Game Changer, Impact Player and Future Pro Football Hall of Famer
The hope of every NFL club when it comes to the NFL draft is to land a game-changing impact player who one day finds a home in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Just three seasons removed from its first playoff appearance in a decade and half, the
fell to the bottom of the AFC Western Division in 1988. The Chiefs’ 4-11-1 record landed them the fourth overall pick in the draft the following spring.
was the first linebacker the Chiefs ever drafted in the 1st round.
The three teams picking ahead of the Chiefs all chose offensive players. The
with the first overall pick. Then, the
Green Bay Packers
tapped tackle Tony Mandarich and the
then wasted little time before deciding to go with Heisman Trophy winner
out of Oklahoma State.
Now it was Kansas City’s turn on the clock. The team was in a rebuilding phase led by new team President and General Manager Carl Peterson and head coach Marty Schottenheimer. The Chiefs new coach was introducing the 3-4 defense. Schottenheimer inherited a strong secondary but the defense was not effective in rattling opponents’ quarterbacks. In fact, the Chiefs mustered a mere 23 sacks during the 1988 season.
Fortunate for Kansas City, there was a linebacker from Alabama by the name of who had all the attributes that would fit well with the new defense. His pass rushing abilities were phenomenal. He had more sacks during his senior year than the entire Chiefs defensive unit had in all of ’88. With that noted, Kansas City selected Thomas as the first defensive player taken in that year’s draft.
“I think he’ll be able to adapt quickly to what we’re trying to do here, the evolution of the 3-4 defense has brought it to a point where you take one linebacker and utilize him as rusher,” commented Schottenheimer at the time. “That is where I think a young man like Derrick will have the best opportunity and early success.”
Thomas possessed a strong work ethic, great motor, lightning fast first step and superior athletic ability that he combined with a natural tenacity to get to the quarterback. He spent his first two seasons with the Crimson Tide playing in the shadow of future
Buffalo Bills All-Pro Cornelius Bennett. After Bennett went on to the NFL, Thomas made the most of his opportunity to shine. By midway through his junior season, Thomas tied the Alabama record of 10 sacks set by Bennett. He finished the year with a staggering 18 sacks.
“Causing confusion,” was Thomas’s response to a question about what satisfaction he gained from his role at linebacker.
And that he did. As a senior, he further solidified his status as one of the best players in the nation. He racked up an astonishing 27 sacks to win the Butkus Award as college football’s best linebacker. He also earned first-team All-America acclaim.
The Chiefs, and other NFL scouts, certainly realized Thomas’ role as a sack specialist. But they fully recognized he was the complete package. Thomas set the Alabama record with 52 career sacks and 74 tackles for a loss. He also amassed 204 total tackles, 12 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, nine pass deflections, five blocked kicks, one safety and one defensive touchdown.
Many draft experts thought the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
, who held the sixth pick, was the perfect fit for Thomas. Bucs’ head coach Ray Perkins had coached Thomas at Alabama.
“It’s his pride that triggers that great motor he has inside…whatever he does he does with a lot of intensity,” stated Perkins. “He is the epitome of an impact player.”
The chance to draft Thomas never came for Perkins and the Buccaneers.
Thomas’s impact on the Kansas City defense was felt from the first time he put on a Chiefs jersey. The defense almost instantly began to take shape around Thomas and his style of play. They didn’t wait around; they attacked. They hit the quarterback. They forced fumbles. Thomas recorded 10 sacks in his first 10 games, and helped the Chiefs to an 8-7-1 record. By season’s end Thomas was the consensus NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowl starter.
But, that was only the beginning. For the next 11 seasons, before his life was tragically cut short at age 33, Thomas became that impact player every team dreams of and who the Chiefs hoped for when they drafted him in 1989.
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