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Brian Thomas Jr. draft profile

The Next Justin Jefferson?

In 2018, Joe Burrow (57.8% completions), Justin Jefferson (875 receiving yards to lead the team) and Ja'Marr Chase (313 yards) all had mediocre stats playing in a conservative LSU offensive system. The following year, the team hired Joe Brady as their new OC, installed a wide open, shotgun based scheme with RPOs and pre-snap motion and LSU exploded on offense, propelling them to a National Championship. Burrow completed 76.3% of his passes for 5,671 yards and 60 TDs, Chase had 1,780 receiving yards and Jefferson had 1,540 yards. Burrow became the number one overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Jefferson went 22nd overall that year. Jefferson is a relatively small WR (6'1'' tall), leading to concerns about whether he'd be limited to playing in the slot in the NFL. Despite being the "number 2 WR" on that 2019 LSU team, Jefferson had instant pro success and is arguably the best WR in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Joe Brady ran into tough times after leaving LSU. He was the Carolina Panthers' OC under Matt Rhule, but got fired late in the 2021 season. Without top talent and against NFL level defenses, he was unable to replicate the same success he had in college. He's now with the Bills and is their OC, taking over for Ken Dorsey, who got fired earlier this season. I think Dorsey became the fall guy for mistakes his players made, including Josh Allen at QB, but that's how the NFL works. When a team loses, someone has to lose their job, and the most expendable person typically gets pushed overboard and fed to the sharks.

In the 2024 draft, one of the top ranked prospects is LSU WR, Malik Nabers. He frequently goes between picks 5 and 10 in mock drafts. After watching several LSU games, it isn't clear to me that he's the best NFL prospect at WR on his own team. It is a tight race between Nabers and his teammate, Brian Thomas Jr., and even their other WRs (e.g. Kyren Lacy) who are projected as late rd picks or UDFAs, are decent players in their own right and could make NFL rosters. Nabers is more of a flanker, a Z wide receiver, while Thomas plays more of a split end, X wide receiver role for LSU, though both players are versatile and move around the formation.

In terms of pure athleticism and big play potential, Thomas reminds me of Torry Holt. Did you sense a "but" coming? Drafting a WR isn't for the faint of heart. Thomas has boom or bust traits. He has a very high ceiling and teases you with his dazzling speed, but he also frustrates you with some of his mistakes and lack of polish. Like Jefferson, will Thomas ultimately prove that he's the best WR in the 2024 draft class, better than both Marvin Harrison Jr. and Malik Nabers, or will he become part of the large pile of draft busts among WRs taken in the top 50?

Background

Name: Brian Thomas Jr. Turns 22 years old in October of 2024.

School: LSU. True Junior. Sports administration major.

Size: Listed 6'4'' tall, 205 pounds.

4 star recruit from Louisiana. Had Division 1 basketball scholarship offers (Houston and Texas A&M were among the schools interested in him for hoops.)

Concussion in 2022. Undisclosed injury in 2021.

2021 (12 games, 9 starts) 28-359-2

2022 (13 games, 6 starts) 31-361-5

2023 (12 games) 60-1,079-15

2 career fumbles

Shane Hallam mock draft 36th overall

Luke Easterling mock draft 33rd overall

PFN draft simulator 25th overall

PFF 52nd overall, 11th WR

NFLMDD 37th overall

PFN 43rd overall, 8th WR (Dalton ranks 29th, Valentino 86th and Ian Cummings 21st overall)

Josh Edwards (CBSSports) 77th overall

Steve Shoup 49th overall

Drafttek 81st overall

Buffalo Fambase 30th overall

Strengths

Ideal, prototypical size to be a franchise, outside NFL WR. Has long arms. Appears to have big hands. Good catch radius.

Outstanding acceleration off the LOS, like a sports car. Very explosive off the line. Able to beat jam attempts with hands. Sudden feet and COD in his release. Can contort his body off the snap to avoid jams.

Powerful strides. Shocking burst to run by CBs or stress them. Plays with a low COG. Flexibility in his lower body.

