Versatility, Aggression Have Thomas on Cusp

Dontarrious Thomas isn't sure exactly where he'll line up this year or if he'll even be a starter, but he is hoping he has learned from the past what he needs to do to get closer to that elusive role as a full-time starter.

Dontarrious Thomas was one of the linebackers included as a "select veteran" when the Vikings held a week of practices this spring with rookies and select veterans, meaning he is likely to be among those showing up for the team's first training camp practice Friday morning.

But if Thomas is among those "select veterans," it would seem that is fine with him, just as it was this spring. It can't hurt his progress as a professional as he battles for a starting spot among a handful of linebackers looking to find their way into the rotation, including expected strongside starter Ben Leber, potential weakside starter Chad Greenway, and E.J. Henderson and Napoleon Harris. Many of those linebackers were included in the Vikings' "select veterans" week this spring.

"E.J. had to come out here, Napoleon had to come out here and I had to come out here, so they've got certain guys they want to get as many reps as possible. I feel it's an honor for them to ask me, so that means they consider me to be out on that field," Thomas said. "If they were not considering me to be out there, they wouldn't ask me."

The Vikings didn't release in advance the list of select veterans who will attend practices in shorts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday before the veterans report, but that list is expected to include those who could use a little polish before the veterans report. Included in that list is expected to be all the quarterbacks but starter Brad Johnson.

The fact that Thomas is among the veterans who has a shot at becoming a starter is progress. Although he started five games at weakside and middle linebacker in the first half of his rookie year in 2004, he was eventually pulled from the starting lineup.

"You're not as nervous as your rookie year, so that becomes easier. You're always learning. We've got new coaches, new systems. These coaches are doing a great job of coaching us up and teaching key points, little bitty things that will help you out on the field. It's definitely helping me to showcase my talent and put me in a position to get on that field," Thomas said.

Thomas' two opportunities to start in 2005 both came on the weak side, but his best chance to start in 2006 might be in the middle. However, his quiet demeanor isn't exactly the prototypical attitude from an NFL linebacker.

"I'm going to step it up, become more aggressive, be more of a vocal person," he said. "This is my third year, so I feel I can push forward to that. More importantly, I just want to try to help this team and strive to win a Super Bowl."

Thomas doesn't know where he fits into depth chart just yet. He considers himself a starter at one of the linebacker spots and comfortable in the weak (Will) or middle (Mike) positions.

"My comfort level is being out on that field because I've play Mike in college and I've played Will in college. When I came up here, I played Will here and I played Mike. I think because of my versatility I really don't have a preference," he said.

Adding to the challenge in regaining a starting spot this year is the fact that the Vikings are installing a new defense with a whole new coaching staff. Gone is the Ted Cottrell era, where players sometimes struggled to fully comprehend what was considered a more complex defense. In place of that is Mike Tomlin's version of the Tampa-2 defense, a simpler defense to learn the basics with the success coming in the details.

Thomas said the responsibilities of middle and weakside linebackers are similar from Cottrell's defense to Tomlin's defense, which could help Thomas' transition.

"I think the Will and the Mike are similar. The only one that's really different is the Sam backer," he said. "With Cottrell, the Sam played on the tight end, mostly on the ball and had to force a lot of things. This defense, Sam is off the ball, so he's got to cover and get in those drops too. That's the only real big difference with this defense is the Sam backer. The Mike and the Will are pretty much the same – you're dropping and you've got to cover guys. You've got to be able to hit."

As training camp opens, Thomas isn't expected to be one of the favorites to win a starting role, but he's hoping his experiences behind veteran linebackers who are no longer with the team will help.

"My first two years, we had a lot of veterans like Keith Newman and Sam Cowart, so those were the guys that I looked up to and listened to. My first year we had Chris Claiborne, and they were the vocal leaders," Thomas said. "Then, I was taking the role of just learning from those guys. Whenever it was possible, I may speak, but other than that we were just really focused on learning from those guys and taking it from them.

"This year, I feel like we're all in the same position. I feel like I've got enough experience now to go out there and actually say, ‘Hey, let's do this. We need to try this and that.' That's how I feel this year and hopefully I can continue to perform and hopefully be on that field."

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