Three years ago, experts were calling the exalted 2011 NFL Draft Class, the best collection of talent seen in years. The class looks even more imposing when you take a closer peek at the later rounds. That was because, after their rookie years, it was too early to say it was the best ever. These days, it goes without saying that Richard Sherman was taken too late in the fifth round.
However, he may not have even been the best cornerback in the draft. Patrick Peterson may still hold that title. However, he gets lost in a shuffle that included Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green, Aldon Smith, Julio Jones and Tyron Smith rounding out the top 10. J.J. Watt, last season's AP Defensive Player of the Year went 11th and Robert Quinn, the AP's likely DPOY for 2013 was 14th. Mike Pouncey, Phil Taylor, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Jordan, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Muhammad Wilkerson, Kyle Rudolph, Torrey Smith, Randall Cobb, Justin Houston, DeMarco Murray, and Brandon Browner's capable replacement in the Seattle secondary Byron Maxwell came off the board in the sixth round. Terrelle Pryor was the Raiders supplemental draft pick in August.
In the fourth round, Cleveland took Browns tight end Jordan Cameron, who finally turned in a Pro Bowl season after lingering for two seasons in obscurity. Carroll recruited Cameron to USC from BYU where he played one season of collegiate hoops.
Likewise, Julius Thomas was suiting up during Cameron’s freshman season as a sacrificial lamb for Portland State against Kansas during the 2008 NCAA Tournament. His transition from hoops to gridiron glory is hardly unique for a tight end. It’s nearing the point of becoming the status quo. The physicality of bruising power forwards, boxing out underneath the boards to outleap their opponent for boards or deflecting elbows while jockeying for post position translates to tight ends blocking on the line of scrimmage and beating linebackers and safeties to the ball on shallow routes across the middle.
The unlikely portion of Thomas’ journey is how Carroll plays a prominent role in his journey. Carroll didn’t recruit Thomas, but he did move Thomas’ father to the H-Back position in his only season as an offensive coordinator at Pacific University in the ‘80’s. George Thomas shredded his knee playing for Carroll and his hopes of a pro career were dashed. A few years later, Thomas settled down with his wife and Thomas was born.
"If it wasn’t for Pete Carroll, you wouldn’t have even been born!" Thomas’ father likes to tell Julius.
Sherman was underrated after making a position change from cornerback to receiver. Thomas was a developmental project after adjusting to playing his first season of organized football since high school.
Before the season opener against Baltimore, one catch was the total statistical contributions in his pro career. On the NFL’s opening night, Thomas caught seven passes for 110 yards and two of Manning’s seven touchdown heaves en route to a Pro Bowl season.
Of course, he wasn’t able to play because while his peers were in Honolulu, Thomas was braving the frigid New Jersey temperatures as they landed near the Super Bowl host city.
Things could get colder for Thomas if Seattle freezes him out as their coverage forced Drew Brees and Kaepernick to do with Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis before.
The Seahawks have been sending tight ends to the scrap heap all season. In the first two rounds, they left a chalk outline surrounding the seemingly catatonic bodies of Graham and Davis who caught a combined total of three balls for 24 yards against Seattle.
However, Thomas has two distinct advantages that those other tight ends did not. One is Peyton Manning. The other reason is the plethora of receiving talent surrounding him near the line of scrimmage. The Seahawks secondary has priorities beyond Thomas that could give him a little more space to operate.
One of the linebackers tasked with covering Thomas will be 6-4 K.J. Wright, the outside linebacker drafted as a priority of Carroll’s early in the fourth round of the same draft that produced Sherman and Julius Thomas.
However, Thomas will also have to fend off Kam Chancellor, who’s built like Cam Newton at safety, and Earl Thomas, the human torpedo.
After their rookie seasons two years ago, Sherman and Thomas weren't even on the radar of top 2011 draft picks. That mistake won't be made again. Their impacts are woven into the fabrics of their respective teams.
The amazing part about Thomas’ development is that it’s only just beginning. He made a pair of catches that beat the Chargers, but his budding future won’t matter much to Denver if he can’t make an impact against Seattle’s Legion of Boom in the most meaningful game of his entire career.