Josh Thomas barely had time to process it all.
One day, he was trying to make the 53-man roster of the Dallas Cowboys – the team he grew up rooting for in his hometown of Cedar Hill, Texas, and the one that selected him in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
The next, he was on a plane to Carolina.
Thomas’ NFL career got off to an inauspicious start when the Cowboys took the unusual step of cutting their fifth-round draft pick.
“Yeah, man, when they asked me to turn in my playbook, obviously it’s a shock,” Thomas said this week. “I thought I was having a great camp. They had some different avenues they wanted to explore.”
The Cowboys reportedly wanted to sneak Thomas – a cornerback who played in college for the University at Buffalo – onto their practice squad, but the Panthers didn’t afford them that opportunity. One day after he was released, Carolina claimed Thomas off waivers.
“I didn’t really have too much time to really think about it, because I was in North Carolina the very next day,” Thomas said of his release. “The way the NFL works, it’s a day-to-day job, so you never know where you’re going to be. But for me, it’s definitely been a blessing.”
Thomas will get his first opportunity to return to Western New York as a professional Sunday when the Carolina Panthers visit Ralph Wilson Stadium to play the Buffalo Bills.
“It’s going to be nice for me to get back to Buffalo,” Thomas said via phone after the Panthers finished practice Thursday. “For me, it’s always been a great atmosphere. It’s a great football town.”
Thomas returns to town as the starting left cornerback for the Panthers, a role he took over in the final four games of 2012 and continued in Sunday’s season opener against Seattle.
“He’s a good, physical football player,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week.
“He does a great job for us. He’s young, he’s learning, he’s gaining experience. The only way he’s going to get better is to continue to play and that’s what we’re doing with Josh. I think he has the opportunity to be a guy that could play in this league for a long time and be a starting corner for a long time.”
It’s been a steady rise for Thomas from the low of being cut by his hometown team.
When he joined the Panthers, he played in nine games as a rookie in 2011, mostly on special teams.
“I really had to earn my stripes that first year,” Thomas said. “I was running with the third team, but I had an opportunity, and I had to make the most of it.”
When training camp arrived prior to the 2012 season, Thomas was up to the second team. He appeared in all 16 games last season, finishing second on the team in passes defensed with seven.
“It’s been a blessing to be here,” Thomas said. “From the start of last season to now, I’ve progressed. Hard work definitely pays off, but this is just a start for me.”
Thomas’ ascent has not been without its bumps. Last week against Seattle, he was beaten in coverage by Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse for a 43-yard touchdown pass that proved to be the winning points.
“They got him on a big throw last week,” Rivera said. “They came back after a play and you know, he missed the jam with the guy outside. The receiver pushed away from the safety help and it was a tough play.”
Such is life for an NFL cornerback. A short memory is needed for the job.
“I’ve made that play a million times. It happens to the best of them,” Thomas said. “I obviously have high goals for myself this year. I’m not going to let one play hold me back from what I need to do. I’m really looking forward to this week and going out there and making some game-changing plays. “
Rivera said despite the play, he’s sticking with Thomas.
“Oh, absolutely. I mean, there’s no reason not to. That’s one play and corners are going to have those plays,” he said. “The big disappointment obviously is he missed the jam, he let the guy roll to the outside and get to the sideline. He knows where his leverage help is. He’s got to get in better position and force the issue, but he’s a good football player. There’s no reason, in my opinion, to panic or get him off the field.”
Thomas and the Panthers will arrive in Buffalo around 3 p.m. Saturday. That will give him just enough time to make it to UB for the conclusion of the Bulls’ home opener against Stony Brook.
Thomas has kept a close eye on the program since graduating and believes coach Jeff Quinn has it headed in the right direction.
“I’m a big supporter of the team,” he said. “Coach Quinn, he’s pretty consistent as far as what he preaches. One thing he’s always talked about is being locked into whatever it is you’re doing, whether it’s on the field, or on the job or in the classroom. That’s one of the things I’ve taken with me.”
On Sunday, Thomas will try to lock himself onto the Bills’ receivers.
“I’ve always looked at myself as a starter,” he said. “It was just a matter of time and getting an opportunity. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I’m not surprised.”