“That just told everybody it was time to roll,” Thomas said. “I was surprised, but shoot, I’ll take it.”
On Monday, the Commanders activated Thomas from the physically unable to perform list, a huge boost for a team down to just two healthy tight ends last week. Washington began training camp with seven players at the position, but then Antonio Gandy-Golden retired, key backups suffered troublesome injuries and the backups of several backups were also injured. Before the second preseason game, it was just undrafted rookie Armani Rogers — who played quarterback until this spring — and journeyman Eli Wolf.
In his first practice after being activated, Thomas wore a black sleeve on his leg and participated only in individual exercises. He blocked the red pads, and on the sideline during special teams drills, he caught his first passes from quarterback Carson Wentz. Thomas said he would like to return for the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but “if I’m not ready to go or I don’t feel like a full version of myself, then we can buy another week or two more weeks.”
Coach Ron Rivera said Thomas will not play in the preseason finale against the Ravens in Baltimore on Saturday night and he does not have a timeline for Thomas to return to contact drills.
“That’s one thing I’ll never do: I’ll never put a player on the field until he’s ready,” Rivera said. “When the trainers and the doctors tell me he is banned, he will be banned.”
The night before Thomas was activated, New York Giants rookie defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux took almost the same hit that Thomas did in December in Las Vegas against the Raiders. In both cases, a tight end found the formation to block the back of a run and one player dived at the other’s knees.
In New York, Thibodeaux’s knee avoided the same devastation – he suffered a sprained MCL – but to Thomas, the play underscored the danger of blocks below the knee. He pointed out that Philadelphia Eagles tight end Tyree Jackson was injured on a similar play last season. Such cutting blocks are legal.
“Below the knee is kind of the cutoff point,” Thomas said, adding: “We’re actually trained to stay above the knee. It’s more efficient that way. Obviously, the chance for injury is much lower. Chance for injury to the person, who actually makes the cutting block is also lower.”
Rivera, who is on the NFL’s competition committee, said he hopes the league will look into banning the cut block.
Behind his helmet visor at practice, Thomas smiled while blocking, and the team must have felt a similar sense of relief. Washington placed Wolf on injured reserve Monday, ending his season, and continued to overhaul the tight end position by claiming Kendall Blanton off waivers from the Los Angeles Rams and signing 2021 undrafted free agent Jake Hausmann. The team finally had four healthy tight ends as John Bates (calf), Cole Turner (hamstring) and Curtis Hodges continued to work on the sideline.
Washington has high hopes for Thomas this season. He’s 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, and with a 34 1/4-inch wingspan, he possesses the large catching radius the commanders’ front office targeted in the draft to help the big-armed but inaccurate Wentz. Rivera called him the team’s only “truly well-rounded” tight end who can block and catch.
The value of his versatility will probably appear in the biggest moments. In 2020, when Thomas broke out and solidified himself as one of the league’s better tight ends, he was an elite red-zone threat and third-down target. Last year, injuries limited him to only six games, and the team clearly missed his presence in both places.
After Wentz threw his first pass to Thomas on the field, some players and coaches applauded lightly, apparently in recognition of the hard work Thomas had put in to get back. During the few routes, Thomas noticed the zip on Wentz’s passes. He said it would take reps to learn the quarterback’s body language and timing, but what he saw got him excited about the offense.
“It looks really good,” he said. “We have talent at every position. We’re tough. We run the ball physically. We can be very good. Passing, obviously, we have weapons everywhere. For us it’s just about consistency.”
Thomas pointed to the Kansas City Chiefs loss last week
“We got going, moved the ball and then stalled,” he said. “Next possession, same thing. stalled It’s just being able to support, move the chains and ultimately push it in and score points – because we should be able to move the ball whenever we want.”
After months in individual drills, practicing with and talking about the team seemed like an emotional lift for Thomas. He called it “a bit of a boost” from the “monotonous grind” and said his return a week ahead of schedule gives him a little more hope.
“I always always said I wanted to play Week 1,” he said. “Am I on track for that… we’ll come find out.”