As a college senior, he was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defensive player in FCS.
In both cases, evaluators at the next level failed to take notice.
After high school, Thomas walked on at South Carolina State. After college, Thomas signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Green Bay Packers.
“I’ve always been an underdog and I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder, so nothing’s changed,” Thomas said on Friday, one day before the Family Night practice at sold-out Lambeau Field.
Every season, at least two or three undrafted free agents make Green Bay's roster. Thomas might be the next, following the path blazed by the likes of linebackers Jamari Lattimore and Andy Mulumba.
At South Carolina State, coaches gave Thomas the option of playing running back or linebacker. He chose linebacker, which turned out to be a good decision. He capped a great career by piling up 116 tackles, including 20 for losses, as a senior. Thomas, playing inside linebacker in the Bulldogs’ 3-4 scheme, said he didn’t blitz much; he still had 7.5 sacks. Green Bay was one of 11 teams represented at South Carolina State’s pro day. Thomas (6-1, 227) said he ran his 40-yardd dash in 4.60 – NFLDraftScout had him in 4.70 with an impressive 38-inch vertical jump.
“I think I’m a lot faster than 4.6, to tell you the truth,” Thomas said.
Regardless of what the stopwatches said, Thomas has used his speed to make an instant impact. There’s at least one package in which he’s been running with the No. 2 defense.
“I think I’ve just done enough to get the attention of the coaches and better my chances of making the team,” said Thomas, who received a $5,000 signing bonus after choosing Green Bay over Houston and San Diego in undrafted free agency. “I’ve got to continue to progress each day to keep catching the eye of the coaches.”
Mission accomplished. Even while saying he wasn’t going to provide an evaluation of the inside linebacker group, coach Mike McCarthy on Thursday said “Thomas has really jumped out.” He beat a block to stuff James Starks during the first padded practice. In a blitz drill, he beat Don Barclay. In coverage, he’s showed his speed by covering tight ends deep down the middle.
“Joe is off to a good start,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said on Friday. “You can see there’s some talent there. He’s very fast and has been able to make some plays in different segments. He’s shown up well with his run fits, he’s shown up well in the blitz and he’s shown he can cover out in space, as well. It’s still early but we like what we’ve seen so far.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.