No. Shaq Thompson can’t be the NFL’s next two-way player—at least not in the truest sense of the term. Especially not at linebacker and running back, which are two of the most physically brutal positions in football.
So why bring it up? Because Thompson is the rare prospect that was very productive on both sides of the ball in college, and he has the build and athleticism that can translate to multiple positions. He’s versatile, and NFL teams aren’t even sure if he’s a linebacker, strong safety or running back yet, although we are starting to get some clarity on that.
Initial indications were that he wouldn’t even entertain the idea of playing anything other than linebacker in the NFL. Thompson told Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com last week that he wouldn’t do running back drills at the combine, but he decided to do them anyway, according to Gil Brandt of NFL.com.
Thompson wrote for the USA Today, and he made it clear just where he envisions himself that the pro level:
I want to put it out there: I'm a linebacker. Outside linebacker. Strong side, that's where I feel most comfortable. It's basically like a strong safety. Nowadays, this is a passing game. You need linebackers who can cover and drop in zone. And I'm a three-down player. You don't have to take me off the field.
What’s interesting is that Thompson will do running back drills, but he won’t be doing safety drills, per Bryan Fischer of NFL.com. It makes sense why Thompson would favor linebacker over running back. It’s become clear that teams now view running backs as disposable, but what’s wrong with safety?
NFL.com’s Mike Mayock broke down how NFL teams could use Thompson:
Shaq Thompson is one of the most fun guys to watch on tape this year. I know GMs were looking at him as a running back, linebacker and safety, most teams as a linebacker. I've got him as a safety. I think he can be a Kam Chancellor-type on first down in your base and then drop down and play linebacker in your dime, and that's really important in today's world.
Nothing is wrong with safety, but it also doesn’t pay quite like a linebacker. If the hybrid “Kam Chancellor” safety position that fits Thompson’s 6’0”, 228-pound frame is basically a linebacker in some nickel and most dime situations, that's where he wants to be listed. It’s in Thompson’s best long-term interest to come in as a linebacker even if he’s going to be playing a hybrid safety role.
Players have argued they actually play other positions for purposes of the franchise tag, but they have largely been unsuccessful at doing so. So, no safety drills, which really won't tell NFL teams anything they don't already know about Thompson, as linebackers do coverage drills.
Why would Thompson do running back drills if he wants to play defense? For one, it gives him another option.
For sake of argument, let’s say Thompson is just too light to play linebacker effectively, too big to be an effective safety and/or his defensive coordinator can’t figure out how to use him. Thompson switches sides and still has a chance to provide for his family.
If some team thinks they can get more value out of him as a running back, then they have to draft him ahead of the teams that like him as a linebacker. Given that the NFL has stopped drafting running backs in the first round lately and it’s a deep draft at the position, the odds of this happening seem very low.
Thompson knows this, but he also knows that showing what he can do at running back can only help him because most consider him a raw player. Thompson played safety his freshman year, linebacker his sophomore year and linebacker and running back his junior year. He hasn’t really been able to refine his game enough at any one spot to get NFL teams really excited about him at one spot over another.
What Thompson has going for him is his versatility that he owes to his instincts and athleticism, two things that shine through at running back. So why not give teams another opportunity to fall in love with you?
Most likely Thompson is just using the drills as another chance to show off his athleticism. The NFL has been trending toward lighter linebackers who can cover tight ends, so his weight really shouldn’t be a problem. Thompson’s 33” arms will also help him sift through the trash as a linebacker to make tackles to compensate.
NFL coaches love versatility, and Thompson gives them that. He even said he loves special teams in the USA Today journal. There’s nothing wrong with putting him out there on offense for a play or two per game just to give the defense fits.
Look at what the Texans did with J.J. Watt in 2014. Watt isn’t really a two-way player but put him out there in certain situations and he can be effective. Design one or two plays for a player that athletic and instinctive, and good things happen.
He’s a chess piece that a smart coach would move around just to give the opposition something else to prepare for. Jon Gruden did this with Charles Woodson in 1999 and 2000 with the Oakland Raiders, and he caught just two passes for 27 yards.
Thompson isn’t some robot that could withstand the punishment of an NFL game on both sides of the ball but some team is going to fall in love with him because of his charm, versatility and athleticism. A team with a powerful head coach may be especially prone to falling for a player like Thompson, who hasn’t even wowed us with his 40-yard dash time yet.