<span>Hanging neatly in Pierre Thomas's locker are two practice jerseys, a white one with black numbers trimmed in gold, and a black version with gold numbers and white trim, and both obviously display his number, 23.
There is a great irony of sorts regarding the number given to him by Saints head equipment man Dan Simmons on the day he signed with the Saints as an undrafted rookie free agent (April 30, 2007). Exactly 23 running backs had been selected in the 2007 NFL Draft just two days before.
Thomas was not among them.
But that has hardly slowed the 5-11, 215-pound running back out of the University of Illinois. It may, in fact, help drive him and serve as a further motivation when darting through holes in the line of scrimmage or breaking tackles with his unique style of running that has proven to be quite effective over the course of his first two years in the NFL. "Sure, it bothered me at the time because I knew in my heart that I could play in the NFL," Thomas said of not being drafted. "But I wasn't going to let that stop my dreams. I just needed the opportunity to show what I knew I was capable of doing. I found that opportunity here and promised myself I would make the most of it."
Clearly Thomas has lived up to his end of the bargain, but said he isn't about to start resting on his laurels.
Thomas, if he was the kind of person to brag (he's not), could point out that the 2,970 all-purpose yards he has gained in his 27 career games ranks second among those 23 drafted players, trailing only 2007 NFL Rookie of the Year and 2008 All-Pro Adrian Peterson (Minnesota), who has racked up 3,922 all-purpose yards the past two seasons. Peterson, of course, was selected with the seventh selection overall in that draft and was the first running back to see his name come off the board when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced his name.
But Thomas has made a name for himself, and has exceeded the expectations that an entire league envisioned for him.
Out of the backfield, Thomas has rushed for the fourth-most yards among the class of 2007 with 877 yards on 129 carries (4.8 average). Only Peterson (3,101), Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch (2,151) and Baltimore's LeRon McClain (920) have run for more yards.
Seven running backs from the draft class of 2007 have never even so much as earned an NFL carry, three of the drafted players have already switched teams, while five more are no longer even on an NFL roster.
Thomas quietly and steadfastly goes about his business and willingly and gladly assumes a larger and larger role on the team at seemingly every turn. "Whatever the team needs me to do is what I will do," Thomas said. "Run, catch, block, return kicks, cover on special teams. I just want to continue to get better and better and help us win games. It's a physical game and you need more than one running back that can get the job done. I like whatever role I am given."
It may sound like a worn cliché, but Thomas embodies the team concept and fits in perfectly into the Saints' lively, but close-knit locker room. He is often seen at his locker in his free time, with a smile on his face and in the middle of some good-natured barbs that are usually being bandied about.
Heading into the 2009 season, any increased role that Thomas has earned is the by-product of a steely determination that has seen him rocket all the way from last on the team's 2007 depth chart entering training camp to a regular starter and contributor in virtually every game he has dressed for (27 over the course of the past two seasons).
Which is a far cry from where most draftniks projected Thomas's career to go. In fact, here is a scouting report on Thomas from a reputable scouting service that described what type of player they viewed Thomas to be:
STRENGTHS: Experienced. Has played versus very good I-A competition. Strong build. 21 reps of 225 pounds. 35½" vertical leap. Runs with good vision and balance. Effective between the tackles. Able to break tackles and gain yards after initial contact. Smooth change of directions. Patient, allows blocks to develop before accelerating through the hole. Runs north and south. Can bounce the play outside when need be. Can make the first defender miss. Able to convert short yardage plays. Protects the ball. Capable receiver out of the backfield. Shows some ability as a route runner. Will extend hands and catch the ball out away from body. Shows blocking ability with good blitz awareness and recognition. Has been effective returning kicks. Hard worker. Coachable, will do the film study, weight room work, and the little things to be effective on the next level. Competitive team player.
CONCERNS: Average instincts. Lacks a burst and the speed to take it the distance. Not elusive or creative. Was not invited to the Combine.
SUMMARY: Not flashy, but a halfback than can run, catch, block, and return kicks.
Sometimes it is difficult to break stereotypes. The concerns mentioned in the report have actually proven to be rather misguided and unfounded, as Thomas has consistently displayed outstanding instincts. According to Saints Head Coach Sean Payton, the architect of the top-ranked offense in 2008, "Pierre's a very elusive runner between the tackles. He's a guy that very rarely, if ever, takes a direct hit and one of the things that I really like is that he never takes run for negative yardage. He's always going forward."
Additionally, the comment stating that Thomas lacked "a burst and the speed to take it the distance," has also been quite wide of the mark. Thomas owns long touchdown runs of 24 yards, 31 yards and 42 yards during his career, a kickoff return of 88 yards and adding receptions out of the backfield that he has turned into a 24 yard gain and another one he took 20 yards for a touchdown.
His rushing average of 4.8 yards per carry, Payton said, is an accurate portrayal of the type of runner Thomas is. "He makes a guy miss and then he keeps going and a lot of times it takes two or three or more guys to bring him down. That's a credit to his strength and balance."
Lastly, the part about not being elusive or creative is hardly the view shared by perennial Chicago Bears All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who said of Thomas, "He's shifty, has moves and makes guys miss. He's a strong guy who doesn't go down on initial contact. He keeps his feet moving all the time."
Thomas, if you may recall, became the first player in Saints history (and only the second rookie ever) to gain over100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game contest when he had 105 yards on the ground on 20 carries and 12 receptions for 121 yards at Chicago in 2007. "He's consistent and been a very pleasant find for us," said Payton. "He's a guy that has certainly found his way onto the radar screen around the NFL and people know who he is and what he can do. He's fit in well here."
So, with just over two weeks left before the NFL Draft, Thomas can look back two years ago and see a professional journey that began with a nameless jersey hanging in his locker, but has come to signify so much more to both he and the Saints.