Andrew Thomas has had to grow up fast as an NFL player.
A year ago, drafted No. 4 overall, Thomas was the youngest player on the New York Giants’ roster for most of the season. Still, he was, in his words, “thrown into the fire” as the critical left tackle position.
That, as Giants fans know, did not go well. Thomas gave up the most sacks (10) and second-most quarterback pressures (57) of any NFL tackle.
“It was definitely a challenge, but I wanted it,” Thomas told Big Blue View Thursday in an exclusive interview on the patio overlooking the team’s practice fields. “That’s what I worked for from the beginning. I wanted to play in the NFL, play in the big games. Left tackle, that’s a huge responsibility and you have to be prepared to play that, and I learned that last year.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything because I think I learned a lot and it helped me as a player and as a person.”
Thomas has played well thru two games. He has surrendered just four pressures in 88 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and his pass-blocking efficiency rating has jumped from 94.2 last season to 97.5 so far this season.
“Put on the tape and he’s doing his job and doing it at a high level,” offensive line coach Rob Sale said on Thursday.
Now, Thomas faces a new challenge.
Team captain Nick Gates and starting left guard Shane Lemieux are already on IR. Matt Peart, expected to be the starting right tackle, has already lost that job to Nate Solder. Thomas and Will Hernandez are now the only players remaining from the team’s planned starting offensive line.
By virtue of the position he plays, and the place in which he was drafted, Thomas is now the leader of the offensive line. Ready or not.
Is that fair? At 22, he is still the fifth-youngest player on the roster. He is still finding his way as an NFL player — two good games don’t mean all of his flaws are fixed, or that he will play 15 more good ones.
I put that question to Sale on Thursday.
“Yeah,” Sale said. “That’s what type of player I think he can be. He has to approach that way mentally to be the leader. Now you look at it in the room right now we had two guys that were the pulse, the energy, the juice in the room that had a good, infectious attitude in Shane and Nick every single day. Now everybody’s gonna look around and alright ‘who’s that guy?’ Andrew needs to be that guy.”
Thomas is not only young, but he is also quiet. He does not have a gregarious or forceful personality. Stepping outside his individual role and leading is not necessarily comfortable for him.
“I challenge him every single day,” Sale said. “He’s a quiet guy that kinda handles his business and the work.”
Comfortable or not, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Thomas understands the responsibility that has now been placed upon his massive shoulders.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Thomas said. “I’m a young guy. A lot of times you’re just focusing on ‘I gotta do my job.’ I gotta block a number. Naturally I’m a more quiet person, I don’t talk a lot on the field. I just make sure I have my assignment, talk to the guard next to me and try to make a play, but as a leader I’ve gotta be able to lead the whole group, be more vocal and that’s something I’m working on.”
Thomas talked last season about “running my own race,” and not worrying about comparisons to Mekhi Becton, Tristan Wirfs and Jedrick Wills, the other tackles selected in the top half of the first round of last year’s draft.
“I think I’ve definitely made some improvements, but still a lot of growth (to go),” Thomas said. “Just playing with my mind in the game, understanding certain things, coverages, the d-linemen, anticipating their moves, definitely a lot of things I can still learn.”
Interestingly, Sale also mentioned the mental part of Thomas’s game when asked on Thursday where he had improved.
“He’s done a good job of his mind being right. We’re always constantly working on that,” Sale said.
“He’s done a good job of not throwing his hips out, lunging and a guy getting half-man. He’s sliding his feet, putting his hands in his chest, sliding. That’s the name of the game, it’s about feet and hands, doesn’t matter if it’s outside position or to the inside position. He’s done a good job hanging on the edge, where we’ve had a good job of protection by everybody, either a back chipping or a tight end hammering. But when he’s had to go five-man, six-man protection he’s done a really nice job the first two weeks battling against some really good opponents.”
Thomas often talks about continuing to build muscle memory with the new techniques he has learned since coming to the Giants. There have been plenty of vague references to those changes, but what exactly are they? I asked Thomas on Thursday.
“The biggest thing last year was my set. Being consistent in my set, getting to a spot and not setting to the rushers. Understanding this is my spot, this is where I get to. Don’t worry about anything else,” he said. “This year I want to say hand placement. A lot of two-hand punches last year, I’m working on independent strikes. Make sure I have leverage with my hands.”
Back to running that race. Does Thomas worry about justifying to the outside world having been selected fourth overall, or having been taken before those other highly-rated tackles?
“Not necessarily,” Thomas said. “As long as the players, the coaches believe in me and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing that’s what I’m trying to do. I can’t focus necessarily on the fans. The state of the team right now. Understand everything that’s going on in the locker room. Understand what’s going on in the meetings. As long as my coaches and my teammates are happy with what I’m doing then that’s the goal.”
At Georgia, Thomas started for four years and showed steady improvement. Can the same thing happen in the NFL?
“That’s the goal. Just work every day to get better,” Thomas said. “Rough year last year. Trying to build on what I did at the end of the year. I think there’s a lot more to come.”
There is also more on his plate.