The Carolina Panthers are making a push for the league's most athletic linebacker corps with their selection of versatile Washington standout Shaq Thompson.
The Panthers got a lot faster and better in their linebacker corps when they took Luke Kuechly in the 2012 draft. Thomas Davis had already been an impact linebacker for the team since 2005, but he hasn't always been healthy, and his current contract has voidable years in 2016 through 2018. One thing's for sure: If the Panthers can field a trio of Kuechly, Davis and Shaq Thompson, they'll have the league's most athletic linebacker corps.
Thompson is so rangy that some teams projected him as a safety, though he's ideally a Will linebacker in a 4-3 with outstanding pass-coverage potential. He can also sub in at running back, as he gained 456 yards on 51 carries playing on the other side of the ball for the Huskies in 2014. You could argue there are more urgent needs for this franchise—receiver, offensive line, cornerback—which make this pick a bit curious.
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. 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.—DF
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.—DF
Player Comparison: DeAndre Levy