Jemea Thomas and Brandon Watts arrived at Georgia Tech in 2009 with something less than jaw-dropping recruiting rankings. Watts was a three-star linebacker from Washington County High, the 68th-ranked player in the state in the 2009 signing class. Thomas, from Fitzgerald High, was the 36th-ranked athlete in the nation and the 27th-ranked player in Georgia, also a three-star.
Watts, a two-year starter at linebacker, and Thomas, a fan-favorite defensive back, got the last laugh Saturday, as Thomas was selected in the sixth round by New England and Watts went in the seventh and final round to Minnesota. They followed defensive end Jerry Attaochu, who was picked in the second round Friday night by San Diego as an outside linebacker.
“It was amazing,” Thomas told Patriots reporters on a conference call Saturday. “My whole family was here screaming. We were waiting on it, and when it came, it was a wonderful moment for all of us.”
After going undrafted, defensive end Emmanuel Dieke agreed to terms on an undrafted free-agent contract with the New York Giants, who were impressed with him after a private workout.
Also undrafted, cornerback Louis Young, a three-year starter, agreed to terms with Denver. Defensive tackle Euclid Cummings, who thrived this season in a 4-3 defense with new line coach Mike Pelton, will go to camp with Tampa Bay.
Adam Bakow, the agent for A-back Robert Godhigh, wrote in a text message that he was hopeful that Godhigh could catch on with the Falcons, although it likely wouldn’t happen until later this week.
It was Tech’s first draft with multiple players selected since the four-player draft in 2010 following the ACC championship season — Derrick Morgan, Demaryius Thomas, Morgan Burnett and Jonathan Dwyer — and just the third time since the draft was reduced to seven rounds in 1994 that three Tech defensive players were selected. It was in no small part because of the fact that Tech’s senior class was larger than it had been in recent years.
For Watts and Thomas, it was a victory for proving recruiting rankings wrong (again), but also for demonstrating their worthiness of a shot in the NFL despite physical shortcomings. Thomas is 5-foot-9, and only one of the 43 defensive backs drafted is shorter. But his superior instincts and ball skills made him a clutch playmaker who likely will have to earn his way onto the Patriots’ roster via special teams.
“At Tech, I played it all,” Thomas said. “I played every position in the secondary, so whatever they want me to come in and play, that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”
Watts lacks the typical heft for a linebacker — at 225 pounds, he was the second-lightest linebacker selected out of 34 — but his agility made him a productive player for the Jackets.
Fate and Watts’ burning speed intervened on Tech’s Pro Day on March 28. Watts was timed in the 4.4-second range in the 40-yard dash and also demonstrated his explosiveness with strong scores in the broad jump and vertical jump. Further, Watts did his linebacker drills along with Attaochu, whom most of the scouts present clustered to watch. Watts’ smooth performance almost certainly raised his profile.
The Vikings were among teams who later sent a coach to work him out privately. Likewise, the Patriots also dispatched a coach to drill Thomas leading to the draft.
Last season, first-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof received considerable credit for turning around a defense that improved from 28.3 points per game in 2012 (tied for 65th in the country) — the average was 30.2 points per game when coordinator Al Groh was fired after six games — to 22.8 points per game last season (tied for 29th). The NFL’s selection of the three was clear evidence of the impact that they, not to mention other players such as Dieke, had on the improvement.
Attaochu flew to San Diego on Saturday to meet with team officials and local media. He told a story of how he thought that San Diego would be a nice place to play, similar to feelings he had about Tech after watching the Jackets beat Miami in 2008.
“This is definitely the place I need to be,” he said.