Shaq Thompson might project as a “tweener” at the pro level because of his 6'0", 228-pound frame, but let's not forget about the athletic versatility the former University of Washington star brings to the field.
Thompson doesn’t have the prototypical size to play linebacker and his 4.64 speed won't jump off the page if you want to slide him back into the secondary at the safety position. But the tape, the true grading tool used by scouts and decision-makers in the NFL, tells me that this guy can flat-out play football regardless of where he lines up on Sundays.
Thompson is a natural athlete in my opinion, a prospect that produced on both sides of the ball for the Huskies. As a linebacker, he can close on the ball-carrier, utilize his lateral speed to track down the play and drop into coverage to break on the throw.
Flip over to offense and you'll see Thompson showcasing his vision, quick burst and open-field ability at the running back position. He made plays, put the ball in the end zone, looking comfortable and smooth versus Pac-12 competition.
And we can’t forget about special teams, as Thompson has the ideal skill set to play a variety of roles on all four-core units. That’s a coach's dream. You want athletes on the field in the kicking game, guys that produce and eventually have to be game-planned for by opposing squads. Those are difference-makers.
That lateral speed showed up during Thompson’s combine workout when he posted a 6.99 three-cone drill and a 4.08 short shuttle. Those are really good numbers and they mesh with the film. And I do believe he plays much faster than his 40 time. That’s “game speed” when the pads are on.
But the question still remains: Where does Thompson project as an NFL player?
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller told me he likes Thompson as a linebacker in a 40 front, NFL Network’s Mike Mayock sees him as a safety, and the NFL scouts I’ve talked with are split on where the former Husky will play in the pros.
I tend to side with the scouts who see Thompson as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. And I would put him on the weak side (Will) where he can run to the ball, scrape over the top and clean up. Think of Lovie Smith’s scheme in Tampa with the playmaker at the Will 'backer position. Thompson could be that guy.
The downside is his limited size and that offensive linemen who square him up can overpower him at the point of attack. There is some Velcro on the tape at times when he is asked to come downhill or use his hands on contact to stack, shed and finish.
However, as a “run and hit” defender who can locate the ball and use his athletic ability to attack the running game, Thompson is a fit.
Plus, as a linebacker who drops into coverage in passing situations, I see a fluid prospect who can play underneath as a zone defender, read the quarterback and then accelerate to go make a play. A ‘backer who creates opportunities. What about matching up on a tight end or a running back out of the backfield in man-coverage? Yeah, the athleticism and football awareness is there to get that done.
Now, the projection at safety is interesting to me, because I do see that as a scheme-specific position with Thompson. He’s not a middle-of-the-field defender, and I have some concerns about his ability to get off the numbers in the deep half, open his hips and take away the vertical passing game. It can get pretty lonely in the deep half with a wide receiver pressing down the field. But as an underneath defender, a safety that is utilized in the box, that translates.
However, safeties in today’s game have to show more flexibility than ever to counter the wide-open offensive sets we see on Sundays. Being just a “box guy” doesn’t get it done anymore. From my perspective, there are plenty of game situations where defenses need two free safeties on the field to limit NFL passing attacks and three wide receiver personnel.
That’s why I use the term “scheme specific” with Thompson if he is drafted to play safety. Put him in a Rex Ryan, Gregg Williams or Todd Bowles-type system where Thompson can play a role in the base package and in sub-personnel (nickel, dime) that caters to his strengths as an athlete. I wouldn’t say he is a top-tier blitzer, but rushing the passer as an off-the-ball defender is a technique that is taught (or learned) at the NFL level. He can develop there and be utilized in the right scheme while being put in the best position to make plays.
For example, check out some Cardinals tape from this past season and focus on safety Deone Bucannon. He’s a dime ‘backer in the sub-package. Or look at Mark Barron’s role in St. Louis after the trade as an underneath defender in Williams’ nickel packages: blitz and match to the seam.
Be creative and get the most out of your players. That’s smart coaching.
To me, Thompson is one of the more interesting prospects in this draft class because he doesn’t come gift-wrapped. It’s going to take the right system, and the right coaching, to maximize his talents. That can be a challenge, but it’s also one the majority of NFL teams should welcome because Thompson is a playmaker.
And guys like that make your football team better.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.