J.T. Thomas III of the New York Giants stands during...

J.T. Thomas III of the New York Giants stands during the national anthem before the game against the New York Jets during a preseason game on August 26, 2017 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey Credit: Getty Images / Elsa

J.T. Thomas knows that making it back to the field was just one piece of his return. Now he has to make the team.

The veteran linebacker saw his first game action since tearing his ACL in the 2016 opener when he lined up as the third-string middle linebacker in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s preseason win over the Jets. He played a total of 10 defensive snaps and one on special teams.

“To have a game under my belt, you guys have no idea how big this is for me to be able to walk off the field and stack up another day,” Thomas said after the game. “I feel like today was the first step of many and I look forward to the next opportunity.”

Thomas knows, though, that he has to catch up quite a bit. Others have been stacking those days since the start of the offseason program and through training camp. He was just taken off PUP a little over a week ago, has only had a few practices, and just the limited game exposure.

He said he is working his way back to his “normal role,” which includes “special teams, being able to be a consistent backup, and competing for a starting job just like everyone else here.”

“I’m approaching every day like, ‘Hey, I gotta make this team,’” he said. “Regardless of my leadership, regardless of me being a veteran, regardless of where I may be able to add value, it’s important for guys who are on the bubble to make a push to make this ballclub.”

He is definitely on the bubble. Perhaps less so than he was before he took a pay cut in this, the final season of the three-year, $10 million contract he signed as a free agent in 2015. Thomas’ base salary for 2017 has gone down from $2.975 million to $775,000. Of course, it can go down to zero if he is cut when the team reduces its ranks to 53 this weekend.

“We’re just playing things by ear,” Thomas said of his immediate future with the Giants.

Thomas’ career with the Giants has been fraught with injuries. He played in just 12 games his first season with the team and just the one last year. But his teammates have often pointed to him as a leader on the squad and the defense, someone who brings a lot of energy to the proceedings.

Fellow linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who came to the Giants in the same free agency wave in 2015, said it was good for Thomas to “see the game and smell it” again after almost a year of inactivity.

“J.T. is a born football player,” Casillas said. “Those guys who are from that area (in Florida), they’re different about ball. Ball is life for people like that. I knew how much it meant for him to be out there and we’re going to have a good talk about the game when we get some time.”

Thomas was credited with one tackle against the Jets, but the biggest play of the game for him may have been when he was chasing a play down near the sideline and was upended by a blocker.

“It was more of a sense of relief, to take a hit and pop right back up again for the next play,” Thomas said. “That’s really big for me mentally, which is probably the biggest hurdle in recovering from this injury. If I can get things clicking mentally and be ready to go for the start of the season, that’d be great.”

Thomas didn’t appear on the field until late, but just before the game, when the Giants were leaving the field from warmups, it was Thomas who stepped in front of them for a pep talk.

“I always give the guys a little rah-rah, just let them know that regardless of who it is or your circumstance or who we’re playing, it’s time to bring it,” Thomas said. “I get ’em with a little old-school ‘What?’ and ‘Who?’ and they always get behind me. It was good to be able to bring it up and break it down with the guys.

“That,” he said, “is something I always look forward to.”

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