Rookie Chase Thomas set to help Saints defense

Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas attempts to take down Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips during the second half at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Show caption
Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas attempts to take down Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips during the second half at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

“(Chase Thomas has) proved he has position flexibility, and we love the kids who are position flexible. You can move them around in different packages, try to confuse the opponent. So he’s a nice fit.” ROB Ryan, Saints defensive coordinator

NEW ORLEANS — Rookie linebacker Chase Thomas may not look the part. He certainly wasn’t drafted to play the part, since all 32 NFL teams skipped over him for seven rounds in April.

But don’t bet against him playing an integral part in the New Orleans Saints’ 3-4 defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan, said Russ Lande, director of scouting for National Football Post.

“When you watched Stanford, Thomas was all over the field,’’ Lande said last week. “He was making tackles everywhere. Now he doesn’t test out well. He’s not a pretty looking guy. By that I mean he’s not sculpted or chiseled. He’s just a football player.

“I had him with a second-round grade. I think he’s a starter in a 3-4 defense. I wouldn’t be shocked if he played a ton this year. Plus he’s going to be a (bear) on special teams.’’

So how does a second-round projection by a reputable scout, from a top-shelf BCS school, end up going undrafted? Are there off-the-field problems? Injuries? A make-believe girlfriend?

What’s the deal?

“From all the feedback I was getting, it was a surprise,’’ Thomas said Thursday after the team’s third of their allotted 10 organized team activities. “But you can’t dwell on it for too long. I was blessed to have an opportunity at all. I’m still here. It doesn’t really matter how I got here.’’

Lande said Thomas’ struggles in the Senior Bowl doomed his draft stock.

“He played a true outside linebacker in a 4-3, which is what they generally play in those games, and he looked horrible,’’ Lande said. “He was out in space trying to do traditional 4-3 stuff, and that hurts a guy like Chase. He’s not that type of athlete. He’s only a 3-4 guy.’’

Enter the Saints, one of a handful of teams to call Thomas after the draft. Green Bay, San Diego, Arizona and Houston also expressed interest.

After analyzing the teams’ depth charts and drafts, Thomas selected New Orleans because of the scheme, Ryan’s aggressive play calling and the chance to contribute right away.

“The Saints were a good choice for me,’’ said Thomas, who was credited with 71 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for losses, one interception and a fumble return for a touchdown with Stanford in 2012.

“The defense they play is comparable to the one I played in college — the same type of blitzes and schemes and stuff,” he said. “It’s just different terminology. I’ve got to learn how they teach it and how they call plays, but so far I think it’s going well.’’

Location, location, location also entered into his decision.

“The Saints are in the South, and I’m from Atlanta and I wanted to try and stay close to home,’’ Thomas said.

“I was in college all the way across the country for the last five years.’’

Thomas certainly isn’t a lock to make the Saints’ 53-man roster, but he’ll be given every opportunity.

The starting jobs at outside linebacker appear to be wide open for a unit that yielded the most yards in NFL history a year ago.

For the moment, Thomas is on the depth chart at strongside linebacker, but those responsibilities are bound to increase.

“He’s from Stanford, so we know he’s a smart kid,’’ Ryan said. “He’s proved he has position flexibility, and we love the kids who are position flexible. You can move them around in different packages, try to confuse the opponent. So he’s a nice fit.’’

Lande compares Thomas (6-foot-4, 248 pounds) to veteran outside linebacker Paul Kruger, a second-round pick in 2009 who left the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens to sign a lucrative free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns.

“Only Thomas is a better athlete than Kruger,’’ Lande said. “Like Kruger, Thomas is the type of player you sort of overlook because you don’t think he’s special in terms of athleticism. All Thomas does is pressure the quarterback and make plays against the run. He’s at his best when he’s on the move.

“He’s also going to help himself on special teams. He will be crashing and blowing plays up, even if he doesn’t make the tackle. He’ll be one of those guys who’s always disrupting stuff. He’s a super competitive, tough kid.’’

Now all Thomas has to do is his part.