Tweener? Who cares? Teams are valuing versatility more than ever
INDIANAPOLIS -- As the latest NFL combine unfolded on Speculation Island, college quarterbacks showed off their coverage skills, wide receivers ran through tight end drills and offensive linemen described themselves as “versatile” so often it seemed like they were competing to see who could play the most positions.
Then there was Shaq Thompson.
He played linebacker at Washington in college. And safety. And running back. He played all three positions so well, in fact, that his stated desire to play outside linebacker in the NFL next season was met with That’s great, but from personnel types. Thompson’s value lies in his versatility. Twenty years ago, he might have been considered too small to play linebacker, too big to play safety, too in-between positions to warrant a first-round pick. Not anymore. “He’s a freak among freaks,” gushed one AFC executive to SI.com.
The executive meant that as the highest form of compliment. By the end of the NFL draft, one of 32 NFL coaches will be saying how Thompson allows their defense to be more “multiple,” a favored expression of jargon among those who study and coach football players. By multiple, they mean their defenses can do, well, more stuff, present offenses with varied looks, shift and take shape and shift again to confuse quarterbacks.
Thompson weighs 228 pounds. Mike Mayock, the NFL draft expert, projects him as the second-best strong safety in his class, after Alabama’s Landon Collins. Thompson repeatedly told reporters he wanted to play linebacker on the strong side, where he would cover tight ends, provide run support and rush quarterbacks. That position is similar to strong safety, anyway, just closer to the line. Meanwhile, some teams even think Thompson’s best position is running back.
Funny how that happened. Thompson approached Chris Petersen, the UW coach, after his junior season and made a joke about taking reps on the other side of the ball. Petersen took him up on it. In 2014, Thompson tallied 81 tackles, an interception, three forced fumbles, and scored five – five! – touchdowns, with three on defense. He also averaged 7.5 yards on 61 carries. He captured the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player.
And part of a burgeoning trend.
In the NFL, there is value in the versatile. More value, it seems, every year. Rosters remain set at 53, actives remain locked at 45, and the ability to do more than one thing well is often the difference between those who dress on game day and those who watch. At this year's combine, those prospects that didn’t do one thing better than everyone else tried to do as much as possible in order to increase their chances of success.
According to NFL.com, a full 28 players at the combine took part in drills at more than one position. That’s nearly a 10th of the field. The majority of those players are college defensive ends who might switch to outside linebacker in the pros. But then there was Nick Marshall, the Auburn quarterback turned potential pro corner; and Blake Sims, the Alabama signal-caller who some like at running back. There was Devin Funchess, a wide receiver from Michigan who could transition to tight end. There was also Tony Lippett, the 2014 Big Ten receiver of the year. He started seven games at cornerback last season. He projects at either position in the NFL. Or both.
Then there was Tyler Varga, a running back from Yale who was born in Sweden and raised in Canada. He speaks three languages, and he may play two positions, running back and fullback. Feed Varga (his nickname) doesn’t care where he ends up eating. Or what.
The tweeners, the too smalls and too shorts and too talls and too fats, they need not look far for inspiration. The NFL is filled with players who switched positions and with players who excel in – you guessed it – “multiple” roles. Take Jacksonville. It turned Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson into a surprise NFL ballcarrier last season. He was still available in the fifth round in 2013, 134 picks in. The Jaguars, more than most teams, use analytics to measure potential, and the numbers on Robinson in regard to his speed relative to his size indicated “he could be a pretty good running,” says David Caldwell, the Jacksonville general manager. Pretty good: back-to-back 100-yard rushing games in Weeks 7 and 8, 582 rushing yards in limited action, all sorts of ways he could be used – slot receiver, threat to throw – out of the backfield. “That’s a good example of it working,” Caldwell said in regard to the analytics.
Devin Gardner succeeded Robinson at quarterback at Michigan. He’s trying to latch on in the NFL at wide receiver.
Jacksonville isn’t alone. The Seahawks allowed the fewest points of any NFL defense the past three seasons, and they did so with a celebrated secondary that contains a quarterback converted to strong safety (Kam Chancellor) and a receiver turned cornerback (Richard Sherman). Their best defensive lineman, Michael Bennett, plays end and tackle. His ability to rush inside and command double teams allows flexibility in the scheme. His defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, recently became head coach of the Falcons. Quinn wants guys like Bennett, wants to follow the Seahawks’ blueprint. “All of the guys, we’re going to try and find out what type of versatility they have and try to feature them in every way we can,” he says.
He was asked why he considered the ability to be “multiple” so important. There was that word again. Because that’s the NFL, he said. Nickel cornerbacks now play 550 snaps a season, sometimes half the defensive plays and sometimes more. Defensive linemen rotate in and out like hockey lines.
In Parcells, the excellent book about the Hall of Fame coach, the author Nunyo Demasio details how Bill Parcells liked to pick players. He wanted his linebackers a certain size, same with his cornerbacks, same with his linemen. He didn’t want to deviate all that often. He took exceptions, but he didn’t want a roster full of them.
The Seahawks, as their coach Pete Carroll says, “value uniqueness.” That’s why their secondary is the best – and the tallest – in pro football. “The more versatility, of course, the added value,” Carroll says, with a note of caution. “But some guys are so good at what they do you only want them to do that,” he adds.
Marshall, at 6'1'', is tall enough for Seattle’s secondary. He played 13 games at cornerback at Georgia, but later transferred to Auburn where he threw passes instead of trying to intercept them. He had five tackles in the Senior Bowl back on defense. His long arms, he discovered, were still an advantage in press coverage on the line, and, because of the Seahawks, that length is more valuable than it would have been 10 years ago.
At the combine, Marshall did both the quarterback drills and the defensive back ones. “I’m going to commit to one,” he says. “But I’m open to playing any position.”
Then: “The man above blessed me with being versatile.”
He’s not alone. “I consider myself a ballplayer,” Funchess says.
Linemen, particularly those who project as backups initially, increase their value by being able to play more than one position along the line, as more and more teams carry only seven active O-linemen on game day. Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff, projected by some to be the first offensive lineman selected, says he can play either tackle or either guard. He’s more versatile than that. He played quarterback in high school, at 290 pounds (or 100 more than his center). And he didn’t just play football. He also competed in basketball, baseball, track and tennis. Yes, tennis. He was the No. 4 singles player on the varsity team.
He met with the Redskins at the combine. They asked him what position he wanted to play. “Wherever you guys want me, I’ll do my best,” Scherff told them. “I feel pretty versatile.”
Don’t they all.