No longer doubted, Giants’ Thomas finds niche on special teams

Devin Thomas always believed he’d be an impact player in the National Football League, albeit with another team and in a far different role than the one he currently occupies with the New York Giants.

Four years ago, the physically-gifted wide receiver was hailed as a potential future frontline player after bursting onto the radar of scouts and personnel executives with a sensational junior season at Michigan State. Blessed with 4.4 speed on a chiseled 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame, Thomas was a tantalizing prospect but a cautionary one as well, having to overcome the dual stigmas of a limited track record of collegiate success as well as the position’s history of early entrees struggling at the professional level.

Thomas did indeed get his career off to a slow start, managing just 120 yards on 15 receptions as a rookie with the Washington Redskins, who made the now 25- year-old the third pick of the second round (No. 34 overall) in the 2008 draft. But a more productive second season, highlighted by a seven-catch, 100-yard, two-touchdown outburst against New Orleans in December, seemed to be a positive sign that the talented youngster was on the right path to stardom.

There would be a few unexpected bumps along that road, however. The Redskins changed coaches following the 2009 campaign, with Mike Shanahan taking over for the ousted Jim Zorn, and Thomas quickly fell out of favor with the new regime. He was waived four games into the 2010 season, promptly picked up by Carolina, then cut loose again in November after failing to make an impression on that staff.

In dire need of wide receiver depth after injuries to starters Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith, the Giants claimed Thomas off waivers from the Panthers offering the sudden journeyman nothing more than a chance to contribute on special teams.

Having realized it could be his last chance, Thomas was quick to accept and embrace his new duties. He logged two tackles and partially blocked a punt that led to a field goal in his first game as a Giant, a 31-7 win during Week 13 of last season.

The opponent? Why, the Washington Redskins.

Thomas has maintained a permanent place on the active gameday roster in his first full year in New York, despite having little opportunity on an offense that boasts a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Nicks and breakout performer Victor Cruz and a more established No. 3 man in Mario Manningham, taken by the Giants in the third round of that same 2008 draft in which such notables as Jordy Nelson, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Stevie Johnson were also picked behind Thomas.

“My position as a fourth or fifth wide receiver and special-teams player, I take pride in that and do anything to help this team win,” he said following the Giants’ 20-17 overtime victory over San Francisco in the NFC Championship.

Thomas did just that against the 49ers, astutely pouncing on a pair of fumbles by San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams that were both pivotal to the final outcome. The first was converted into an Eli Manning touchdown pass to Manningham that gave New York a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter; the last set up kicker Lawrence Tynes‘ 31-yard field that landed the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.

“I had vision in my mind that I was going to make some type of big play to help us win the game,” Thomas said.

And for maybe the first time in a career that’s better known for its downs than ups, Devin Thomas could say he was in the right place at exactly the right time.

Below is a capsule look at the special teams of the New York Giants, with regular season statistics in parentheses:

Placekicker: Tynes didn’t have a remarkable regular season, as his 79.2 percent (19-of-24) success rate on field goals was the Scottish-born kicker’s lowest in his five years with the Giants and he made good on a shaky 4-of-8 tries from 40 yards or beyond. The 33-year-old has shown an affinity for coming through in the clutch, however, having also sent Big Blue into its memorable Super Bowl clash with New England four years back by drilling a deciding 47-yard attempt in overtime to down Green Bay in the 2007 NFC Championship.

Punter: Free-agent pickup Steve Weatherford, a member of the crosstown-rival Jets the previous two seasons, bolstered what had been a major problem area for the Giants in 2010 by averaging a career-best 45.7 yards per punt with his new team. The six-year pro has been even better during this playoff run, averaging 46.4 yards per boot (40.6 net avg.) and having only nine of his 18 kicks returned.

Long-snapper: The versatile Zak DeOssie has handled these duties since breaking into the league in 2007 and has twice been named to the Pro Bowl (2008, 2010) as a need player during his time with the Giants. Initially drafted as a linebacker, the Massachusetts native also serves as New York’s special teams captain and finished fourth on the club with 10 coverage tackles this season.

Punt Returners: This has not been an area of strength for the Giants in 2011, as their average of 6.1 yards per return was the fourth-lowest mark in the league and the team didn’t have one of more than 18 yards. Cornerbacks Aaron Ross (7.1 avg.) and Will Blackmon (4.2 avg.), who does own three career punt return touchdowns, have received the bulk of the work.

Kickoff Returners: Thomas began the season as New York’s primary kick returner and averaged a respectable 24.3 yards per attempt for the year, but was taken off the assignment in November after experiencing some ball security issues. Rookie receiver Jerrel Jernigan (23.3 avg.) has been the main man as of late and performed steadily, though the Giants finished just 20th in that category as a team prior to the postseason.

Special Teams Defense: The Giants’ coverage corps was solid during the regular season, limiting teams to 9.9 yards per punt return and 22.9 on kickoffs while not allowing a special-teams touchdown over the course of the year, and certainly made a difference in the narrow win over San Francisco in the NFC Championship. Rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams came up with the critical strip of the Niners’ Kyle Williams in overtime and recorded a team-best 17 special-teams tackles for a group that also received noteworthy efforts from two other 2011 draft choices — safety Tyler Sash (15 tackles) and linebacker Greg Jones.

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