Thomas Rawls confidently strides onto the artificial turf of Lucas Oil Stadium. He observes Melvin Gordon, David Johnson, Ameer Abdullah, and the rest of his competition stretching and preparing to showcase their unique athleticism. Thomas understands that he is an underdog of sorts. Transferring to Central Michigan didn’t do his draft stock any favors and he is doing his best to make up as much ground as possible.
He strides towards a combine worker who is measuring heights. 69 inches. Nice.
It is announced that Thomas and the other running backs are to report to the vertical jump. As they slowly congregate at the test, participants step up and, one by one, begin to instill bits of anxiety in Thomas’s mind.
His name is finally called. He squats down, inhales deeply, and explodes upwards, his arm raised skyward.
His fall back towards the turf seems like an eternity.
“Thirty five and a half inches!” a voice barks behind him, as soon as he touches down. Thomas knows that this number puts him right in the middle of the pack. Abdullah had reached a whopping 42.5” and Johnson had hit 41.5”. Zach Fucking Zenner jumped 41”.
He can almost hear the scribbles of scouts’ pencils on paper - “lacks explosiveness in lower body; will have trouble with burst at line of scrimmage.”
Seattle Seahawks starting running back Thomas Rawls lines up in I-formation. There are eight defenders in run support. He understands that he might need to create magic out of thin air.
Mark Glowinski is beaten to the inside, which allows Rawls to cut back to his left. Ziggy Ansah tosses Luke Willson aside like a rag doll before enveloping the back in his arms. Rawls immediately spins out of Ansah’s extensive reach. He bounds forward, turning what should have been no gain into 25 yards.
Rawls flashes back to the NFL Combine and his perceived lack of explosiveness. He chuckles before quickly getting up and jogging back into the huddle.
The 40-yard dash is up next. Thomas knows that the 4.46 he ran at his Pro Day is a great benchmark to shoot for.
He crouches at the line, head down and heart pounding.
He takes off, pumping his arms like two robust pistons powering his entire being. He flies forward until he crashes through the invisible threshold a mere 120 feet downfield.
As Thomas stands there panting and exhausted, his heart begins to sink. It didn’t feel right. He didn’t perform at the peak of his ability.
A time of 4.65 seconds is announced and Thomas frowns, unsatisfied with his run. Only 9 of the other 35 running backs had posted a slower time than him.
He can feel himself tumbling down draft boards as he sits down and disappointment sinks in.
Up three points against the rival Carolina Panthers, Rawls again identifies eight defenders in run support. In a deep singleback set, he readies for the handoff. He prepares to show off the long speed that many believed he didn’t possess.
Rawls receives the football and immediately cuts to his right. Bradley Sowell does a great job engaging Kony Ealy while Germain Ifedi gets to the second level and occupies two defenders. Tyler Lockett does just enough to throw off James Bradberry, giving Rawls an opening into space. He flies through the hole and instantly starts to break away from the pursuing defenders.
At the 15-yard line, he slows. At the 10-yard line, he is gassed. At the 5-yard line, he fights through the pain and the recovering defensive backs to continue forward motion. Rawls charges into the end zone to put his team up by an eventually insurmountable lead.
Despite his exhaustion and sluggish limbs, he knows that, given a few minutes, he can show off his long speed again and again.
He knows that his 40-yard dash time means absolutely nothing.
Thomas recognizes that scouts pay close attention to not only the 40-yard dash time, but the 10-yard split as well. As he sits and awaits his time, he wonders how he will stack up. He knows that he is an explosive athlete and he has elite quickness on the football field.
Gordon posted a 1.63, Abdullah a 1.61, and Johnson a 1.58.
Despite his lackluster 40 time, Thomas knows that a 10-yard split of under 1.70 seconds will help mitigate the damage to his draft stock.
Thomas’s spirits sink again. Now it is not just his long speed and stamina in question. His acceleration is now under scrutiny as well.
Rawls stands alone in the backfield, readying for an inside run. He identifies Malcolm Jenkins crashing inwards on the left side of the line and decides that it’s time to showcase his 10-yard split.
After getting the football, Rawls promptly cuts hard to the left, leaving defensive back Nolan Carroll in terrible position. Rawls accelerates quickly to the edge and turns upfield before Carroll catches up to put himself in a position to make the tackle. Rawls doesn’t go down easily, as he gains an extra seven yards after contact.
He knows that this isn’t the most impressive run of his career, but after missing the end of 2015 with a broken ankle and then the past seven games with a leg contusion, his ability to cut and accelerate quickly is reassuring. He has been doubted in this regard before. He has always found a way to somehow bounce back.
He knows it likely will not be the last time he needs to.
Thomas heads towards the weight room as he prepares to finish up the NFL Combine with a redemptive bench press performance. Scouting reports have always dubbed him a power back and now is the time for the 5’9” (nice), 215 pound brick shithouse to show that he is, well... powerful.
Thomas lies down on the bench and stares up at the bar that has accumulated a total mass that exceeds that of his own body. He grips the cold, unforgiving barbell and lifts it from the rack. He pulls the weight down until it bounces off of his chest and presses forward until his arms fully extend again.
He repeats the act. This isn’t as bad as he thought it would be.
The bench press is where Thomas was made to shine.
This is what he has been preparing for.
All of the training has paid off.
Stay within the rhythm.
The cyclic motion begins to slow down a tad.
He begins to strain a bit more.
The weight is feeling heavier and heavier at an increasingly rapid pace.
This can’t be happening.
His exhales are replaced with growls of determination and anger, as he can barely lift the barbell.
Every ounce of his being goes into one final rep. His arms extend and he is finished.
Thomas sits up, panting and dismayed at his performance. Only two out of the 35 other running backs have posted totals lower than 15 repetitions.
He knows that he is stronger than this.
He knows that he is faster than this.
He knows that he is better than this.
The NFL Combine will not define him.
The Panthers pride themselves on being a physical group on defense. They try to punch teams in the mouth over and over again to wear them down.
Thomas Rawls will not be worn down. He takes his 25th carry with the same exceptional fervor as his first.
Out of an offset I-formation, he takes the handoff and showcases the decisive and powerful running style that he has always possessed.
Rawls does a great job sifting through the different blocks his line provides. He jukes Kony Ealy out of his shorts at the line, while he cuts back behind Justin Britt who has engaged Thomas Davis. Tanner McEvoy (what a stallion) holds off Daryl Worley and allows Rawls to cut even further outside to the left. Worley disengages and spins into Rawls’ path as McEvoy moves onto his next epic venture.
Rawls sees the defensive back in his way and understands that there is only one path to more yardage: forward. He lowers his shoulders and delivers a stiff arm with more force than any of the Combine evaluators would have thought possible.
Worley flies back and Rawls, whose momentum had nearly stopped at this point, falls forward for an additional four yards.
“Rawls fighting his way to the 40-yard line. What a run.”
He knows that this is the run he has waited for since December 13th, 2015.
Thomas Rawls has fought for every inch he has earned as a player on the Seattle Seahawks. After transferring schools and turning in such a lackluster Combine performance, his path to the league has not been an easy one.
His breakout in 2015 and exciting play in the back half of 2016 really show that it doesn’t take a Combine warrior to be successful in the NFL. Exceptionally rounded athletes can turn in poor measurables and still showcase extraordinary abilities on the field.
With a full offseason of work ahead of him, the sky is the limit for the undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan who is finally healthy.
The sky is the limit for Thomas Rawls.
Note: I’ll be writing pieces like this throughout the offseason for Seahawks defenders and skill position players (maybe not quite as retrospective as this one though). If you have a specific player you’d like me to hit next, let me know in the comments!