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Carolina Panthers

Former XFLer Jordan Thomas dives into defense

Jordan Thomas

CHARLOTTE – An untrained eye could've sworn it was seeing double during Panthers' rookie minicamp. But there weren't two 6-foot-5, 280-pound tryout players named Jordan Thomas at the Atrium Health dome; Thomas was just playing both sides.

An employee carried around two jerseys for Thomas – a No. 85 and a No. 99 – while he worked out at tight end (the position he knows best) and outside linebacker (a newer challenge presented to him during his latest stint in the XFL last spring).

"This league is all about the more you can do," Thomas said. "So I'm open to whatever, honestly. Be an athlete, and that's what I've been my whole life. It's just been fun."

Perhaps it took an extra chunk of observation to keep up with Thomas that weekend as he swapped positions, but the Panthers liked enough of the potential they saw from the versatile 26-year-old to give him another shot at the NFL. 

Carolina signed him after tryouts, and he has worked primarily on the defensive side ever since, working at outside linebacker and providing depth during OTAs. 

"It was like, 'We love you on offense, and we love you on defense, but we think you have a lot of potential on defense too,'" Thomas said of his conversations with coaches after the tryout. "We're still working it, but I've been working mostly on defense at outside linebacker. I've been adjusting, so whatever y'all need me to do is the answer for me. That's just me."

Jordan Thomas, John Lilly

Before March of this year, Thomas hadn't played a defensive snap since his freshman year of high school – in 2011. He played tight end for two years at the junior college level before spending the last two seasons of his college career at Mississippi State, and he was drafted to the NFL as a tight end in 2018, a sixth-round selection by the Texans.

From 2018-22, Thomas bounced around five rosters – Houston, Arizona, New England, Indianapolis, and Detroit – hauling in 22 catches for 226 yards and five touchdowns over 27 games in his NFL career.

He landed in the XFL with the St. Louis Battlehawks last November, and after they released him midway through the 2023 season, he found another stop with the Orlando Guardians, signing on March 27 of this year.

That's where Orlando head coach Terrell Buckley introduced the idea of playing at defensive end in the XFL to Thomas, who jumped at an opportunity to learn. 

"(It was) just something with my skill set that they'd seen," Thomas said. "Coach Buckley just asked me, like, 'Would you be open to playing defense too?' I'm like, 'coach Buck, whatever you want me to do, I'm here.'" 

In his first game at Orlando, Thomas played consistent snaps on offense, defense, and special teams (he returned a kick in his Guardians debut), realizing in the locker room at halftime that he hadn't sat down for the whole contest, he said.

Jordan Thomas

Thomas totaled 148 yards and three touchdowns on eight catches as a pass catcher in the XFL this season. At the same time, he was learning how to play on the other side, taking what he already knew from blocking at tight end and studying his new position off the field. 

"I'm very adjustable; I've been able to play offense and blocking defensive ends, and I have an idea of what they want me to do, things like that," Thomas said. "Ever since I've been on this side of the ball, I've been studying a lot of defensive ends – like Preston Smith, guys like that (with) my body stature. I'm still learning."

The XFL schedule wrapped up April 22, and by May 12, Thomas was back on the practice field in the NFL offseason. He was one of three former XFLers that Carolina signed after tryouts, as defensive lineman Antwuan Jackson and wide receiver Gary Jennings also joined out of the spring league.

Thomas said he was driving back from Dallas to his home base in Mississippi when he got the call he'd been invited to try out at Carolina. He remained "adjustable" when he rushed home to unpack, pack again, and catch a flight to Charlotte.

"You've got to be ready," he said. "Stay on your toes. It keeps you on your toes, for sure. Honestly, it's all been fun. This has been a great transition. (I'm) happy to be back out here, honestly, and just taking it all in on the defensive side." 

Now, Thomas hopes to make the most of his second NFL opportunity – this time, with another skill in his arsenal.

View photos of the Panthers signing autographs for PSL owners after practice at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday.

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