OXNARD, Calif. – Never know in this NFL when an opportunity is going to pop up, especially during training camp when there is a 90-man bloated roster.
Take Juanyeh Thomas.
He is a first-year safety. Wasn't drafted in 2022 out of Georgia Tech. Signed with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. Spent the entire 18-week season on the practice squad. His only notable moment occurred in the final of three preseason games, closing out a 27-26 victory over Seattle with a tipped ball interception in the final minute, and had the wherewithal to get down with the pick.
Well, the past couple of practices there was this No. 30 getting reps with the first team defense, sending most of us scrambling to our flip card. No. 30?
Juanyeh Thomas, No. 40 a year ago, and not every first-year player never having stepped on an NFL field for a regular-season game is afforded the opportunity to change numbers.
"I wanted to get out of 40," Thomas says of moving to the vacant 30, occupied by last year's four-year veteran wide receiver Quadree Ollison on the practice squad. "Honestly, I didn't think it looked good on me. Wanted to go down."
Having reestablished his on-field identity, Thomas first caught the attention of the coaching staff after catching the attention of the scouts prior to the 2022 draft.
"Big safety," Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay says of what caught their attention prior to the draft. "Good down in the box, in coverage and potential special teamer. And matches up with tight ends."
Well, here came Thomas' opportunity. First non-padded practice of training came here at the River Ridge Complex, starting safety Donovan Wilson, the team's leading tackler this past season and who was re-signed to a three-year deal, goes down with a high calf strain, likely out two to four weeks.
Same day, same practice, third-year safety Israel Mukuamu, who edged his way onto the field last year for 153 snaps, strains a hamstring. Hasn't practiced since.
"Honestly, in this league you get one chance, see what I'm saying," Thomas did say. "And I'm trying not to let the older guys down."
So there he is, working with the first-team defense. Some down in the box. Some in coverage. And he's not pigeonholing himself into a free or strong safety. He classifies himself as a "multiple safety." Perfect for how Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn likes to play his safeties. Think of Wilson's versatility this past season. See Jayron Kearse, a safety big enough to utilize as a third linebacker in some instances, but also capable of covering tight ends or blitzing from the slot.
After all, Thomas stands 6-1, weighs 215, and he was a known hitter while playing all four seasons at Georgia Tech, where he played safety, on the nickel defense and also linebacker, finishing the 2021 season with 81 tackles, most among the non-linebacker defenders. The guy started 33 of the 47 games he played at Tech, and get this, at one point started 27 consecutive games, plus three times a team captain.
Then there is this. Thomas already has graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in literature/media communications, was an honor student in high school where he also played basketball and ran track. Not only that, he set a national high school record by intercepting passes in four consecutive games and eight overall as a sophomore, which certainly discouraged offenses from throwing his way the next two seasons.
But there is another layer to the Cowboys' interest in seeing exactly what he can do at safety. Because as head coach Mike McCarthy said of Thomas on Saturday, "I think when we get to the end of camp, he may be at the front of the line or near the top of taking that (second-year) leap, that leap you are looking for.
"This normally happens in the third, fourth practice. You are looking for young guys you maybe want to move up for more reps, and he's definitely one of those guys."
There is even more to this Thomas guy. Special teams capabilities, and special teams coach John Fassel was advocating for the Cowboys to move him up from the practice squad his rookie season and knows he must replace some core special teams players departing in free agency this year, like Noah Brown and Luke Gifford.
"He has a lot of unique skills," Fassel says, "and he can return, too."
Why, at the sort of walk-off end of practice, there was Fassel, sending simulated punts and kickoffs Thomas' way, seeing how well he can catch the football.
So Juanyeh, you can return kicks, too?
"Well, if you go back and watch my tape in college," he confidently says.
You mean I've got to go look at your numbers from college?
"Got to, got to," Thomas says.
Well, here are the numbers that stood out to me. He returned two kickoffs off for touchdowns with limited opportunities, and McClay says he returned two others for TDs that were called back.
One more thing giving Thomas a chance to make this 53-man roster:
He is in the conversation and crowded competition for the vacant personal protector job on specials teams, one held by Noah Brown last year. According to Fassel, no one else on this 90-man roster has extensive PP experience.
Currently, it's Thomas, first-year safety Tyler Coyle, fourth-year veteran defensive back Sheldrick Redwine, rookie running back Deuce Vaughn and rookie free agent wide receiver David Durden.
"Big competition," Fassel says.
Big opportunity for Thomas, realizing the more you can do, the better opportunity that is given, finding that out this week for sure.
"Honestly, I don't even know," when asked what he might have done to earn the first-team rep opportunities so early in camp. "I just come to work every day and try to perfect my craft."
Big chance, too.