By David Elfin
During the past 15 NFL years, the Redskins chose 16 players who were among the top 40 picks in their draft class.
One, cornerback Champ Bailey, is headed to the Hall of Fame. Another, safety Sean Taylor, might have been on that path, too, if he hadn’t been shot to death at 24. Offensive tackle Chris Samuels and outside linebackers LaVar Arrington and Brian Orakpo all were selected for multiple Pro Bowls. Nine others became Washington regulars.
The only true bust among those 15 top 40 players was receiver Devin Thomas, whom the Redskins picked 34th in the 2008 draft. Thomas got off to an inauspicious start by failing a conditioning test at the beginning of training camp his rookie year and then missing a couple of weeks with a tender hamstring. That was a sign of things to come for Thomas, who caught just 40 passes for 445 yards and three touchdowns during his two-plus seasons in Washington before being cut by new coach Mike Shanahan in October 2010.
And yet, Thomas, who was picked up and then soon let go by Carolina that season before catching on with the New York Giants, is the only former Redskin who’ll play in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday. The 25-year-old Ann Arbor, Mi. native is also the only one of the aforementioned Fab 15 who’ll have ever made it to the big dance.
What’s more, although he caught just three passes this season, Thomas played an important role in the Giants’ surprising run to the title game against the New England Patriots. New York edged host San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game thanks in part to Thomas, who recovered a pair of 49ers fumbled punts in the second half to set up the go-ahead touchdown and the winning field goal.
“I always had faith that this could happen,” Thomas said during a recent phone interview. “Even when I was going through adversity in Washington, I always believed that things would come around. I stayed focused. I never lost hope. I’m thankful I was put in position to make plays to help us get here. (49ers kicker) David Akers is one of the best in the league at onside kicks so we practiced that on Friday and I had a ball go under my arm. After that happened, I said to myself that I was going to make a big play on special teams to help us win. I kept that vision in my head right into the game and that’s what happened. I was so excited about playing a part in the plays to help us win and get to the Super Bowl that I had tears in my eyes after the game.”
The 6-foot-2, 221-pound Thomas, who led the Big Ten in receiving yards and set school records for catches and all-purpose yards during his lone season as a starter at Michigan State after transferring from a junior college, has always had the sculpted physique and the athletic gifts to be an NFL standout. However in Washington, his immaturity brought figurative tears to the eyes of his teammates and coaches.
“I don’t think it was that I wasn’t ready for the NFL when I was in Washington, but I guess I had to through what I went through to get to where I am now,” Thomas said. “I believe that everything happens for a reason. I’m so excited about the opportunity to play in a Super Bowl, something I’ve always dreamed about doing. I’m cherishing each day.”
And while 2010 rookie free agent Victor Cruz came out of nowhere this year to join Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham among New York’s top three receivers, Thomas hasn’t lost any faith in himself.
“Right now, my role is mostly on special teams, but that’s nothing new to me,” he said. “I played special teams my first year at Michigan State and I blocked a kick to beat Northwestern. Special teams is a big part of football. We’re the unsung heroes who do the dirty work. I still believe that I’m going to be a productive receiver in this league. I have never lost confidence in my abilities.”
And he’s now just one victory away from having a ring to show for it.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.