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Michael Thomas has put the “special” in special teams play

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Coverage breakdowns have hurt Giants too often in recent years, and Thomas is part of effort to change that

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NFL: New York Giants-OTA
Michael Thomas talks to media after a practice.
Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

For whatever reason, a number of talented safeties on the free-agent market have yet to find new NFL employers. Michael Thomas isn’t one of them, having found a home with the New York Giants despite having been one of the anthem protestors last season with the Miami Dolphins.

Thomas is a Giant partially because they can use veteran depth and competition alongside Landon Collins, but also largely because he has been one of the league’s best special teams players for several years now — and the Giants desperately need to improve in that facet of the game.

“It is very clear what they are thinking on special teams. I am excited to be a part of that,” Thomas said during spring practices. “I don’t think having that low standard on special teams is going to be acceptable here. That is how we want to be a team that goes out there, puts in the work. Learn together and grow together. We are going to set the tempo. I love that.”

The Giants have a new special teams coach in Thomas McGaughey, will have a new punter and have brought in s number of veteran players who have been good special teams performers in the past.

Let’s take a closer look at Thomas as we continue our player-by-player profiles of the Giants’ 90-man roster.

The basics

Age: 28
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 195
Position: Safety
Experience: 5

2017 season in review

Thomas made his NFL reputation in Miami as a premier player on special teams, and 2017 was no exception. Thomas was named the Special Teams Player of the Year by Pro Football Focus, which called him “the standard bearer for special teamers in the NFL right now.”

PFF also wrote:

In an era where the term ‘special teams ace’ is thrown around to describe basically any player who plays on special teams, Michael Thomas of the Miami Dolphins is a player fitting of that description. Consistently one of the top players in the NFL on special teams since he first saw the field in 2013, the former undrafted free agent out of Stanford was a class above his peers in 2017.

Before injury cut his season short after 14 weeks, Thomas had seen at least one snap at 10 different positions on the Dolphins kickoff coverage unit, and he was the Dolphins’ primary punt protector on punts. In these two roles, he racked up 10 special teams tackles, tied for fifth in the league after 14 weeks. More importantly, he didn’t miss a single special teams tackle attempt. Considering how often we see a big play on special teams come as the result of a player missing a tackle or blowing an assignment, Thomas’ consistency when it comes to doing his job was huge for the Dolphins when they kicked or punted the ball away to their opponents.

When you look at his work on the other side of the spectrum, that’s where you really see Thomas stand out. Thomas was often found on the front line of the kickoff return unit, spent time on the defensive line of the punt return unit and even got 11 snaps at vice, where some of his best plays of the year came despite his comparatively small snap count. Arguably as important as the punt returner on those plays, the vice players are responsible for slowing down the gunners who line up as the wide men on the punt unit. With the gunners trying to get downfield to register a tackle, force a fair catch or maintain outside contain and force the returner towards the players charging downfield towards him, the vice can open up big holes down the sideline for the returner if they can properly slow down the gunner they are assigned to.

Thomas played only 151 snaps on defense for Miami, down from 571 in 2016. His 79.7 grade in 2017 put him in PFF’s “average” category.

2018 outlook

Defensively, Thomas could end up as part of a rotation with Darian Thompson, Andrew Adams and Curtis Riley at one safety spot. He will, however, likely make his bigges contribution on special teams.

McGaughey is looking forward to having Thomas on his special teams units.

“Mike is the ultimate competitor, he does an outstanding job in the coverage game, he’s a smart player,” McGaughey said back in April. “Mike is a high impact player and we look forward to him making big plays.”

Over and over in recent seasons the Giants have been hurt by poor special teams play. Thomas’s presence is a clear indication the Giants want to change that.

“You always want to be the best and I think that when you look at building a roster from the top down, the bottom up, yeah you’ve got to have those pieces and I think those pieces are extremely important for us to move forward as a unit and as a team to get back to where we want to be,” McGaughey said.

You can bet that one of those pieces, maybe the most important in terms of the coverage players, will be Thomas.