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Saints developing Brandin Cooks replacement in undrafted Georgia Tech QB?

Justin Thomas has taken a unique path to the NFL, running a triple option offense and auditioning as a defensive back. But the Saints are tasking him with a new challenge.

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MIAMI GARDENS, FL - Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas (5) takes in the crowd after scoring a touchdown against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the Capitol One Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium.
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas (5) takes in the crowd after scoring a touchdown against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the Capitol One Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium.
Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

College football players go pro every year and face some tall hurdles on the way to starting NFL games. Whether it’s picking up new systems or adapting to different coaching and training regimens, everybody has their own challenges.

For some players, those challenges come in the form of position switches. Sometimes that change isn’t too drastic; Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Desmond King started 40+ games in college as a cornerback, but is being moved to safety by the Los Angeles Chargers. In other cases, players are picking up wholly new positions.

That’s the case for New Orleans Saints undrafted free agent signee Justin Thomas. The former Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets quarterback has a strong reputation after running a complex triple-option offense and serving as team captain for three years, but he’s undersized and doesn’t possess the touch with the ball to continue playing under center in the NFL (career completion percentage of 48.7-percent).

But that isn’t the end of Thomas’ story. He tried out for the San Francisco 49ers at wide receiver and punt returner during their rookie minicamp practice sessions, and will continue in those roles with the New Orleans Saints during this summer’s Organized Team Activities (OTA’s).

Thomas was officially designated a defensive back (the position he played during Reese’s Senior Bowl practices), but he cleared the air during a Sirius XM interview with host Alex Marvez and Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage:

Thomas also said that he practiced fielding punts “back there quite a bit at mini-camp” in New Orleans, so he’s in the mix for that special teams job along with bigger names like former Carolina Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr and Tennessee Vols running back Alvin Kamara.

Thomas has the obvious athleticism for the position, as seen in his pro day workout. For context, I’ve compared his numbers to former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks and a comparable rookie in Ohio State Buckeyes receiver Curtis Samuel:

So he profiles as a straight-line athlete with some breakaway speed, but doesn’t have the short-area agility of the other guys. Thomas will probably be a practice squad candidate at best, but he could transition to a bigger role later on down the line. That’s a tall order, but there is precedent for Thomas to eventually thrive at receiver.

New England Patriots star Julian Edelman took the same route to the NFL, starting for three years at Kent State as a quarterback before changing positions as a pro. So did Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who eventually made a successful move to receiver for the Cleveland Browns.

Here’s what draft analyst Lance Zierlein had to say about Thomas:


Highly-respected, three-year captain as a quarterback. Tough and competitive. Handled the pressure that came with running Georgia Tech's option offense for three seasons. Recruited by Alabama as a defensive back and was a late replacement at the Senior Bowl at that same position. Ran a blazing 40-yard dash time at his pro day. Played baseball in high school and showed ability to track the ball in punt catching drills. Has reactive quickness to be targeted as a receiver.


Has no college experience at any other position. Will need extended time to learn a new position. Too small to play outside as a cornerback and will have to play as a slot corner. Has straight-line speed but just average short area footwork for the position. Lack of arm length and developed instincts could create a long wait for ball production in coverage. Scouts say he didn't look as natural in his receiver or cornerback movements as they had hoped.

And lastly, his highlight reel. There aren’t any clips of Thomas at receiver, but he looks every bit as quick as his 4.35-second 40-yard dash time. He doesn’t shy away from contact, sometimes looking eager to lower his shoulder into a defender. He’s also got some wiggle once he’s on the move; Thomas forced six missed tackles on just nine carries in a 2017 TaxSlayer Bowl victory over the Kentucky Wildcats, per Pro Football Focus charting.