In 2009, the San Diego Chargers earned the No. 2 seed in the AFC Playoffs. Thanks in part to a porous run defense, though, they were one-and-done on their home turf, where the New York Jets gained 169 yards on 39 carries on their way to a three-point win.
Part of the run defense woes were due to long-time Pro Bowl run-stuffer Jamal Williams missing all but the first game of the year. Meanwhile, the only two other defensive linemen to grade positively against the ground attack were Antonio Garay and Andre Coleman–who combined for a mere 67 snaps that season (including the playoffs).
The Chargers hoped the long-term answer to this defensive flaw would be North Carolina Tarheel Cam Thomas.
With his 6-foot-4, 330-pound frame, Thomas proved difficult to move in the run game during his college career, despite never putting up grand numbers–which was no doubt affected by the Tarheels’ non-attacking defensive strategy. However, there’s no hiding the fact that Thomas’ college stats in 2008 (34 tackles including 3.5 for losses, one sack) were much more favorable than his numbers in 2009 (15 tackles including 2.5 for losses, no sacks) and scouts lobbed pre-draft complaints about his conditioning/motivation, and his non-existent pass rushing resumé.
Despite a solid Senior Bowl performance (which included a sack) that led Mike Mayock to suggest Thomas wouldn’t make it past the second round, the prototypical nose tackle wound up falling to the fifth; a fall likely related to his one-sack tally in the last two years of his college career. Still, the fact that the Chargers traded up to get him suggests they weren’t prepared to let him drop any further. With former Chicago Bear Antonio Garay viewed as a temporary replacement, what with him coming off the Jets practice squad after recovering from a nasty leg injury suffered two years prior, the Chargers hoped Thomas could be Williams’ eventual successor. They released Williams before the 2010 season began.
Thomas started his rookie year in a rotation with Garay and Ogemdi Nwagbuo at NT, and did not appear until Week 5’s matchup with the division rival Raiders in Oakland. Despite being labeled as more of a space-eater than actual tackler, he earned a +1.9 run defense grade in just eight running plays, while recording three tackles and a stop–not to mention preventing Michael Bush from reaching the first down marker on a 2nd-and-3. Despite this solid performance, Thomas saw only 66 more snaps that season, perhaps a mistake considering Nwagbou, who started the year with +1.3 and +1.1 overall showings, struggled to make an impact later in the season. Some of this was due to Garay’s breakout year (+27.9), one, no doubt, that neither the Chargers nor anyone else saw coming.
Overall, Thomas finished the year with a +0.6 run defense grade, but his performance as a pass rusher further validated scouts’ concerns about his ability to generate pressure. On 38 rushes, he could only come away with two sacks, a pressure, and a -2.6 rating, with both sacks coming courtesy of Antwan Barnes pressuring the QB into his grasp.
A Difference Maker in Year Two
In 2011, Thomas gained a clear grip on the backup nose tackle spot before seeing his role expand as the season continued. After a respectable outing in a losing effort in New England, Thomas really shone in a Week 3 game at home against the division rival Chiefs, beating Casey Wiegmann (our 14th overall rated center last year) on numerous occasions. Thomas helped give Wiegmann his worst performance of the year by beating him for two stops in the run game and a hit on the quarterback. What really showed Thomas’ dominance were two plays that won’t show in his stats: carrying Weigmann up the line of scrimmage on a 2-yard run to close the lane with 3:33 left in the third quarter (resulting in Thomas Jones running into the lineman’s back and allowing Jacque Cesaire and Travis LaBoy to make the stop), and forcing Weigmann to commit a holding penalty on another rush with 55 seconds left in that same quarter.
With Nwagbuo cut early in the season and defensive end Luis Castillo going down with an injury in Week 1, a series of good early-season showings paved Thomas’ way into a variety of formations. In some four-man fronts he would line up at DRT or DLT, while sometimes playing right or left end in two- or three-linemen alignments. He found some success in these shifts, especially in a Week 16 blowout loss in Detroit where, as a defensive end on a three-man line and a defensive tackle on four-man line (in addition to his base NT backup role), he was able to earn himself a season-best +1.9 run defense grade, which included making a stop for a loss on a 2nd-and-goal run from his own 5-yard line. He even dropped into coverage once in that game.
Thomas would finish the year with a solid +5.8 overall grade, actually outplaying incumbent Garay in run defense (+6.2 to Garay’s +1.5) with 10 running stops on 166 plays. He also occupied double teams and clogged running lanes on a number of occasions without making the tackle himself. Along the way, he began to shed the ‘no threat to the QB’ label, registering four sacks, three QB hits (including hits on Tom Brady and Carson Palmer that don’t show up on the stat sheet because of unrelated penalties) and 13 pressures.
Though he does need to work on limiting penalties himself (he was flagged five times last year), new defensive coordinator John Pagano would be wise to give Thomas more than 395 snaps and continue to exploit his versatility.