De’Anthony Thomas brings ‘It’ factor to return game

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Forget for a moment the Chiefs didn’t select a bona fide wide receiver during the 2014 NFL Draft despite numerous pre-draft projections.

Nov 16, 2013; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks running back De'Anthony Thomas (6) warms up at Autzen Stadium. Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 16, 2013; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks running back De’Anthony Thomas (6) warms up at Autzen Stadium. Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, remember the Chiefs landed an explosive playmaker with running back/specialist De’Anthony Thomas in the fourth-round (124th overall).

Thomas arrives with impressive production from three seasons at the University of Oregon. He’ll have to acclimate to the Chiefs’ version of the West Coast offense, but factor in 1,890 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns on 243 carries to go along with 1,296 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns on 113 catches.

While he’ll attend the upcoming rookie minicamp, Thomas will miss organized team activities (OTAs) the last week of May and early June due to Oregon being on the quarter system.

It’s a minor setback during the transition process, but Thomas’ initial contribution will likely occur on special teams. And that shouldn’t be a problem for the former Duck, who holds school records at Oregon for kickoff return yards (1,885) and punt return average (17.13), adding five touchdowns (four kickoffs, one punt).

“I think there are those guys that just have that ‘It’ factor as a returner,” Oregon head football coach Mark Helfrich said in a telephone interview. “He’s definitely one of those guys. He’s the all-time leading returner in Oregon history and we’ve had some good ones. Just a dynamic guy with the ball in his hands and he creates issues for teams.”

A player to fear is what the Chiefs needed as a replacement for Pro Bowl punt returner Dexter McCluster, who signed a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans, or kick returner Quintin Demps, who signed a free-agent deal with the New York Giants.

With McCluster and Demps anchoring the return game in 2013, Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub’s unit set an NFL single-season record in kickoff return average (29.9) and notched four return touchdowns (two kickoffs, two punts).

The ability to win the battle of field position resulted in the Chiefs leading the NFL in average starting field position (33.4-yard line) and finishing second in the league in average starting field position after kickoff (26.3).

Nevertheless, where the Chiefs primarily use Thomas on special teams is unclear.

But former Chiefs wide receiver Danan Hughes, now an NFL analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsChannel and a college football analyst for the Big Ten Network, said in a telephone interview he believed Thomas could be better suited for punt return duties.

“There are some guys that are interchangeable,” Hughes said, “But to me I think he’s more of a punt returner. He’s definitely more of a threat there, but obviously he’ll do well at kick returner also.”

For his part, Thomas said during his post-draft media conference call he’s prepared to do whatever the team requires.

“I’m ready to play and I’m excited to get to Kansas City,” he said. “I’m ready to just be a team player for this team. I want to motivate guys on the field and also lead by example.”

Meanwhile, the sky is the limit with the electrifying Thomas learning from Toub, who also coached three-time All-Pro returner Devin Hester while with the Chicago Bears.

“Let’s don’t underestimate what he’s been able to do in his career with unique talents at returner,” Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard said of Toub during the team’s post-draft press conference. “He did it in Chicago, I was with him.

“I watched him take four guys and all were very good players, and then he came in here and what he did with Dexter McCluster and our kickoff returners. So we’ve got some unique staff here to take advantage of his unique skillset.”

Of course, it’s not just Thomas’ returner ability that has created a buzz.

Hughes looks forward to seeing how Thomas’ time on Oregon’s track and field team where he anchored the 4×100-meter relay team and a 4.39 40-yard dash time translates to the next level.

“There’s a Nike swoosh he’s worn on his shoes in his years at Oregon,” Hughes said. “And when I think of him, I think of the swoosh. I mean, his speed is unbelievable.”

Thomas’ former football coach agreed.

“I remember his first repetition ever at Oregon,” Helfrich said. “He made one cut and was gone, and everybody on the field kind of looked at each other like, ‘Did that just happen?’ kind of a moment. Just an incredibly, naturally talented guy.”

Ultimately, the Chiefs expect more of Thomas outside of returning kicks as he grows into a professional player wearing red and gold.

In the team’s eyes, Thomas is not a one-dimensional asset.

“He can play running back,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said of Thomas during the team’s post-draft press conference, “he can play slot receiver, he can return kicks, he can return punts. We are going to be able to utilize his traits and his skills, and with a coach like Andy Reid, you’re going to take advantage of that. We’re excited to get him.”

The Chiefs are clearly thrilled with exploring how to incorporate Thomas’ skills, which Chiefs area scout Trey Koziol categorized as “Swiss army knife‐type versatility” following the team’s drafting of Thomas.

But what’s it like to fully discover what the 5-foot-8, 174-pound stick of dynamite offers as a weapon, and then unleashing him on opposing teams?

Take it from somebody who knows.

“It makes it a lot of fun,” Helfrich said. “I know there are a lot of great minds starting with coach Reid there. You just start with, ‘OK, can he do this? Can he do this? Can he do this?’ and usually the answer to those things is, ‘Yes.’”