Not so long ago, the scouting combine was a far from a big deal and much less interesting. There wasn’t live coverage of the drills, fans couldn’t pack a set of bleachers to watch prospects perform their bench press, but most importantly, analytics weren’t an integral part of the evaluation process. The combine was essentially just a medical check and a chance for teams to formally meet and interview players they were considering drafting. But in this day and age, players like Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas can benefit a great deal from looking quick and powerful in compression underwear.
Thomas finished his junior year and college career at Stanford on a high note after obliterating North Carolina’s offense in the Sun Bowl, where he was the named the game’s MVP, and found himself on the radar of NFL teams. Thomas declared for the draft a few days later, and the hype was peaking for the 21-year-old. But along with that hype came concerns heading into the Combine. The two I personally had were regarding his official size, and his overall flexibility and agility. Those are no longer legitimate concerns:
Thomas was listed on Stanford’s roster as this exact height and weight combo - 6'3", 273 pounds, (check) and his 3 cone time of 6.95 (check) puts him in a comfortable range when it comes to projecting success as an edge rusher, which is best explained by Bleacher Report’s Justis Mosqueda. It was obvious from Thomas’s game film that he was packed with lower body power and explosion, as seen from his impressive vertical and broad jump, but the official confirmation in adequate size, length and agility make him a total package for an edge who you can slide inside. But the Combine in itself is a confirmation of what you saw on tape, so let’s see how he fared in pads.
What he does well
Explosion is the name of Thomas’s game. He’s so consistent with getting his hands above his eyes while staying low, and he rarely allows guards enough time to create space and react appropriately. Anytime a one-on-one presented itself for Thomas, there was always a good chance of it turning out like this:
The issue of blocking him alone in the interior is that you can’t rush your set and reach because you’ll be off balanced and Thomas will bend you in half. But he brings so much natural force that you can’t be passive and try to catch him either, because he’ll bury you then too:
Plays like these are those combine numbers in action. Thomas’ bull rush is extremely effective, but his swim move isn’t shabby either:
One-on-one, mismatch, exploit and attack. The guard actually does a decent job here initially, getting low and trying to drive Thomas to the side as he leaves his chest exposed, but Thomas is too balanced and quick of an athlete and drives through and finish the play. It’s not an Aaron Donald swim, but it’s a good base to start at.
Not all of his game is predicated on physical prowess, Thomas does a great job of putting himself where the ball is and his play recognition is very advanced. Here he is on the backside of a quarterback draw on third down, and instead of trying to penetrate downhill and run into the combo block, he keeps his head up, twists around the formation and meets the quarterback in the hole:
I’ve said it often and I’ll say it again, shorter arms doesn’t mean you can’t set an edge. Case and point:
Thomas showcases as the force player on this inside handoff why one arm is longer than two, and forces the running back to bounce inside to a group of tacklers.
Finally, how can he win on the edge? Right now, it’s mainly just converting speed to power:
This is that “hands above eyes” trait you want to see from an edge rusher. Thomas translates that get-off speed from his first few steps into power through the leverage he persists, while keeping his hands high as they dictate the tackles chest, all equating to a quality quarterback hurry.
What he needs to improve
Thomas was overwhelmingly used as an interior 1 gap penetrator in Stanford’s defense, which typically utilized an odd front. They used him as a three down player there on both passing and running downs, and since he was clearly their most disruptive player, opposing offensive lines made sure to combo block him on downhill runs and passing plays that involved a deep drop or a full field read from the quarterback. And his lack of size for a true defensive tackle was exposed on most of those combo blocks.
This happened a lot during the 2016 season and it will continue to happen in the NFL if he’s tasked as an A or B gap defender on first and second down. There isn’t anything Thomas can do to erase this inevitability at only 273 pounds; he’s just too small to play in the interior full time, and can’t be asked to anchor against a double team. And with all the athleticism that he gives you, there’s no reason why he should.
This is a really specific negative, because he can be an effective run defender in the interior against stretches and zone runs because his short area quickness allows him to beat angle and reach blocks and attack gaps left by pulling blockers. But against teams that primarily run downhill gap style runs, he’s ideally suited as a strong side defensive end as a 6T, matching up right across from the inline tight end, and setting a physical edge in base/heavy fronts.
On the other end of the equation, Thomas’ experience as a defensive tackle comes with his relative aforementioned inexperience as a true edge rusher. Besides his swim move, he doesn’t have a secondary move to offer on the outside. Converting speed to power against tackles as a wide 9 rusher shouldn’t be an issue based on how he tested, but he still needs to develop there more if his future coaches see him as an outside player only.
Making his case for the Bengals
It should go without question that if Thomas is still on the board when the Bengals are on the clock at pick nine, his name should be on the card. The only other player that can make the impact he can on the defensive line will go first overall to the Cleveland Browns, and there’s no other pick besides Myles Garrett himself that can combine value and need like Thomas can. Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther confirmed what all of us we’re hoping for, which is that the Bengals are looking for pass rushers who don’t exclusively fit the mold of their traditional 4-3 ends. But Thomas’ measurements should seem comforting to them either way, considering they’ve had 6-foot-2, 270 pound Wallace Gilberry do exactly what Thomas is perfect for: kicking inside on passing downs.
Thomas would be the Bengals’ much needed third pass rusher, which all teams use to play significant snaps, and he’d fill Gilberry’s role as nickel DT next to Geno Atkins on passing downs, along with splitting snaps with Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson at base end. Opposing teams haven’t had to choose who to double on the Bengals defensive line for as long as Atkins has been here. With Thomas lined up next to him in the interior, game planning against the Bengals becomes a lot more complex, which fits perfectly as both Thomas and Atkins are mismatches when they’re presented with a one-on-one inside. This would be the only time they’d have Thomas play inside, as he is an edge after all.
Thomas has both the game tape of a first round talent and the analytics that back up an athletic comparison to Justin Houston. In a stacked draft class from top to bottom, Thomas has checked off pretty much every box an evaluator can have, and is the Bengals’ ideal first round pick.