Very fast. Plenty of horsepower under the hood. Extra gear downfield to threaten CBs 30 yards past the LOS. Runs clear outs, dragging defenders away to open up space underneath for Nabers and the other WRs. Does a nice job stacking the CB. Dangerous on deep in-cuts.

Able to create leverage with angles and adequately craft routes to separate. Fights through contact in middle of route. Shifty to get a step ahead of CB on crossing routes. Creative release to sell outside move effectively and win inside on slant route. Effectively attacked leverage of CB playing outside technique, got him to step inside so that WR could run fade route to the outside. Head nod to set up inside break.

Sinks hips, can turn quickly and fluidly.

A legitimate 3 level threat.

While he's inconsistent catching, he displays calm, natural and quiet hands.

Can jump in the air and elevate to catch the ball.

Athleticism to get YAC. Accelerates well after the catch. Can dodge and slip out of tackles. Tries to cover up the ball.

Flashes aggressiveness and physicality on the field. If he puts his mind to it, has the size and length to dominate CBs as a blocker.

Versatile in alignment, played on both left and right side, outside, in slot, in different roles in bunch sets.

Jayden Daniels is a very dangerous dual threat QB and as a runner he's the most dangerous player on LSU's team when he's in the open field. As a passer, however, Daniels is wildly inconsistent. Every single game I watched he had several bad plays and when Daniels is bad, he isn't just a little bad, he displays some of the worst QB play you'll ever see. Atrocious errors in reading coverage and decision making, terrible accuracy where the ball isn't remotely close to where it needs to be, so many potential INTs that were dropped or broken up.

Thomas is wide open on slant for TD, but Daniels doesn't see it, forces ball into very tight coverage instead. WR obliterates the CB off the LOS, races downfield, is 2 yards into the clear, but QB's pass is so terribly underthrown, PBU instead of sure long TD. WR destroys coverage with his speed, but QB misreads the defense, late to find him with eyes, underthrows the ball, but it still ends up being a long TD when Thomas catches deflected ball.

Would have been the featured WR on a different team, but LSU had so many weapons, had to share the spotlight with other talented players and split targets and opportunities.

Likely has one of the highest ceilings of any prospect in the 2024 draft. It isn't complicated. He's big, he's fast and he plays WR. I imagine that many NFL scouts are drooling over him.

Weaknesses

LSU's offense is fun to watch if you are a fan of explosive, high scoring offense, but it is very frustrating to watch from an NFL draft perspective. They have a shotgun, RPO based, video game type scheme with spread elements that at times is just a slightly elevated version of street football. Similar to things Joe Brady did. When LSU plays, it is half a football game and half a track meet. They run the same basic concepts over and over, very repetitive and simplistic, just dress it up in different formations, but the basic idea is extremely simple. Spread the defense out, then destroy them with your superior athletes once you've isolated defenders from help. When your "Jimmy's" are better than their "Joes" this works great. But, does that translate to the NFL level where there is so much parity and players are so closely matched in athleticism and talent? Wide splits create space for the WRs. Their OC was formerly with Cincinnati where he coached Desmond Ridder. While Ridder had excellent college stats, he has had bumpy ups and downs as he's tried to adjust to the NFL game. I'm not sure whether Thomas will be able to start in the NFL Day 1 as a rookie, he might need time to learn the playbook and earn the trust of the coaching staff and his QB.

So many plays, Thomas and the WRs don't have to run what I'd describe as actual routes, they are just cogs in the system. Running 5 yards off the LOS, then turning around, what's so complicated about that from a mental or technique standpoint? A grade school or middle school kid can do that. Much of their offense, I don't know how well it prepares their players for the pros. Their offense is kind of gimmicky and several of his catches are what I'd call "system production", where any random replacement level WR would get the same yardage and number of receptions. Only a certain percentage of plays does Thomas demonstrate his ability to add more and this isn't entirely his fault.

Very obvious zone coverage. The WR should settle in the void, but Thomas runs right through the open space, so QB's pass ends up behind him. That's a very concerning play, because the defense was so easy to read. Makes me nervous what will happen vs more complicated NFL coverage looks. Will he be mentally lost and not know what he's supposed to do?

