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Tavierre Thomas loves what he does, and the Browns have loved watching him become one of the NFL's best on special teams

The 3rd-year DB ‘loves the game’ and lets it show in a big, impactful way


Tavierre Thomas just wants it more.

It's a simple explanation for an even simpler question. What makes the third-year defensive back so effective, so tenacious, so consistent on special teams?

Thomas, an undrafted cornerback out of Division II Ferris State, says it's his "want-to," and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer says the exact same thing.

"You've got to have that want-to when you play on special teams," Thomas said. "All special teams is is going harder than the person you're going against. You've got to want to outwork the guy in front of you. If you have that want-to and drive to do that, then nine times out of 10 you're going to be successful. 

"That's what I've heard from all the guys who have been successful. It's all about the want-to — wanting it more than your opponent."

If it's really that simple, why can't more players put up the numbers Thomas does? Why haven't other players been able to compile five special teams tackles in a single game — the most by anyone in the league since 2018 and most by a Browns player since 2004 — like Thomas did in Cleveland's Week 4 win over the Cowboys? Why can't more players around the league occupy a spot on the 53-man roster as an almost exclusively special teams player?

Perhaps it's because Thomas doesn't just want it. He loves it.

"You can't just roll the ball out there and hope you're good on special teams," Priefer said. "You have to love what you do, you've got to be talented enough to do it. He's got mental and physical toughness, plays with great effort and discipline. He loves the game. He plays with enthusiasm and passion. 

"All the things we talk about that make a great special teams player, he stands for all of those things."


Thomas didn't stand for these things just a few years ago. Really, he didn't know much of anything about special teams because he was too valuable to Ferris State as a starting defensive back. 

Thomas, a Detroit native, was twice named first-team all-conference and was a two-time Division II first-team All-American while compiling 10 interceptions as a junior and senior. As a senior, he was named the best defensive back in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Not bad for a former walk-on.

Thomas, though, didn't get an invitation to the NFL Combine. Ferris State didn't have a Pro Day, either, leaving him to post his times and measurements alongside numerous other players at the University of Michigan Pro Day.

Thomas wasn't selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, but his dream of playing defensive back in the NFL lived on for a few more months with the Arizona Cardinals. He competed hard for a spot but it ultimately wasn't meant to be.

Within 24 hours of his release, Thomas had a new home with the Browns, who claimed him via waivers. He also had a new focus.

"Once I got claimed by the Browns, I knew what I had to do," Thomas said. "When they brought me in, they said I had to play a lot of special teams to stay on the team. I just embraced that and went out every game just trying to make plays every game. Being that fifth corner, you have to be really good on special teams.

"You just have to go hard in practice so you're ready. In the games you've just gotta ball out."

Thomas played just 14 special teams snaps in Cleveland's first three games of 2018 and was inactive for the next three. A barrage of injuries hammered the secondary Week 7 as the Browns prepared for a trip to Tampa Bay, and Thomas was needed. It was the first time he was utilized as a core special teams player, and his workload hasn't been anything less ever since.

Thomas knew his role, knew his football mortality and quickly grew to love what he was doing.

"At the end of the day, if you do OK on defense but stink the field up on special teams, they'll say, 'we can find someone else who can do that,'" Thomas said. "At the end of the day I just go out there and ball out on special teams and then when my number is called on defense, do what I have to do to help the team win."

Priefer took over as special teams coordinator in 2019 and quickly realized he had "a pretty special young man as a player and a person" in Thomas. That's why Priefer has coached Thomas a little differently than some of his other special teams players over the past two seasons.

While he holds all of Cleveland's special teams players to a high standard, Priefer has a different set of expectations for Thomas. If Thomas doesn't shed a block — even if it's a great block — or bring down a returner — even if the returner made a great move — Priefer gets on Thomas because he expects Thomas to make the tackle every single time — just like he did in Dallas a few weeks ago.

"He takes things personal like I do and like a lot of the great ones do," Priefer said. "He's a college free agent, he didn't get drafted but he's got the right mentality and right attitude that he wants to be coached, he wants to be held to a higher standard and I absolutely hold him to a higher standard. 

"The only way he's going to become a great player is if you keep elevating that standard every single week, every single game and making sure he reaches where he can be better."

Thomas has helped the Browns beyond special teams in his third season.


A rash of injuries in the secondary opened the door for Thomas to take over as the team's starting slot cornerback for the first part of the season. He led the Browns with nine tackles in a Week 2 win over the Bengals and added seven more against the Cowboys.

Even though Thomas' workload on defense went from close to zero in 2019 to almost all of the snaps to start 2020, Thomas was still needed on special teams. To stay fresh, Thomas ran gassers after each practice, allowing him to attack his special teams snaps as if he were coming in the game fresh off the bench.

Over the past two weeks, with the return of Kevin Johnson to the slot, Thomas has returned to an almost exclusively special teams player. His value to the team, though, has only grown, and he was honored before Sunday's game against the Steelers as the team captain.

"He does a great job," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "Out on the practice field, he is locked in at practice. Every rep looks like a game rep for him. He is a tremendous leader by example. I could not say enough good things about Tav." 

The example he's set is a simple one to explain and a hard one to execute. Thomas wants it — whatever it is, no matter the lack of glamour, that most benefits the team.

"Once I get my opportunity to make tackles, I make them," Thomas said. "You've got to think you're the last person on the field, the last person in coverage to make the play."