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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: Undrafted rookie wide receiver Jeff Thomas offers an intriguing skillset

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Related: Patriots roster breakdown: WR Gunner Olszewski

Virginia Tech v Miami Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With only two weeks to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have the league-allowed maximum of 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s undrafted rookie class.

Hard facts

Name: Jeff Thomas

Position: Wide receiver

Jersey number: TBD

Opening day age: 22

Size: 5-foot-9, 170 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 RFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Thomas arrived in New England shortly after going unselected in this year’s draft, so he has virtually no pro-level experience to speak of. While he did participate in the team’s virtual offseason workouts and rookie developmental program, the Coronavirus pandemic has prevented him from partaking in any actual on-field activity since joining the team. That being said, he did appear in 34 combined games during his three-year stint at the University of Miami.

Thomas was able to flash his intriguing athleticism and high ceiling repeatedly with the Hurricanes, and finished his collegiate career with 83 receptions for 1,316 yards and eight touchdowns — all while also averaging 18.9 yards on 14 punt returns (he also scored one touchdown) as well as 22.6 yards on 54 kickoff runbacks. However, his time in Miami was also marked by immaturity: Thomas was dismissed from the program in November 2018, and after a return the following season again suspended for two games.

What did his 2019 season look like? Thomas originally planned to transfer to Illinois following his dismissal from Miami, but the school changing its coaching after the 2018 season staff altered his course: he eventually returned to the Hurricanes for his junior campaign, and went on to play a prominent role within the team’s aerial attack. While he did have to miss two games due to the aforementioned suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules, Thomas still saw action in 10 games.

When he was on the field, he proved himself a solid contributor even though his numbers did not necessarily stand out: Thomas caught 31 passes on 31 catchable balls thrown his way for a combined 379 yards as well as three touchdowns, while also adding 41 yards on seven rushing attempts. Despite his pedestrian productivity, the youngster still was able to repeatedly show his ball skills and body control as well as his explosiveness with the football in his hands — something that also was on display on special teams.

Thomas ran back 12 kickoffs for a total of 268 yards and an average of 22.3; he also returned five punts for 44 yards and an 8.8-yard average. Even though he also muffed one punt, his numbers in the returngame did look good and allowed him to finish third on the team with 732 all-purpose yards. After the season, Thomas announced his decision not to return to the Hurricanes for his senior campaign but instead to try his luck in the NFL.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? Based on his time in Miami, Thomas projects to play a dual-role at the next level. On the offensive side of the ball, he should see most of his action as a rotational Z-receiver whose shiftiness also allows him to move to the slot on select downs or be used on misdirection plays such as reverse runs or end-arounds. On special teams, meanwhile, he offers considerable experience as both a kickoff and a punt returner.

What is his special teams value? Thomas’ upside in the kicking game cannot be underestimated: he brings a tremendous athletic skillset to the table, and should therefore be able to also find success as a returnman at the next level — no matter if being asked to run back kickoffs or punts. Given that New England struggled to get consistent production in both areas last year, especially after primary punt returner Gunner Olszewski was sent to injured reserve in November, special teams could be Thomas’ way onto the 53-man roster.

Does he have positional versatility? The Hurricanes’ coaching staff used Thomas in various roles over his three years in the system, most prominently as an outside/inside receiver who also received the occasional hand-off. That being said, his versatility is somewhat limited by his slight build and lack of strength: Thomas, unlike other members of the Patriots’ wide receiver group, cannot be trusted to successfully perform as a down-field blocker in the running game.

What is his salary cap situation? When the Patriots signed Thomas to a standard three-year contract, they included just $2,500 in total guarantees — tied with quarterback Brian Lewerke for the lowest guarantees among this year’s undrafted rookie class. The Miami product is therefore currently only on New England’s books with his signing bonus proration of $833. If he survives roster cutdown day, however, his salary cap hit will jump to $610,833 via inclusion of his salary.

What is his roster outlook? Thomas is a raw player whose discipline issues in college are a red flag. That said, his natural talent as both a receiver and a returnman cannot be denied. The 22-year-old therefore appears to have an easier path onto the Patriots’ active roster or practice squad than other undrafted rookies: New England is far from set at wide receiver — only two players, Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry, can be seen as roster locks — and in the returngame. Thomas will need to show that he has the consistency on the field and in the meeting room to carve out a role, but he has a golden opportunity in front of him.