We’d never heard of him. He was too short, too slow and arrived too low in the draft to imagine he’d have much of a future. He had a Texas drawl. He was built like a fire hydrant. He had a lousy NFL Scouting Combine, further plummeting a regard for him that was marginal to begin with.
”My vertical jump was pretty bad. It was embarrassing,” he recalls. “They started it at 10 feet high and every player in that line reached it the first time but me. They had to lower it for me. I just can’t jump ...”
Zach Thomas can chuckle about that, 21 years later. He hasn’t forgotten it, though. Neither has he forgotten his scarlet number: 154.
Yes, 153 other times NFL teams told him no thanks in that 1996 draft before the Miami Dolphins took a shot in him in the fifth round.
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It sort of worked out OK.
Zach came out of a tiny town called Pampa in northern Texas by way of Texas Tech and left 12 years later as one of the greatest defensive players in Dolphins history. He would make seven Pro Bowls, and nobody in franchise annals had more tackles (the very point of defense) than the stalwart inside linebacker who became such a fan favorite.
Who will be the next Zach?
Or the next Jake Scott, the great safety who came via the seventh round.
Or the next Mark Clayton, the prolific receiver who was an eighth-round pick back when the drafts were longer.
Did the Dolphins unearth their next future gem on Saturday?
Excellent safety Reshad Jones (in 2010) and sudden-star running back Jay Ajayi (2015) both were fifth-rounders, getting to Miami not on any red carpet lined with paparazzi, but through the back door sans fanfare.
Jim Kiick, Bryan Cox, Ed Newman, Doug Betters, Vern Den Herder — all fifth round or lower.
The Dolphins in their history have drafted 15 players in the fifth round or lower who combined to make 37 Pro Bowls. Finds like that help doubly, because you not only have mined talent others missed, but that lower-round talent comes cheap, too.
So who’s next? We can’t know yet, but did we hear his name called Saturday?
That is the real intrigue of the annual NFL Draft. That also is a major divider separating consistently strong teams from those perpetually trying to be.
The glamorous first round that gets Day 1 all to itself is where the attention and money disproportionately goes. The second and third rounds on Day 2 also feature known players expected to make an impact.
It is the Day 3 guys in rounds four through seven who present the real challenge. The diamonds are out there, but they are covered in mud. Their intangible assets like heart and attitude and desire cannot be measured and, therefore, get overshadowed by the height an inch short or the speed two-tenths of a second slow or the draftnik-jargon such as one of the criticisms they had of Zach: “Stiff in the hips.” Whatever that means.
It takes smart scouts and personnel guys to find the disregarded gems, and general managers or coaches willing to play a hunch to draft them.
Takes luck, too.
Jimmy Johnson, then in his first season as Dolphins coach, always gets credit for drafting Zach Thomas. But the credit really starts with then-special teams coach Mike Westhoff, who flew to Texas. Westhoff was sent became Miami saw Zach as a special-teams guy, a bottom-of-the-roster body, not a starter, let alone a star.
Westhoff and Thomas hit it off. The coach sold Johnson on Zach with the help of a little creativity.
“He asked me how many reps I could do on the bench press, and I told him 20,” Thomas said.
That was a shade low for a middle linebacker.
“I saw him write down 23,” Thomas said.
Thomas had been one of three finalists for the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top college linebacker. The others were Kevin Hardy, who was the ’96 draft’s second overall pick, and some guy named Ray Lewis, also a first-rounder.
And there sat Thomas, ignored into the fifth round.
When finally the Dolphins telephoned that house in Pampa, only Zach, his parents and sister were there. He had been afraid to throw a draft “party” for fear he might not even be drafted at all.
“I remember seeing a lot of linebackers going ahead of me and for some of them I’m thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” recalls Thomas. “It was humbling. It was very motivating to me.”
He spent a long, decorated career driven to prove himself.
Did the next Zach Thomas become a Dolphin on Saturday?
By degrees, we will all find out together.