He had been highly recruited in high school, finished his career at Virginia Tech as the school’s all-time leading passer and was good enough to get drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals. Being a quarterback was his identity. He always had been one and was always going to be one.
Until he was sitting on his couch after getting released by the New York Giants in November 2016 and Detroit GM Bob Quinn called. He wanted Thomas to work out — as a tight end.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m tired of sitting on the couch, so let’s do it,’” Thomas said. “… It’s putting your ego on the table. That’s the hardest part of the switch, to be completely honest.”
It turned out to be the right thing. Thomas, who had appeared in just two games with the Cardinals, Miami Dolphins and Giants, is now one of the NFL’s top tight ends. He broke through in 2020 with 72 catches for 670 yards and six touchdowns for the Washington Football Team and says he has only begun to show the kind of impact player he can be.
All because he said yes to shucking who he was. It wasn’t an easy transition, though, and it took several years before Thomas even felt comfortable as a tight end — things that have to be taken into account now that Tim Tebow has made the decision to also finally say yes.
Tebow was a highly recruited prospect, won the Heisman Trophy and two national titles at Florida, and was the 25th overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft as a quarterback. He started 14 games in two seasons with the Denver Broncos before being traded to the New York Jets after the Broncos acquired Peyton Manning. Tebow played on special teams and was used as a Wildcat QB, as well as taking a few snaps at H-back.
Teams wanted him to switch to tight end, but he was adamant about remaining a quarterback and his career fizzled. He went to camp with the New England Patriots in 2013, didn’t play football in 2014 and spent the entire preseason with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015 before getting cut.
Six years later he’s had a change of heart, and his former coach at Florida, Urban Meyer, is giving him a chance to see if he can make it as a tight end with the Jaguars. Based on how Thomas’ switch unfolded, it may be unrealistic to expect much, if anything, out of the 33-year-old Tebow in 2021.
Thomas (6-feet-5, 250 pounds) and Tebow (6-3, 255) are both big, physically skilled guys, though Thomas was 25 when he agreed to make the switch. Tebow is helped by the fact that he doesn’t have to bulk up just to be able to hold his own physically.
Thomas also said understanding pass concepts from the quarterback’s point of view is a huge help, but Tebow should expect to struggle when it comes to blocking. A lot. He admits that he was a mess in that regard during his first full practice as a tight end — which came with the Buffalo Bills, who had claimed Thomas off Detroit’s practice squad two days after he signed with the Lions.
“It was like a whirlwind,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know how to block anybody. I could run a route, that was fine, but I didn’t know how to block a soul. I didn’t know the footwork to take. I didn’t know what angle to take, what my pad level should be, know where my hands should be. Honestly, that’s the toughest part about playing the position of tight end.
“If you’ve never played a position where you have to block, it’s [hard]. [You have to learn] if the run is going to the left, how fast the defensive end is going to disappear to the left. Or if the run is going right, how quickly they’re trying to beat you over your face. And if you’re trying to go head-to-head, they’re automatically bigger, stronger than you are. It’s just learning the technique and the understanding of how to do it, what to expect and how to execute what you’re going to do.”
Tebow had no trouble with routes and catching passes during the Jaguars’ open organized team activity last Thursday, but he was getting extra coaching on his footwork and blocking from tight ends coach Tyler Bowen. But expecting Tebow to be adequate at it by the time the season begins — even with all the extra work Tebow will put in — is unreasonable.
Thomas didn’t feel good about his blocking until the end of the 2019 offseason.
“Shoot, it took me a solid two years to be comfortable playing, like, ‘All right, I know what I’m doing,’” Thomas said. “This is how to do it. Now go out there and do it. Now, are you going to automatically give up weight and size? Yeah, but if you stay low and have your technique, that’s what does it. But it took me two years to be like, ‘Man, I can do this. I’m completely comfortable.’”
Thomas caught 19 passes in two seasons with the Bills, 2017 and ’18, and had 16 catches with the Lions in 2019 before his breakout season with Washington. He said the help he got in Buffalo from tight ends coach Rob Boras, tight ends Charles Clay, Nick O’Leary and Khari Lee, and defensive end Jerry Hughes was invaluable and a big reason he was able to make progress.
If Tebow can get similar help, it will accelerate his timeline, Thomas said. But he said the most important thing for Tebow to remember is to not try to rush things.
“Just be patient with yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Thomas said. “It’s one of those things where it’s a process. Try to pick up one thing every single day and that’ll make you better, because you’re going to take your fair share of losses early on. But learn from your losses and don’t let those losses stack up. Don’t make the same mistake twice. … That’s what I tried to do.”