After losing middle linebacker E.J. Henderson for the season with a foot injury and his replacement, David Herron, for parts of Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, the Vikings are bringing back Dontarrious Thomas as a reinforcement in a thinning and beat-up linebacker corps.
"It felt good walking in. You see familiar faces and everybody joking around. It was like, welcome back," Thomas said. "It's like family here so it's just a great feeling to be back and be a part of this."
Thomas was with the Vikings since being a second-round draft choice in 2004 up until free agency in March, when he signed with the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers released him before the season started and he hadn't signed on anywhere since. He spent time rehabbing a preseason shoulder injury in Georgia and then came back to Minnesota to train at E.J. Henderson's GameSpeed Academy and work with former Vikings strength and conditioning coach Mark Ellis.
Thomas started five games as a rookie, getting 76 tackles, but that was his most productive season. In 2005, he played in 14 games, starting two and had 45 tackles, and in 2006 he had 24 tackles with three starts.
Last year, Thomas didn't register a defensive tackle but had four on special teams.
"Me and my coaches, we sat down and we started going over it and I was surprised at how much I do remember," Thomas said. "Fortunately, while I was here I was able to play all those (linebacker) positions and learn the defense in depth, and I think that helped me to carry over. That's one of the things they looked at when they brought me in here."
Ironically, his most productive game was against the Chicago Bears, the Vikings' next opponent, when he had 16 tackles in 2004.
"He gives us a guy who is familiar with our system. Obviously, he didn't want leave, but he had to go for the money in free agency," head coach Brad Childress said. "It didn't work out there in San Francisco, for whatever reason, but he still looks like he possesses some tools. He knows our drill, he knows the linebacker coach (Fred Pagac), he knows the system, he knows the special teams, he knows our values. And so he's extremely excited to be back with us."
"You can't look back in the past," Thomas said of his opportunity in San Francisco that didn't work out. "You've just got to keep looking forward. It just didn't happen. It was an opportunity I thought would be there, but it just didn't happen. But, look, I'm back here so everything worked out."
During his first three seasons with the Vikings, Thomas had 41 tackles on special teams, and he was the first rookie linebacker for the Vikings to start the opener since 1962.
The Vikings will assess his chances of playing middle linebacker for them on Sunday.
"I think we'll probably end up just seeing where he's at, familiarity when you leave what comes back to you," Childress said. "We'll go up and talk about it upstairs, but Fred does a great job of cross-training those guys. If it comes back fast and you figure out how one relates to the other, nothing says that he can't (play multiple positions or start)."
Thomas was in Dallas for a connecting flight to Miami to work out for the Dolphins. He was in line waiting to board the plane when he got a text from his agent wondering where he was.
"He was like, ‘Hold up, I'm talking with the Minnesota Vikings.' I was like, ‘Well, what should I do? Should I get on the plane or should I wait?' He was like, ‘Just wait.' God-willing it worked out," Thomas said. "They delayed the boarding and then I was walking in the plane and I got a text. He was like, ‘Get off the plane. You've got to fly back to Minneapolis.' I told the stewardess, ‘I've got to get off the plane.' So I kind of made up a story that I've got to get back home."
The linebacker also worked out for New Orleans, Tampa Bay and was supposed to go work out for Kansas City.
After a week of practice with the Vikings, he should be able to play on Sunday, Childress said. Childress acknowledged that the Vikings thought about signing him last week, but with a short week coming off a Monday night game they didn't think it would be fair to him.
The exact status on Herron isn't known, but he appeared to have a lower leg injury in the first half and left the game again for good in the fourth quarter after a big hit. Childress acknowledged that Herron is "beat up."
LB Thomas rejoins Vikings
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