Bryan Thomas has always tried to improve his game in the off-season, dissecting himself on video to see what he did wrong or right on particular plays.
In reviewing last season, he probably found more right than wrong than in any other previous year.
"At first everything was new to me," Thomas said after today's morning practice, the seventh of training camp. "But now that I'm in the scheme of things I pretty much know what to expect with certain defenses."
After converting from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 end/outside linebacker, Thomas fulfilled the promise he showed when the Jets drafted him with the 22nd overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, registering career highs in sacks (8.5) and tackles (77).
He showed a knack for the big play, blocking a field goal in Week 2 against New England and forcing a fumble against Green Bay in Week 13 led to a touchdown. He got better as the season went along, getting 7.5 of his sacks in the Jets' last nine games. He was flagged for only one penalty all season.
Most important, he showed consistency and maturity.
"He has a better feel for being on his feet all the time," said Jets head coach Eric Mangini in December. "A better feel for dropping into coverage, a better sense of rushing the passer from an outside linebacker position as opposed to a down guy."
For his efforts, B.T. was rewarded with a five-year contract extension toward the end of last season.
Coming out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Thomas was regarded as an athletically gifted defensive end. Not many men at his position at any level could claim to run a sub-4.5 40-yard dash and have a 35-inch vertical leap, which is what Thomas had at the 2002 combine workouts.
But during his rookie season Thomas discovered he could not blow by offensive tackles as he did in college. He found himself buried on the depth chart behind two experienced players at his position. He cites both players as key mentors during his rookie season and beyond.
"The guys that really helped me out were John Abraham and Shaun Ellis," he said. "They really took me up under their wing and taught me a lot of the fundamentals of the game, telling me what to expect and when you come out here now everything is not about just trying to speed somebody around the corner like you did in college."
Now, after his second off-season adjusting to a new position and system, Thomas believes he can be even better.
"I'm just doing things I needed to work on from the past year as far as getting to quarterback better, playing better run defense," he said. "That's all it is. It's just about getting my technique and focusing on things I didn't see last year. You just have to build off of every year because if you get complacent, that's when things go wrong."
During training camp, you can see there are reminders of Thomas' days as a defensive end when he lines up as the outside rusher in nickel packages and attempts to utilize his abilities as a speed rusher from the edge.
On one particular play, Thomas was lined up against left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and forced to the outside away from the quarterback. It was an example of the difficulties Thomas experienced while playing the position his first four years with the Jets.
"It's more about a lot of technique because the tackles now are good," he said. "There's not a tackle now you can say, 'OK, well, I can beat him.' Now everybody is good."
As an outside linebacker, Thomas has found his niche, providing a stable veteran presence in the Jets' front seven. He is given more freedom to roam and put his outstanding skills, as shown by his measurables, to good use.
"It's coming a little better as far as me thinking, 'Oh, man, what do I have to do in this defense or that defense?' " Thomas said. "Now everything is falling in a little bit better."