The NFL loved the player coming out of college. The pros just didn’t like his size or skill set.
Zach Thomas was a football player in the best Texas definition of the term. He was a three-year starter at linebacker for Texas Tech in a league that loved to run the football – the Southwest Conference. A run stuffer extraordinaire, Thomas was named the conference Defensive Player of the Year in 1995 and was a finalist for the Butkus Award, given annually to college football’s best linebacker.
But when NFL teams started drafting players in April 1996, they found 17 linebackers they considered better pro prospects than Thomas. At 5-11, 236 pounds with 4.8 speed and short arms, he didn’t fit the prototype for what succeeds on Sundays at that position. Too short, too slow.
So Thomas slid in the 1996 NFL draft…and slid…and slid -- before Miami finally rescued him in the fifth round with the 154th overall selection. But the Dolphins made two selections in the fifth round before claiming Thomas.
In hindsight, Zach Thomas should have been a first-round pick -- a high first-round pick – because that’s where the majority of the Pro Football Hall of Famers are usually found. And make no mistake about it, Thomas has a Hall of Fame resume.
Thomas has been eligible for the Hall of Fame since 2014 and his name has been on the preliminary list of candidates for the last four years. But he’s still waiting for his first trip to the semifinals.
It will come.
Thomas played 13 seasons and went to the Pro Bowl in more than half of them (seven). He also was named one of six linebackers to the NFL’s 2000 all-decade team. He opened his career with 11 consecutive 100-tackle seasons and owns seven of the Top 10 single-season tackle marks in franchise history, including a career-best 195 in 2002.
Jimmy Johnson became coach of the Dolphins in 1996 and brought in veteran Jack Del Rio to be his middle linebacker. Del Rio played for Johnson for three seasons in Dallas at the start of the 1990s decade as the Cowboys were building their defensive mentality on the way to Super Bowls. But Del Rio never took the field for the Dolphins. Thomas performed so well in training camp and the preseason games that he claimed the starting middle linebacker spot. Del Rio, now the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, was cut.
Thomas collected 13 tackles and a sack in his NFL debut against the New England Patriots, then went on to lead the Dolphins in tackles as a rookie with 180. He led the NFL in tackles in 2002 and again in 2006 and finished second to Ray Lewis in both 2001 and 2005. Thomas posted a career-best 22 tackles in a 2002 playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, then followed that up with another 22-tackle game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2003.
Thomas came up with 24 career takeaways, including 17 interceptions. He returned four of them for touchdowns. Only three linebackers in NFL history scored more TDs on interceptions than Thomas – Hall of Famers Bobby Bell and Derrick Brooks with six apiece and Jack Pardee with five.
Thomas missed 11 games in 2007 with a concussion and migraine headaches. He became a free agent in 2008 and, at the age of 35, signed with his home-state Dallas Cowboys. Thomas started 14 games and finished with 94 tackles -- the final 94 tackles of his career. His 1,866 tackles with the Dolphins stand as a franchise record and his 1,960 career tackles are sixth most in NFL history.
His 163 career starts rank third in Miami franchise history behind only Dan Marino (240) and Bob Kuechenberg (176). His seven Pro Bowls are the most by any Miami defender in franchise history.
Not bad for a guy considered too short, too slow and not athletic enough to survive in the NFL.
“I don’t think I ever viewed myself has having God-given ability,” Thomas said at his retirement press conference. “But I knew I would get an edge somehow. I feel like they always put me as an overachiever. But when I’m on the field, I didn’t feel (like) it. I felt confident."
The NFL whiffed on Thomas in the 1996 draft. The Pro Football Hall of Fame should not repeat that mistake.