|ADALIUS THOMASOn outside for now|
FOXBOROUGH - Adalius Thomas was stunned. Here the Patriots were, two days from playing their exhibition opener against his former team, the Baltimore Ravens, and he had only been asked a handful of questions by the media swarm, which had now descended on fellow linebacker Mike Vrabel.
"That's it?" Thomas asked with a grin.
Thomas is enjoying the relative anonymity that has come in his second season with the Patriots. The highest-priced free agent acquisition of the Bill Belichick era, Thomas was inundated with questions and expectations at this time last year, after the team backed up the Brinks truck to bring him to New England, dropping off a five-year, $35 million deal with $20 million in bonuses.
That's what happens when you're the "new guy," the player full of hope and promise, the perceived panacea for a defense that needed more playmakers. But Thomas never wanted to stand out as the new guy. All the versatile linebacker wanted was to fit in. That's what the 30-year-old has done this year during camp, simply blend into the banal background.
"You're the new guy and everybody wants to see this and you have to prove this," said Thomas, who was third on the team in tackles last season with 82. "It's not like that now. This year, that's on someone else. You don't like that attention because all attention isn't good attention."
As the Patriots prepare to play tonight at Gillette Stadium against the Ravens, Thomas feels much more at home. It's the little things (knowing the names of teammates and team employees) and the big things (having a greater grasp of the team's complicated 3-4 defense) that have enabled him to settle in and settle down.
The result could be that Thomas resembles the player who was the Patriots' best defender in Super Bowl XLII, collecting five tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hits, and a forced fumble. That was the type of effort Patriots fans expected to see from the outset last season from Thomas, the player who led all linebackers in sacks from 2004-06 with 28.
But the expectations may have been unfair.
Yes, the Patriots and Ravens both employ 3-4 defenses, but saying they're the same would be like saying a Cadillac Escalade and a Chevy Corvette are identical because they're both automobiles. The Ravens tend to attack and blitz more out of their 3-4, while the Patriots are more read and react. The 6-foot-2-inch, 270-pound Thomas, who finished second to Vrabel on the team in sacks last season with 6 1/2, couldn't unleash his uncanny athleticism until he could wrap his mind around the Patriots' defense.
The player who had earned the moniker "The Coordinator" from Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan for his X's-and-O's mastery of the Ravens' defense found himself uncertain of his surroundings on the field, thinking instead of reacting.
"I definitely know a lot more than I did last year," said Thomas. "What a difference a year makes, I guess. Just being in the same system and understanding your job and being able to help some of the [other] guys."
Adding to Thomas's transition was the fact he was being asked to play an unfamiliar position.
While Thomas became famous for playing anywhere from defensive end to safety for the Ravens, Baltimore had usually used him as an attacking outside linebacker. The Patriots stuck Thomas at inside linebacker to plug a gaping hole. He made some plays there - most notably a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Chargers in Week 2 - but not enough to satisfy the naysayers who didn't take into account that what was best for the team wasn't necessarily best for him.
"That's how it always is. You want to get the best 11 people on the field in whatever kind of configuration it is," said Thomas. "No one person is bigger than the team. The team comes first. Whatever is best for the team we'll do."
It wasn't until he was shifted to outside linebacker against the Bills in the 10th game of the season that Thomas took off. Six of his sacks came from the 10th game on, and the shift became permanent when Rosevelt Colvin went down with a foot injury against the Eagles in the 11th game.
During camp, Thomas primarily has been practicing at right outside linebacker, where he figures to play opposite Pro Bowl selection Vrabel. However, with it unclear whether rookie first-round pick Jerod Mayo will pick up the defense fast enough, whether Victor Hobson can make the move to 3-4 inside linebacker, and whether Junior Seau will give up surfing for a 19th season, Belichick is having Thomas take some practice snaps inside.
"As long as I'm in between the lines, I'm fine," said Thomas, who claimed he didn't have a position preference. "I'll let Bill decide that. He prefers. He does all the preferring here."
Thomas said he's not bothered by the fact some believe he hasn't played as advertised yet for the Patriots and hasn't provided equal return on his payday.
"No, you have to keep that at bay," said Thomas. "You do that by coming in and not trying to set expectations. You don't come in here and say, 'I'm going to do this. I'm going to do that.' That's one thing you try not to ever do, regardless of what your contract situation is."
What is he trying to do? Fit in.
"You just come in here and try to be like a finger," Thomas said. "You try not to be the thumb. You try to blend in. People get excited at first because you're the new guy on the team and everything, and that's great, but at the same time, you have to be humble and wear your [Humble Pie] T-shirt and calm down. It will go away."
For Thomas, that really is it.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.