Bryan Thomas hasn't had his head in the Long Beach sand. He knows that with the free agency signing of Calvin Pace and sixth-pick-of-the-draft selection of Vernon Gholston, the Jets' OLB depth chart has turned busier than the Port Authority bus terminal at rush hour.
He's just not stressing out over it.
"I don't mind that. This game is about competition," Thomas told newyorkjets.com after today's OTA practice. "Every year they bring in competition. I can't let that thought play in my head. The only thing I can do is just worry about what's going on with B.T."
Yet B.T. does allow one thing: that the Pace-Gholston factor has got his competitive juices flowing.
"No you've got two outside linebackers who've come in, that pushes you even more," he said. "It shouldn't have to come down to that. I should be able to go out there and work hard every day. But now you know you've got competition out there and that's going to make you work even harder."
This, of course, is the magic of the NFL. You could be a veteran contributor, a long-time starter, a perennial Pro Bowler, and at some point the organization is going to bring in someone to try to take your job.
"Bryan and I have talked a lot throughout the off-season and during the season as well," head coach Eric Mangini said at today's news conference. "It's part of what always happens. There's always a high draft pick at some position, always free agents at some position. You've just got to go out and compete and establish your role, how you're going to contribute.
"Year after year with Otis Smith, we'd bring 'em in and he'd beat 'em out," Mangini said of the former Patriots and Jets cornerback. "Ty Law? I know he played with a ton of different guys on the other side. Lawyer Milloy ... that's just kind of the way it is."
Of course, some NFL veterans are more secure than others. Thomas knows there was a downturn in his pass-rush production, from the 8.5 sacks in his first year in Mangini and Bob Sutton's 3-4 alignment in 2006 to 2.5 sacks last season. And even though '07 wasn't a great year for anyone in Green & White, B.T. is a good guy and conscientious player who has taken his season personally.
"My main thing right now is football — that's what pays the bills, and that's what I have to focus on," he said. "Last year I struggled some. So this year I have to come out and prove it's not just like a one-hit thing. I have to improve on what I did the first year in this defense."
Mangini was asked what might have been in Thomas' personalized book, one of the set of books the coaching staff compiled this off-season and distributed to all the players, not, the coach said, as much report cards as tip sheets.
"I think with Bryan there were some things I was pleased with. I think he made some strides in the running game," Mangini said. "I think he's continuing to evolve as a standup linebacker, getting better in terms of coverage, pass rush. He made some progress in some areas, and in some areas we're continuing to work on change-of-pace rushes, things along those lines."
The run defense aspect may have been hard to see because of the Jets' difficulty stopping enemy ballcarriers the first half of the season, but if we're going to point to a downturn in sacks, it's only fair to say that Thomas also improved his tackles at or behind the line, by an unofficial count from 3.5 tackles in '06 to 7.5 last season, second on the Jets to David Harris (9.5 tackles) and B.T.'s best total since he was a D-end in 2004 (10.5).
But that won't quiet many of his critics, and it also doesn't give him much solace, either.
"Last year there were some things I had to do that I kind of struggled at on the run defense, that I need to get better at," he said. "Things like squeezing the gap that's designated as my gap within the defense on a play."
It's hard to say how the front lines, offensive or defensive, are faring during this period on the NFL calendar when no one wears shoulder pads and no one is supposed to hit the ground. But Thomas appears to be holding up his end of the line opposite Pace, who came over from the Cardinals, while Gholston is still waiting for the green light to transition from being an Ohio State student to a Jets player.
No. 99 even likes the moves his front office has made and the vibe that has resulted.
"I feel the organization did a lot of good things to bring people in and put them in position," he said. "Calvin, he's played some 3-4. And Kris Jenkins, he's a big body in the middle. Offensive-wise, they brought some pretty good linemen in. The things they brought in and put in place, I feel they're going to be a very good key to our success."
And Thomas is competing hard to be a part of that success as well.