Prone to ugly drops. Terrible dropped pass, standing still, ball right in his chest, lost focus, trying to run before he had ball. Double catch. Even when he catches the ball, sometimes his helmet will turn early, not looking the ball all the way in before he thinks about running. Horrific "fly ball" dropped pass, right in his breadbasket, didn't look ball into his hands.

Doesn't consistently high point the ball, will let the ball drop into his body.

Doesn't play up to his listed size. Nabers is 6 feet tall. Thomas is supposedly 6'4''. On the field, the 2 WRs play like they are much closer in size, as if Thomas is about 6'2'' tall. He doesn't use his frame to his full advantage.

Needs to do better job staying on feet. Slipped coming out of break on comeback. Slipped and fell pivoting out of break. What concerns me about him falling down isn't that he has a balance problem, it makes me wonder if he's put in the work and dedication to be very precise and consistent with his route running footwork and steps. Slipping in the NFL often leads to pick six interceptions.

Lazy routes if he's not the primary target and doesn't think he'll get the ball.

Very poor effort as a blocker. Hooked and held on run block. Relaxes, eases up before whistle, lets defenders go by him. Doesn't defend blocking angle or battle to sustain. Never finishes blocks. Disinterested in blocking for other WRs or his QB. Illegally blocked downfield early on pass beyond the LOS. Very silly shove in the back of CB way downfield on long catch by RB.

When it comes to blocking, he's the mirror image of Marcus Peters defending the run. It doesn't matter the game situation. Even in a tight game late in the 4th quarter, with the game on the line, he has no interest in giving full blocking effort, he acts like it is a practice walkthrough. Does he not care about the team winning the game? In the middle of plays, sometimes he'll completely stop and not even try to block anymore, just stands and watches.

4th&1 play, the WR motions into the box, inside of the TE. After the snap, WR just stands there in one place, allowing the LB to run by him, untouched and QB gets swarmed in the backfield. You literally could have replaced WR with a chair and it would have been more effective, because at least there's a chance the LB would have tripped over the chair as he ran by.

Doesn't have elite vision and instincts as runner. Plays through a straw once he has ball in his hands, not always able to see creases developing.

Has a very laid back and mellow personality. Answers to interview questions not impressive.

Draft Grade and Pro Comp

2nd round grade. (Kadarius Toney, 20th overall 2021, NYG, Florida)

He also reminds me some of Justin Hunter from Tennessee, who was the 34th overall pick in 2013. Neither Toney, nor Hunter have had a season in the NFL with at least 500 receiving yards. Toney had one huge season in college. He had injury and maturity issues with the Giants and was jettisoned in a trade in the middle of his 2nd season. He's now with the Chiefs. Hunter was 6'4'' tall, with 4.44 second speed and a 39.5'' vertical jump. Toney is only about 6 feet tall.

Thomas is a 1st rd pick on some draft boards, but only a 3rd round pick on other boards. This doesn't surprise me. His athletic traits are outstanding. He's a true deep threat WR, but he can make plays at all 3 levels, he's not a niche WR. On the other hand, I have a bad feeling in my gut about his football intangibles. Does he have the necessarily competitive edge and work ethic to become a star in the NFL? If he does, it isn't showing up on the field, because there are too many plays that I'd describe as "sloppy" or where he's not dialed in with intensity and commitment to win.

If a coach can get through to him, I think Brian Thomas Jr. has a very high ceiling, he could be a Pro Bowl level WR. He also has a bust factor where a team could get frustrated and give up on him, because he keeps running the wrong route, drops passes, or misses blocks and they don't think that he can be trusted to consistently deliver.

Thomas complements WRs like Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua, because he adds an explosive downfield element that the Rams for whatever reason haven't been able to unlock through Tutu Atwell.

Are the Rams willing to gamble on Thomas? If they hit, they might be getting a WR even more productive than Marvin Harrison Jr. in the pros. If they miss, they might be getting a WR even less productive than Van Jefferson. Brian Thomas Jr. is an X factor in the draft. Will he crash the 1st round party and be the top pick for the Rams?