Every year the NFL Draft has a diamond in the rough, a guy who suddenly skyrockets up Draft boards. This year that guy is Aztecs defensive lineman Cameron Thomas.
Thomas was among the nation’s leaders in sacks and tackles for loss but most folks outside the Mountain West Conference don’t know much about conference Defensive Player of the Year. NFL scouts, however, are thinking this guy is a 1st round talent.
In fact, Cam is even drawing comparisons to J.J. Watt. That is not a typo. Let's all acknowledge first that J.J. Watt is one of the most dominant defensive players in football history and a surefire 1st ballot Hall of Famer. Only Watt, Aaron Donald, and Lawrence Taylor have won three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. So, this level of praise is not given lightly.
Longtime analyst Luke Easterling, Editor of USA Today’s Draft Wire and a man who is not known for bouts of severe hyperbole, made that comparison. I asked him about putting the Carlsbad High School alum in the same class as a 5-time 1st team All-Pro.
Get San Diego local news, weather forecasts, sports and lifestyle stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC San Diego newsletters.
“I try to avoid such lofty comparisons, but as prospects, it's hard not to see the similarities,” says Easterling. “Size, length, athleticism, physicality, versatility. Heading into that draft, nobody thought Watt would be as dominant as he became.”
The comp is not as out there as it might seem. Thomas and Watt have strikingly similar back stories. First, they’re the same size: both 6’5” tall with Thomas weight in at 270 pounds and Watt at 280.
Neither guy was a highly recruited high school player. Watt initially went to Central Michigan … as a tight end. He transferred to Wisconsin, redshirted as he transitioned to defense, and became a superstar. Thomas was expected to play linebacker and wasn’t even the highest-ranked player named Cameron Thomas in his recruiting class (a wide receiver had more hype but didn’t pan out). He also redshirted for a year to grown into the defensive line role and is becoming a superstar.
Both guys also feature a remarkably polished set of pass-rushing moves early in their careers and have the reputation as being relentless in their pursuit of quarterbacks.
They could have a couple more things in common. Watt left after his junior year and was a 1st round pick. Thomas also has the option of heading to the professional ranks after his junior season and just might be a 1st rounder. If he chooses to return for his senior season he could do what Watt did a decade prior and be the first pass rusher off the board when the 2023 NFL Draft rolls around.
Oh, and how about we add another all-timer to this scenario. San Diego State has had 10 players taken in the 1st round. The last one who was on the defensive side of the ball was cornerback Willie Buchanan in 1972. Buchanan is a member of the vaunted Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Cameron Thomas has a chance to make a whole lot of history, even if most of the country isn’t aware of it. Yet.