Thomas Welch viewed 2011 as a breakthrough season.
The former Vanderbilt offensive tackle made his NFL debut — and his first start — that season, and played in eight games, the last five with St. Louis.
He looked forward to impressing the Rams in 2012. That was until they cut him on May 3.
“I didn’t see that coming at all,” Welch said by phone last week. “It was almost like a moment of shock when I found out. But everything happens for a reason, I guess.”
He didn’t stay unemployed for long.
The next day the Philadelphia Eagles signed Welch off waivers.
In barely two years, he has been cut — twice — by the team that drafted him and has spent time with five different franchises.
“It has been quite a journey, that’s for sure. I don’t even know where to begin,” Welch said, laughing. “But I’m excited to be with the Eagles now. It is a great opportunity for me to showcase what I can do. I’m just excited to get a chance and hopefully prolong my career.”
Since the New England Patriots drafted him in 2010, Welch has tried to survive, professionally speaking.
He was taken in the seventh round (208th overall), often a point in the draft when NFL teams take a chance on players with plenty to prove. Welch knew that being drafted wasn’t a promise he would make the 53-man roster.
He didn’t, and he eventually spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad of the Minnesota Vikings. He was promoted to the active roster for the last three weeks. He never saw the field, however, and the Vikings cut him at the beginning of last year.
Again, Welch didn’t sit idle for long.
The Patriots decided to take another look at him. On Oct. 2, 2011, he made his first start against Oakland — as an extra tight end. Versatility has long been a strength of his. In high school he played quarterback, tight end and defensive end and started his Vanderbilt career at tight end.
“Tackle is my more natural position. I mean you don’t really see many 300-plus tight ends out there,” Welch said. “But I still felt comfortable going in motion and doing everything they asked me to do. But it is definitely more comfortable playing tackle given that’s what I played on a daily basis. I am going to do anything that will get me on the field.”
After playing three games with the Patriots, Welch again received the ax. Soon after, the Buffalo Bills came calling and placed him on the practice squad. Welch spent five days in a Buffalo hotel room before the Rams signed him.
“I knew somewhat that nothing was guaranteed. I didn’t think I was going to be bouncing around like I have been,” Welch said. “It goes to show you how competitive it is in the NFL, and how valuable some people are and what they can do. I don’t know, my journey, if I was prepared for moving from team to team. But I was prepared, somewhat, playing in the SEC for the level of football I was going to have to go against. It is just different in the NFL, obviously.”
While Welch saw firsthand the unpredictability of professional sports, he also proved his value. When one team has cut ties, another has swept in. His 6-foot-6, 300-pound frame and development as a pass blocker can’t be downplayed in a league that emphasizes protecting the quarterback.
Describing it as a numbers game, Welch said what each team is looking for varies. He hasn’t altered his mechanics or tweaked much from his college days, where he started his last 24 games despite battling an ankle injury for half of the 2009 season.
“If you’re playing well that’s all you have to worry about,” said Welch, who still trains at Vanderbilt in the offseason. “I have to realize that I can’t worry about anything else. I just have to go out there and play the best that I can.”
Of course, he isn’t opposed to the idea of staying in one place for a while.
He just got married a couple months ago. His wife, Megan, is at Vanderbilt working on a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner. She finishes in August and plans to join Welch ... presumably in Philadelphia.
“We just want to get established somewhere,” he said. “In the NFL, obviously, you don’t know how long you’re going to be somewhere. But I feel like I’m ready to establish myself here and hopefully be here for a while. We want to be somewhere at least for a few years so we can enjoy married life and not have to live out of suitcases.”
A look at some other recent Vanderbilt football players whose professional careers included multiple teams:
TODD YODER, TE
Seasons: 9 (2000-04, 2005-09)
Teams: Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Washington
He started just 14 games over nine seasons, but in his final four seasons — all with Washington — he scored six touchdowns on 20 receptions.
JOVAN HAYE, DE
Drafted: Sixth round, Carolina, 2005
Seasons: 7 (2005-11)
Teams: Carolina, Tampa Bay (twice), Tennessee, Detroit
He not only changed teams routinely, he also changed positions. The vast majority of his 46 career starts came as a defensive tackle with Tampa Bay and Tennessee.
JAMIE WINBORN, LB
Drafted: Second round, San Francisco, 2001
Seasons: 10 (2001-10)
Teams: San Francisco (twice), Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Denver, Tennessee
He started just 35 times in 100 career games. His best season was in 2008 with Denver, but nine of his 10 career sacks came in his first four years with the 49ers.