Washington LB Shaq Thompson's versatility on the field makes him a fit in nearly any defensive scheme.
With the 2015 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
As we move into the top half of the hypothetical first round, each player gets his own, more detailed scouting report. At No. 14 comes a player who can take over a game in a number of different ways.
Bio: In the first quarter of a game against Illinois last September, Shaq Thompson picked off a Wes Lunt pass and returned it for a touchdown. In the second quarter Thompson took a fumble recovery 52 yards to the house. To open the Huskies' first possession of quarter No. 3, Thompson carried the football three times for 16 yards.
Such was football life last season for one of the 2015 draft's most intriguing, unique talents.
Thompson finished his final Washington campaign with 81 tackles, 61 rushing attempts for 456 yards, four receptions and seven touchdowns (four defensive, three offensive). Those numbers earned him first-team All-America and first-team All-Pac 12 honors.
Still not impressed? Thompson also was an 18th-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox back in 2012. OK, that one didn't work out all that well—Thompson was 0-for-39 at the plate while playing for the Red Sox's Gulf Coast League team. Fortunately, he had his football career waiting. And while Thompson said playing running back in the NFL is "out of the question", his versatility as a safety/linebacker/defensive chameleon is more or less unmatched in this year's class.
"I want him to play linebacker, because he definitely made a difference on our defense and he's a ballhawk," said Danny Shelton, a teammate of Shelton's at Washington and a fellow Round 1 hopeful. "Any position he plays he's going to do well at, but I'd rather see him at linebacker attacking people."
"I'm gonna put it out there that I want to play linebacker," he said. "That’s where I feel the most comfortable. I like to be up by the line of scrimmage. I feel like I’m physical enough. I’m not the biggest guy, but I have a lot of heart."
At the combine in February, Thompson measured in at 6'0" and 228 pounds—both on the low side. For what it's worth Thompson himself said that he fits best as someone who can play in space, be it outside in a 4–3 or inside in a 3–4.
"Being too short is overrated. You have a lot of short linebackers out there," Thompson said. " London Fletcher was 5'9". ... I don’t feel height makes the player."
Thompson backed up those words at Washington. Can he do the same in the NFL?
Strengths: It doesn't take an NFL scout to see how valuable Thompson's mix-and-match skill set could be for a creative defensive coordinator. The days of him carrying the load as a running back—Thompson averaged 124 yards rushing during a three-game stretch late last season—but even that is nice to have as an emergency option.
Against a pass-happy offense, Thompson should have no trouble staying on the field. He has the speed (4.62-second 40 at the combine) to stick with running backs out of the backfield or to cover a chunk of space in zone. The Huskies enjoyed Thompson making plays on defense long before he stepped up on offense, but he does have a running back-like understanding for where plays are headed.
Thompson reads and reacts, displaying the range to be a nuisance no matter the matchup. He has compared himself to Lavonte David as a player, which obviously is setting a high bar, but there are some similarities.
"He's a little bit taller than me," says Thompson of David. "But same attributes. Same speed. Can cover tight ends and running backs. I feel like I can do the same things."
NFL front offices will give him high marks for a selfless, team-first attitude. When Washington needed him to help out as a running back, Thompson did so with gusto, despite his professional goal of sticking at linebacker.
Weaknesses: Undersized linebackers have thrived in the NFL before and will again. Still, Thompson's overall lack of power is noticeable when he finds himself locked up in one-on-one battles vs. the run. Any blocker able to find him on the second level can overwhelm Thompson, turning him into a non-factor. The same issue will hurt Thompson if he's asked to cover a tight end—his quickness will mitigate the mismatch some, but he can be bodied out of position.
The four defensive touchdowns this past season and five for his career made for nice stats, but the big plays on Thompson's tape were limited overall. He had a mere 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack last season, doing more work sideline to sideline than shooting gaps.
The discussion on his best position is a tricky one, too. Some teams definitely will view his size as an issue at linebacker—he actually played at a lighter weight than his combine-measured 228, and there's not a lot of room for him to add mass. But the thought of moving him to safety is entirely speculative since Thompson has not played the position since high school. His coverage skills would seem to translate well to the secondary, if nothing else.
Conclusion: Thompson is a challenge to figure out, and thus not surprisingly has created some division amongst those scouting him. Not every team is comfortable with a figure-it-all-out-later approach to drafting talent.
"I don’t make that decision," said former Huskie Marcus Peters when asked which position Thompson should play. "That dude’s an amazing football player, though."
Thompson's self-assessment appears to be pretty spot on. As a chasing linebacker in a 4-3 or a covered-up inside 'backer in the 3-4, his quickness and instincts could be incredible assets for a defense. There are some defenders who work better when simply turned loose. That's not to say Thompson cannot be coached or will falter in an extremely structured system, just that he may find more NFL success if he is allowed to improvise some from the linebacking spot.
Again, he's not for every team. However, the squad that lands him will be getting an exciting talent with an expanse repertoire.