One of the secondary perks of Michael Thomas leaving the Dolphins to sign with the Giants was escaping the same conference as the New England Patriots’ Matthew Slater.
Thomas built a reputation as one of the NFL’s best special teams players during his five years with the Dolphins but Slater has been the AFC’s Pro Bowl selection on special teams seven straight years.
“I think I might even write a piece while I’m still playing or later called ‘Chasing Slater,’” Thomas said. “When I was in the AFC, there was no way myself or anybody was going to dethrone him while he was in his prime and winning Super Bowls with the Patriots. It’s tough when there is only one spot.”
Fans voting for the Pro Bowl can select eight receivers and eight cornerbacks, six at multiple other positions including quarterback and so on down the line until just reaching two special teamers (not counting kicker and punter). Only one roster spot on each conference’s team is reserved for a special teamer, most of whom are offensive or defensive backups and need kick return and kick coverage as their chance at recognition.
“We’re the stepchildren of the league,” Thomas joked. “We’ve got to take what we can get.”
Thomas is a three-time member of Pro Football Focus’ All-Pro Time and was named Special Teams Player of the Year by the analytics site in 2017. He is credited with nine solo tackles on special teams by PFF and an onside kick recovery.
Chosen as a co-captain and his team’s nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in his first year with the Giants, Thomas has campaigned for Pro Bowl votes on his social media accounts while making it clear that winning games and giving away his jerseys to raise money for charity still remain his top priorities.
“That’s something that every player wants to check off the list as a personal goal,” Thomas said. “It would be gratifying. But, at the same time, I’ve reached the point in my career where I can honestly say I’m good if I don’t get it.
“The respect I’ve gotten from the teams I’ve been on, players across the league, coaches across the league, the people I go against every single day, that’s really what you do it for. I appreciate Pro Football Focus because they watch the film and they know it. The Pro Bowl just makes sure everybody knows. Now they really know. “
If special teams really counts the same as offense and defense — as coaches are fond of saying — then how come Pro Bowl rosters are divided more evenly? Does the NFL need to expand beyond one special teamer?
“You would hope,” Shepard said. “Nature of the game is you only have so many spots. I think it really pushes you to be that guy.”
The NFC’s partial answer to Slater is the Atlanta Falcons’ Justin Bethel, who has made three of the last five Pro Bowls at the expense of players like Russell Shepard, one of the Giants’ gunners on punts and a special teams standout with the Panthers and Buccaneers earlier in his career. Dwayne Harris won the special teams spot with the Giants in 2016.
“It’s one-third of the game, but a lot of times it’s not treated as one-third of the game,” Giants special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. “You would like to think they would add a couple more spots. Any time you get a chance to recognize those guys for their hard work and effort.”
The NFL only assigns 44 players per roster for the Pro Bowl even though a true gameday roster features 46 per team. That’s the opposite of the way Major League Baseball handles its All-Star Game, when regular-season 25-man rosters are replaced by 34-man rosters.
Because it is an exhibition, the NFL could expand the rosters to any size and add more special- teamers who are versatile.
“I wish the NFL would do something like that for guys like myself and Mike T,” Shepard said. “It’s very hard, especially when you don’t play on (national) TV a lot. It’s one thing to be a receiver who doesn’t get a lot of national exposure compared to a special teams guy who doesn’t get a lot of national exposure.”
Special teams, including kicker Aldrick Rosas and punter Riley Dixon, might be the Giants’ best unit this season. They rank No. 2 in kickoff return coverage and No. 12 in punt return coverage.
“I think our special teams, the last month, have been playing some really good football,” Shepard said “and I think we’re really helping this team out.”
Along with Shepard, Antonio Hamilton and Sean Chandler are having good seasons on special seasons, but it’s Thomas on the ballot.
“We know how the Pro Bowl is: A lot of times it’s a popularity contest,” McGaughey said. “I think Mike has earned that right with his years of consistency and playing at a high level. I think he definitely deserves to be in.”