff was taking a long look at him during OTAs and minicamp.
When Mike Tomlin was asked yesterday if Thomas had shown improvement since he arrived here, he said that he did, but so did all the rookies who are still here. “If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about him because we would have fired him by now”.
That’s pretty much how Tomlin compliments a rookie during training camp, by the way.
I posed the question yesterday of how far the rookie can advance during his first season in the league, already working under the assumption that he is going to be on the 53-man roster. Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review did the same, arguing that “there are snaps to be won at the position”.
At the moment, the Steelers only have one starting inside linebacker that they’re truly comfortable in in Vince Williams, whom they just signed to a three-year extension that runs through 2021, but even he is not an every-down player.
While they seem to be settling in on Jon Bostic as the starter opposite Williams over Tyler Matakevich, it is perhaps wise not the entirely rule out the possibility that Thomas could earn some type of role, even in a limited capacity, during play this season.
Neither Williams nor Bostic—nor Matakevich, for that matter—have the athleticism or skill to excel in the passing game, though Williams can sure blitz. Thomas has the athleticism to cover, and the team has also taken a long look at him as a rusher, even working him extensively off the edge late in the preseason opener.
It’s probably best to pump the brakes on the hype train for now, at least until we get through the preseason, but Thomas has been encouraging so far up to this point in his career and looks to be in good position to make the team. That’s step one; the same step Williams took as a sixth-round rookie in 2013 out of Florida State.