2011 was a brutal season for back up tight end David Thomas. He played in just 5 games, and finished the season with 5 receptions for 16 yards. Not exactly the kind of production you're hoping for in a guy you count on. The reason for the lack of productivity after two very productive seasons with the Saints before 2011 was that Thomas suffered a major concussion in week three against the Houston Texans. He remained inactive for 5 weeks following that concussion, and returned to play in just two games before he was concussed again against the Falcons. That second concussion ended his season and he was shelved away on IR.
As always, and now more than ever, we know concussions can end a player's career very abrutly. Randall Gay is a perfect example of a player that suffered a massive concussion and has never been the same since. In fact, there was a story that came out in late May that Gay is still suffering from post concussion symptoms, despite not having played for almost two years now. Gay retired when he was still a capable cover man and just 28 years old. David Thomas turns 29 today (happy birthday to him!).
Based on the Saints' depth at his position, there's still a place for Thomas on the roster if he can stay healthy. Obviously Jimmy Graham is the starter and arguably the best player at that position in the entire league right now, but behind him there's a lot of question marks. Thomas is a guy the Saints know and trust. He's a versatile player that can run a little bit, block extremely well, and catch. That's the kind of diversity that's a luxury to have in a backup tight end. After those two the Saints only have 2nd year man Michael Higgins, who was on the roster last year and has some promise, and undrafted rookie free agent Jake Byrne. I have no idea how Byrne is doing so far, but I do know the Saints like Higgins a lot. The only issue with Higgins is that he's quite light in the pads and there's no question he needs to add bulk if he wants to manage anywhere near the level of responsibility Thomas had in the past.
But let's face it, Higgins and Byrne are both long shots to contribute consistently and well on this team. If Thomas stays anywhere close to healthy, he's by far and away the best option as a primary backup tight end behind Graham. We know the Saints like to rotate in backup tackles as "tight ends" as well to have more bulk on edge blocking, so that's also part of the reason why you're seeing less true tight ends on the roster. There's a good chance the Saints will only carry two true tight ends, so that second spot is destined for Thomas if he can keep his head clear.
We all know far too well, once you have one major concussion, minor ones seem to come very easily thereafter. At this point the odds of Thomas getting through this 2012 without any problems is something I'd rate at less than 50%. That sounds harsh I know, and believe me no one would love to see Thomas stay healthy more than me, but the bottom line is I do think the Saints have done a poor job preparing for the possibility that David Thomas can't play football anymore. We have to at least acknowledge that risk, because anytime a player sits out an entire season with a concussion, it's incredibly serious. In Thomas' case, the Saints couldn't get him cleared medically for over a month, finally got him back on the field, and he had a setback with the same injury almost immediately that ended his season. How that played out is not a good sign at all, though hopefully his time off since the recurrence has allowed him to at least recover more fully.
So while David Thomas is the clear #2 guy at this position if he can play, that's a big if, so the Saints need to keep their eyes open for availability at tight end. The cupboard is pretty bare at the moment. If you look at the list of available free agents veteran tight ends right now, there's a lot of old names far past their prime mixed in with some nobodies. That could change down the road as rosters trim down and players get released, though, and the Saints would be well advised to watch that very closely in case things don't work out for Thomas.