Six days before the first round of the N.F.L. draft, Chris Slade, the head football coach at Pace Academy in Atlanta, took a phone call from someone in the Giants organization who wanted to know if there was any reason the team should not select Andrew Thomas, a former Pace player.
The Giants had good reason to trust Slade’s judgment, and not just because he has known Thomas since the player was in the eighth grade. Slade was also an N.F.L. linebacker for nine years, including four under the Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells with the New England Patriots. Slade knows what it takes to carve out a long, successful career in the N.F.L.
“I told them, ‘You have absolutely nothing to worry about,’” Slade recalled in a telephone interview on Friday, and added: “Everything you want in a left tackle, he does it. He’ll be one of those guys that can play in the N.F.L. for 12 or 15 years.”
With Slade’s reassuring words confirming their own convictions, the Giants selected Thomas, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive tackle from of the University of Georgia, with the fourth pick over all on Thursday. They chose Thomas over a field of six other notable offensive linemen who were taken in the first round, including the Jets’ top pick, Mekhi Becton, a tackle from Louisville.
Dave Gettleman, the Giants general manager, said that he was especially drawn to Thomas because of his performances against many top college edge rushers. One, in particular, stood out: a 2018 matchup against Thomas Josh Allen, a Kentucky pass rusher now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, that went favorably for Thomas. Gettleman said he recently went back to look at that tape ahead of the draft.
“We spent a lot of time on this,” Gettleman said, “and we want to fix this offensive line once and for all.”
Thomas’s role will be to protect Jones on passing plays and shove defenders aside when Barkley gets the ball. Thomas excels at run blocking, but the Giants believe his long arms will be a significant asset in pass protection, too. His one weakness, coaches say, is that he sometimes gets caught lunging at defenders.
“I’ll do my best to help protect the quarterback and open up lanes,” the understated Thomas said Thursday on a conference call shortly after he was drafted. “It’s a blessing to be able to play with guys as talented as they are.”
Thomas had an exceptional career at Georgia, allowing just two sacks in 41 games over three seasons. He started at right tackle as a freshman, then moved to the left side for his sophomore and junior seasons, earning first-team all-American honors. Last year, he won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the Southeastern Conference’s top blocker, no small feat in a league that is widely considered the best in college football.
But Thomas was not always so dominant. Slade and Kevin Johnson, Thomas’s position coach at Pace, were not so certain about his dedication to football in high school.
As a freshman and sophomore, he was big and raw but not overly ambitious. Slade said Thomas was just another guy, with perhaps more interest in music than in playing football. Thomas is a trained piano player who reads music and plays the drums and other percussion instruments.
After Thomas’s sophomore year, Slade summoned his best Parcellsian tough-love demeanor and told Thomas it was time to get serious.
“I told him, ‘Listen, either you are going to play in the band, or you’re going to play left tackle,’” Slade said. “You have to make a decision because right now, you’re not good at either one of them.’
“It was like one of those come-to-Jesus, Bill Parcells moments, and boom, the light bulb went off for him. Once he got locked in, he was a different kid.”
With Thomas’s renewed commitment assured, Slade allowed him to continue playing in the school pep band and at rallies. He would play drums and cymbals in the band, then join the team when the players were introduced.
“He’s a good musician now,” Slade said. “He takes it seriously, it’s not just banging on things and giving people headaches.”
These days, the headaches are reserved for opponents.
Slade credits Johnson, Thomas’s position coach, for helping him discover his motivation and guiding him through his adolescent years. Thomas still considers Johnson his mentor, and the coach was with the Thomas family when Andrew was drafted on Thursday night.
During his freshman year at Georgia it was Johnson who informed him that his father, Andre Thomas, had suffered a stroke.
“It was very hard,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “They are a very close family. Andre had to retire from his job in construction, but he’s doing much better now.”
Originally from East New York, Brooklyn, Johnson played offensive line at the University of South Carolina, another SEC school.
“There’s three leagues you have to respect, the N.F.C., the A.F.C. and the SEC,” Johnson said. “Andrew was going up against the best talent in the country, and he gave up only two sacks in 41 games. He’s ready for the N.F.C., now.”
Slade, who played a good deal of right outside linebacker in the pros, spent much of that time grappling with elite left tackles. But the player that he considers most like Thomas is D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who joined the NF.L. after Slade retired in 2001. Like Thomas, Ferguson was the fourth over all draft pick, taken by the Jets in 2006. He played until 2015 and made three Pro Bowls.
Both players are talented, Slade said, as well as tough and similarly even-tempered.
“Yeah, he can be quiet,” Johnson said of Thomas. “But don’t be fooled. He’ll get those bear claws up in guys, you can be sure of that.”
Like all other rookies this year, Thomas does not know when his first practice will be or when the first game will take place. The coronavirus outbreak has shut down the N.F.L. and other professional leagues. But Thomas said he has been given special access to a gym in Atlanta, where he will prepare alone.
“It’s hard to tell with the pandemic going on, but just moving forward, I’ll be communicating with the team about the playbook,” Thomas said, “and I’ll be doing what I can to stay in shape for whenever I can step on the field.”
Ben Shpigel contributed reporting.