Thomas, who in 2014 signed a two-year, $4 million contract, has often been bandied about as the right guy to cut. Though he had his moments last season, he failed to bring the reliable impact. That, combined with his $2 million salary this season, places a bullseye on his back, not just from fans and media, but the team itself.
Ask Thomas, and he makes it clear that he needs to make a change this year. Ask him again, and he’ll tell you that what he put on tape last year wasn't at all what he wanted.
“That wasn’t even me last year. Not even me personally. I want to improve in every aspect this year and just give it all I’ve got.” Thomas said, with his eyes open wide and head shaking from side to side.
Thomas came to the Steelers via the San Diego Chargers, and also dealt with naysayers at the close of his four-year, $1.6 million rookie contract. Once the smoke cleared, 2013 was his final season in a Chargers jersey. After having a rough year as the team’s starting as nose tackle, the Charges set him loose.
The Steelers pulled him out of free agency, and with the backloaded contract it seems apparent that he came to them as something of a wildcard project, requiring him to prove value or find himself where he is: somewhere between a spot on the final roster or on the chopping block.
At the beginning of last season, Thomas was starting at left end but lost the job as returning Brett Keisel got into shape and Stephon Tuitt learned the rookie ropes. While Thomas still played in every game, he was at best average and many times the butt of fan jokes. But he was the swing lineman who could play all three positions, even if he had little production at any of them.
Looking back, Thomas said he had a rough time making his way through Dick LeBeau’s playbook. He's not the first to experience that problem, but he clearly feels that was a serious hindrance to his ability to perform, perhaps even an equally serious source of anxiety.
“It was the whole understanding the playbook last year. Understanding what to get out of everything. You know, it was a new system (for Thomas) last year and didn’t really feel very comfortable.” he said.
But that was then, and this is now, according to Thomas, who was dropped to third team in the spring but believes he can play the kind of ball he feels he is capable of.
“I feel like it will be a whole 180. It will be a completely different situation,” he said with a smile.
Keith Butler’s playbook, more compact and simpler, might agree more with Thomas. But more than that, he says he's being active in checking in with teammates and coaches to make certain he meets expectations this year.
“I feel a whole lot more comfortable now. I’m asking a lot of questions and just really understanding now what they want me to do.”
His marching orders? Pretty simple:
“They tell me, ‘Just play ball. Get in there and do your thing. Just play ball’… I’m going to come in every day, keep learning the playbook and keep asking questions. Learning, learning, learning,” Thomas said.
And for Thomas, who brings veteran seasoning to the Steelers' line but is also young enough to develop, it’s going to take that and more to hold down his spot on the roster.
Time will tell if Thomas can prove his value, but the clock is ticking. The pads go on this afternoon, and he will have to earn his way to the regular season. The question remains whether Thomas’s true value is on the field or off the salary cap. It’s up to him to determine the answer.