As we count down the days to training camp, Around the League will examine one player from every team set for a breakout campaign in 2012. Up next: the San Diego Chargers.
Cam Thomas is the future starting nose tackle in San Diego, and the future could start now.
There are so many known commodities on the Chargers, it was difficult to find a suitable candidate for a "breakout" player. Running back Ryan Mathews is under the gun to become a workhorse back, but he ran for 1,000 yards last season, caught 50 balls out of the backfield and ranked in the top 10 in Football Outsiders' DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) and DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average).
Malcom Floyd? He's 30 and led the NFL in yards per reception in 2011. Linebacker Donald Butler? He was second behind Takeo Spikes in tackles last season. 2011 first-round pick Corey Liuget? Yeah, but picking a 2011 first-rounder seems too obvious.
That brings us back to Thomas.
A 2010 fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, the 6-foot-4, 335-pound Thomas played sparingly as a rookie (dressed for just six games) before starting two of 16 games last season.
In less than 40 percent of the team's snaps last season, Thomas had 20 tackles, including six for a loss, and a career-high four sacks. Thomas' sack total ranked second on the Chargers behind Antwan Barnes, another part-time player who made efficient use of his playing time.
Speaking of maximizing time on the field, Thomas has logged fewer than 500 snaps in his career, yet he has six sacks. Over the same time span, Chargers starting nose tackle Antonio Garay has eight sacks in nearly 1,000 snaps.
Thomas is expected to open training camp behind Garay, who was re-signed to a two-year, $6.6 million contract March 30, but it's clear that the team has liked the progress the prototypical nose tackle has shown. That the team was willing to play hardball with Garay, who turns 33 in November, is evidence of the confidence they have in Thomas.
Furthermore, the structure of Garay's contract leaves it open for Thomas to earn the starting job, before or during this season. Of Garay's $6.6 million contract, just the $750,000 signing bonus is guaranteed, and $5 million of the deal comes in 2013. Don't be surprised if Thomas is starting long before then.