Joe Thomas is thinking big.
Thomas, who impressed as an undrafted inside linebacker in training camp last summer until a knee injury, is back. That fact alone stands in contrast to the rest of the inside linebacker corps he was competing with back in early August. A.J. Hawk was released and is playing for Cincinnati. Brad Jones was released and is playing for Philadelphia. Jamari Lattimore was allowed to sign with the Jets in free agency.
“The opportunity’s wide open,” Thomas said on Saturday. “There’s a lot of guys here but I’m going to continue to be me, continue to work hard and if my hard work elevates me to the starting spot, so be it.”
Thomas started 30 games at South Carolina State and was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year as a senior with his 115 tackles including 7.5 sacks and 19 for losses. An undersized 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds, Thomas made his presence felt during the first couple weeks of training camp. But he sustained a knee injury during the preseason opener vs. Tennessee, was placed on injured reserve and waived with a settlement. On Nov. 3, Thomas was signed to the practice squad, where he spent the rest of the season.
Now, the 24-year-old is practically the veteran of the group, as strange as that sounds. Of the six inside linebackers on the roster, only Sam Barrington has been with the team for more than one season. Because of the limited amount of time that Thomas was under contract last year, he was eligible to participate in the two-day rookie orientation camp that concluded on Saturday.
“It went pretty good,” Thomas said. “Just knocking off some rust from last season and getting things back working the way they should and helping out the young guys. If they need me, I’ll help them out with learning the defense.”
While Hawk, Jones and Lattimore took the first-team reps last summer, it was Barrington and Thomas who routinely stood out during the practices. It quickly became apparent that Thomas was going to make a serious push for the 53-man roster.
“Sometimes you get young guys who are so tentative to make a mistake, they’re so worried about being so assignment-conscious all the time,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said before the Tennessee game. “Here’s a guy that is very quiet and reserved but he goes about his business the right way in that he simply gets on the field and understands not only what he has to do but he understands that I’m here to show my skill-set, my talent. He’s been able to do that so far. Once you have that confidence to be able to start off fast and start off well, it usually just rolls over into production and then you just grow from there. So if he continues to do that, we can be excited about him.”
Thomas thought he had put himself in position to push for a roster spot — “especially on special teams,” he said — until the injury. Special teams could be his ticket this year, too, especially with the sweeping changes on the depth chart.
“My first two years (at South Carolina State), I was the special-teams guru,” Thomas said. “My later years, I was the guy on defense so I didn’t play special teams a lot.”
“I’m just a football player, man,” Thomas added later. “Put me anywhere on the field and I’m going to try to do my best to achieve.”
Thomas said it didn’t take long to get over the mental pain of being injured. “Everything happens for a reason,” Thomas thought to himself as he returned home to rehab his knee.
And what was the reason?
“I guess to be humble,” Thomas said. “Just be humble. Just be humble.”firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.