The Role of a Sixth Rounder

The Bears drafted former West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas in the sixth round of this year's draft. Is he destined for special teams duty or does he have the potential to play defense?

The history of outstanding linebackers to have played for the Chicago Bears is well documented. It's a team that is often defined by the names Bill George, Bronko Nagurski, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. In addition, the current roster boasts two potential Hall of Famers in Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher.

Jerry Angelo, a former linebackers coach for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL, has attempted to build on that legacy through the draft. In his 10 drafts as GM of the Bears, he has selected 10 linebackers, all in the third round or later. This strategy produced Briggs, a third rounder and arguably the best pick of Angelo's tenure in Chicago. Beyond that though, his history with the position has been spotty at best.

Here is the full list of Chicago linebackers drafted by Angelo since 2002:

2011 - 6th, J.T. Thomas
2009 – 5th, Marcus Freeman
2008 – 7th, Joey LaRocque
2007 – 3rd, Michael Okwo
2006 – 4th, Jamar Williams
2005 – 7th, Rod Wilson
2004 – 4th, Leon Joe
2003 – 3rd, Lance Briggs
2003 – 6th, Joe Odom
2002 – 5th, Bryan Knight

The team traded Williams to re-acquire safety Chris Harris before last season. Yet that's as far as the accolades go. Not a single player on that list besides Briggs has produced in any meaningful fashion as a linebacker.

Yet all but a couple were valuable special teams contributors. Which is the main reason so many have been drafted in the late rounds. Linebackers usually have ideal size and speed as coverage men on punts and kickoffs. Even if they don't make the field on defense, they almost always have value on special teams.

So where does this year's sixth-round pick J.T. Thomas fit in the conversation?

As a linebacker, Thomas' greatest asset is his speed and quickness. He covers the field from sideline to sideline. He has fluid hips and can change direction on a dime. In the open field, he does a great job of mirroring ball carriers. He's an intelligent player that does a very good job of diagnosing plays.

In coverage, Thomas (6-1, 241) has good awareness and does well reading the quarterback's eyes in zone coverage. His speed and change-of-direction skills allow him to keep pace with tight ends and running backs. He's also a very effective blitzer coming off the edge. His skill-set is perfect for a 4-3, Cover-2 defense.

That said, he does not show well at the point of attack. His upper body needs work and his short arms don't allow him to keep separation from blockers. He often uses his trim frame to slip through holes in the line but when a bigger lineman locks on, Thomas doesn't stand a chance. He can be completely swallowed up on plays run right at him.

He also doesn't show much pop when tackling and often uses poor technique. He'll have a hard time taking down powerful NFL ball carriers.

His best fit is at weakside linebacker in the Bears' 4-3 scheme. Briggs mans the position now, so Thomas will most likely serve as his backup for the foreseeable future. It's unlikely he could perform at a high level on the strong side. His speed may also keep him in the mix at middle linebacker should Urlacher go down with an injury.

Film on Thomas shows a high-motor guy who is a vocal leader on the field. He was a three-year starter for the Mountaineers and a team captain. He's a tough prospect as well, playing through various injuries during his collegiate career.

As a special teams player though, Thomas can make an impact right away. He's undersized as a linebacker but has the perfect build for a coverage guy. He ran a 4.65 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine. At 241-pounds, that combination of size and speed should make him an instant contributor under special teams coordinator Dave Toub.

Currently, Briggs and Urlacher are the only linebackers signed for 2011. Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach are both free agents. It's likely the Bears will try to re-sign at least one of them, if not both, to man the SAM position. That still leaves additional work to do in free agency. Expect Chicago to sign one more veteran to the group. They will most likely call in a handful of undrafted free agents as well.

Thomas can help this team in many different forms. In no way was he a wasted pick. But based on the film, as well as Angelo's history drafting late-round linebackers, don't expect him to be substantially more than a special teams player any time soon.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider

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