Doubts were cast on former middle linebacker Zach Thomas from the moment he joined the Miami Dolphins.
Thomas, according to experts, was too small. He wasn’t fast or athletic enough. He didn’t have a high draft status, was questionable to make the 53-man roster as a fifth-round pick (No. 154 overall) and was the second linebacker taken by the Dolphins behind fourth-rounder LaCurtis Jones in 1996.
But there was something special about Thomas that was apparent right away in South Florida. Scouts and football pundits could not account for his immense heart, football intelligence, leadership, preparation and passion for the game. Those traits, more than anything, led Thomas during a 13-year career that included seven Pro Bowls.
Thomas had 20.5 career sacks, 17 interceptions and 1,076 tackles. However, tackles were not a stat during Thomas' first five seasons. So it is possible that Thomas accumulated 400-600 additional tackles during his career that were not unaccounted for.
Miami’s defense ranked in the top 10 seven straight seasons, from 1998 to 2004, when Thomas was in his prime. He was joined by fellow stud defenders Jason Taylor, a likely Hall of Famer, defensive tackles Daryl Gardener and Tim Bowens and lockdown cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison. Those units probably do not get the credit they deserve because Miami’s offense was mostly putrid during that stretch.
Thomas will best be remembered as the ultimate overachiever for the Dolphins. He came to Miami with few expectations as a former fifth-round pick and retired as one of the top players in franchise history.
Mark Clayton, WR, Louisville: Clayton comes in a close second to Thomas as the Dolphins' best late-round steal. He was taken in the eighth round in 1983, which is the same draft class as former first-round pick and Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. The two joined with receiver Mark Duper to lead a prolific passing attack in the 1980s and early 1990s. Clayton finished with 582 career receptions and five 1,000-yard seasons.
Reshad Jones, S, Georgia: Jones is one of the Dolphins' recent late-round gems. The Dolphins drafted the former safety in the fifth round in 2010, and Jones quickly developed into a full-time starter. Jones led the Dolphins with 135 tackles and five interceptions in 2015. He also made his first Pro Bowl last season.