March 12, 2015

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) When the struggling New York Giants blew a 21-point and lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, co-owner John Mara felt like firing everyone on the team.

Months later, something good came out of the loss to a team that until that game had one win. The Giants got a glimpse of linebacker J.T. Thomas.

Thomas was one of five players New York signed in this opening week of free agency. The NFC East team confirmed the signings of Thomas, fellow linebacker Jonathan Casillas, running back Shane Vereen, return man/receiver Dwayne Harris, and offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse late Wednesday night.

Thomas, who can play all the linebacker spots, had a career-best 12 tackles and recovered a fumble for a touchdown against the Giants.

New York has concerns at linebacker heading into next season. Middle linebacker Jon Beason returns from a toe injury that limited him to four games last season. Outside linebackers Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger seem headed elsewhere as free agents. That leaves veteran Jameel McClain, second-year pro Devon Kennard, Mark Herzlich, who re-signed on Wednesday, and Casillas.

Thomas finished fourth on the Jags with 84 tackles and led the team with two interceptions. He started 10 games, including nine at middle linebacker.

''It was a very fortunate situation for me,'' said Thomas, who signed a three-year, $12 million contract. ''I was blessed with the opportunity to be able to take the field, and I just play fast. I let it rip.''

That was never more evident than against the Giants in late November. He scored the Jags' first touchdown to help them stage their biggest comeback.

''Probably one of my better games,'' said the West Virginia product. ''I scored a touchdown, as well. That doesn't happen often for a defensive player to get on that scoreboard. It was a really cool feeling and what a coincidence that I end up right back here in New York. It is really cool.

Thomas has not had the easiest of journeys in the NFL. He was drafted by the Bears in 2011, missed his first season with a hip injury, played mostly on special teams in his second year, and was cut in the preseason of 2013. The Jaguars claimed him and he played in 31 games with 12 starts over the last two seasons.

''Having the opportunity to play quality defensive reps helped me gain the experience to get better week in and week out,'' Thomas said. ''I got a chance to watch myself on film from the first game I started to the very last game, and it was really cool to watch myself grow as a player over the matter of weeks.''

Casillas has played in 63 games with 18 starts in five seasons. He started the 2014 season with Tampa Bay and was traded to New England on Oct. 28. The former Jersey City and New Brunswick resident played in eight regular-season games with three starts and three playoffs games with the Super Bowl champions.

''The Giants are getting a real football player,'' Casillas said. ''Since I've been in the league, I've been under the radar, and I've accepted that. I've found a way to make plays and contribute.''

The biggest pickup for New York might be Vereen, one of the top third-down backs in the league. He caught 11 passes in the Super Bowl, the most by a running back.

The Giants did not have a third-down back for Eli Manning last season with Rashad Jennings getting hurt and rookie Andre Williams having little pass-catching experience.

''I think it is just a role I have always felt comfortable in. It has always been a role I have been tagged for,'' said Vereen, who got a three-year, $12 million deal. ''I had to learn how to do that to get on the field. That is how it started in college. I had to pass protect to get on the field. I had to catch the ball to get on the field.''

Harris is a dynamo on special teams, returning punts and kickoffs and being a gunner in coverage. He also has the potential to be used in passing situations.

''Harris is a well-kept secret to a lot of people, except the teams in NFC East,'' general manager Jerry Reese said. ''He is one of the top all-around special teams players in the league and a solid third or fourth receiving option.''

Newhouse, who can play left and right tackle, has 36 starts in 62 games with the Packers and Bengals. He also worked with Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo in Green Bay.

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