As long as Matthew Slater plays for the Patriots, Michael Thomas will have an uphill battle to make the Pro Bowl.
Fans, players and coaches elected Slater to the NFL’s all-star game for the seventh-straight year, even though the New England specialist missed nearly half the season.
Thomas, meanwhile, was again overlooked. Wait. Overlooked is too weak of a word, at least in the eyes of Pro Football Focus.
Thomas was snubbed.
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The scouting service tried to make up for it, however, by naming Thomas its NFL special teams player of the year.
Before injury cut his season short after 14 weeks, Thomas had seen at least one snap at 10 different positions on the Dolphins kickoff coverage unit, and he was the Dolphins’ primary punt protector on punts. In these two roles, he racked up 10 special teams tackles, tied for fifth in the league after 14 weeks. More importantly, he didn’t miss a single special teams tackle attempt. Considering how often we see a big play on special teams come as the result of a player missing a tackle or blowing an assignment, Thomas’ consistency when it comes to doing his job was huge for the Dolphins when they kicked or punted the ball away to their opponents.
When you look at his work on the other side of the spectrum, that’s where you really see Thomas stand out. Thomas was often found on the front line of the kickoff return unit, spent time on the defensive line of the punt return unit and even got 11 snaps at vice, where some of his best plays of the year came despite his comparatively small snap count. Arguably as important as the punt returner on those plays, the vice players are responsible for slowing down the gunners who line up as the wide men on the punt unit. With the gunners trying to get downfield to register a tackle, force a fair catch or maintain outside contain and force the returner towards the players charging downfield towards him, the vice can open up big holes down the sideline for the returner if they can properly slow down the gunner they are assigned to.
Thomas, whose 54 special-teams tackles since 2014 are the most in the league, was thrilled by the recognition.
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The Dolphins have a decision to make this offseaason. Do they keep Thomas, an unrestricted free agent?
We can guess what special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi wants.
Thomas has been an indispensable part of what, year-in and year-out, has been the best of the Dolphins’ three phases.
The Dolphins finished the season sixth in PFF’s special teams rankings.
Kicker Cody Parkey and the Dolphins kickoff team allowed the league’s lowest average starting field position among qualifying kickoff units (21.3), with Special Teams Player of the Year Michael Thomas (10 solo tackles, zero missed tackles) shining in all four phases of special teams.
The numbers back up that ranking.
Here’s where the Dolphins finished in several key special teams stats in 2017: Seventh in field goal percentage (91.3), sixth in opponents’ field goal percentage (77.1), ninth in gross punting (46.4 yards per), 14th in net punting (42.2), sixth in opponents’ kickoff returns (19.6), 10th in opponents’ punt return (6.3).
Had they fared better in the return game — the Dolphins ranked 20th in kick returns (20.9) and 21st in punt returns (7.3) — they probably would have had the best special teams, period, in the NFL in 2017.