Raiders add depth at linebacker, sign Thomas

Demonstrating their typical interest in former first-round draft choices whose careers might still be salvaged, the
Oakland Raiders have signed free agent linebacker Robert Thomas, the top pick of the St. Louis Rams in the 2002 draft.

A four-year veteran whose resume includes 41 starts, Thomas was released last week by Green Bay after a draft in which the Packers selected linebackers A.J. Hawk in the first round and Abdul Hodge in the third stanza. Thomas was acquired by the Packers from the Rams in a September 2005 trade.

In 52 career appearances, Thomas has registered 272 tackles, two sacks, one interception, seven passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one recovery. He started in nine of 10 appearances for Green Bay last season, but his campaign was cut short by a quadriceps injury that sidelined him for six of the last seven games and subsequently forced him onto the injured reserve list.

Despite being in the league for four seasons, Thomas is only 25 years old, and the former UCLA standout has been a steady defender when healthy. Thomas has started at both the strongside and weakside spots in the past and his versatility could be valuable to a Raiders team seeking depth and experience.

Second-year veteran Kirk Morrison, a standout during his rookie season in which he started 15 games and posted 116 tackles, seems to have a lock on the weakside position. But in the team's weekend mini-camp, the strongside position was manned by Sam Williams, who missed all of 2005 while rehabilitating from surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and who has made just 10 appearances in his first three years in the league because of injuries.

Oakland did draft linebacker Thomas Howard of Texas-El Paso in the second round. The Raiders chose Southern California safety Darnell Bing in the fourth round and may move him to linebacker. Thomas, a very quick linebacker who plays bigger than his size, could be a candidate to start and at worst provides an experienced backup who can play multiple positions.

His best season was in 2003 when, despite starting just 11 games, Thomas recorded 102 tackles and a pair of sacks. One notable negative is that, because of injuries, Thomas has not played a full 16-game season since his 2002 rookie campaign.

The Raiders have also signed free agent tailback Rod Smart, who gained famed by wearing "He Hate Me" across the back of his uniform jersey while playing in the short-lived XFL. Smart, 29, has played five years in the NFL, the last four seasons with the Carolina Panthers, and has been a special teams standout.

Smart has appeared in 53 games. He has 78 kickoff returns for an average of 22.2 yards and a touchdown, but his bigger contributions have come on coverage units, where he has 53 career tackles.

Contract details for the deals signed by Thomas and Smart were not yet available.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.