Shaq Thompson has been labeled one of the toughest players to evaluate in the 2015 class because his role in college had almost no boundaries, but at least one thing is certain—he is a playmaker.
The winner of the 2014 Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation's most versatile player, Thompson suited up at linebacker, running back and safety for the University of Washington, making his presence felt at all three positions.
As a runner, he gained 456 yards on just 61 attempts and notched a pair of touchdowns. Defensively, Thompson was at his best, racking up 81 tackles along with four takeaways, returning all four for scores. All in all, Thompson contributed 36 points last season.
Choosing to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft, Thompson finds himself at odds with talent evaluators as to where he'll play in the pros. NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock has Thompson as the No. 2 safety prospect in his position rankings on NFL.com, and he explained why in a teleconference before the scouting combine in February, via NFL.com's Mike Huguenin:
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.
Chris Petersen, Thompson's former coach at Washington, had a similar take when asked by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated: "You know, I think he’s a safety that drops down like a linebacker. That’s what I think he is. He can tackle like a linebacker. He’s pretty explosive. He’s a physical guy. I know he sees himself as a linebacker. That’s where he spent the last three years."
At the combine, Thompson didn't rule out playing safety, but he was pretty adamant in his preference at linebacker, citing a desire to be up near the action, as noted by Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times: "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."
Heart is an absolute given with Thompson, but size is not. He measured in at 6'0" and 228 pounds at the combine, which is bound to present challenges in getting off blocks. Still, Thompson doesn't view his size as an issue in that regard, per Condotta:
I feel like size doesn't matter. There were a couple of times where I didn't get off blocks. But there were other times when I did. If you're a playmaker, you're gonna make a play regardless, whether you’re getting blocked or not getting blocked. That’s part of my game I need to tighten up, and I'm getting better at it.
According to Walter Football, Thompson had dinner with San Diego Chargers linebackers coach Mike Nolan the night before his pro day. So why might San Diego be kicking the tires on an athletic, albeit undersized linebacker? My guess: The Chargers are looking to replace Andrew Gachkar, who signed with the Dallas Cowboys in the offseason.
With Gachkar gone, the depth at inside linebacker is shaky. Manti Te'o and Donald Butler are somewhat injury prone, and Kavell Conner's role doesn't extend beyond making stops in the run game.
The absence of Gachkar has left defensive coordinator John Pagano without a second linebacker to pair with Te'o in nickel packages. Who better to replace him than arguably the best coverage linebacker in the draft?
Thompson's ability to drop back and read passing lanes forced plenty of quarterbacks to reassess what might have been a straightforward throw over the middle because they knew he was lurking.
That's exactly what happened to Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion, who was sacked four times in a 37-13 rout. Hesitation to pull the trigger because Thompson was nearby allowed the Huskies front to collapse on Mannion several times.
In this clip, courtesy of Draft Breakdown, Mannion is looking to hit his tight end on a quick slant near the goal line, but as the target comes out of his break, Thompson reads Mannion's eyes and gets in position to cut off a potential throw, forcing the quarterback to take the sack.
But his impact would not stop there for the Chargers, as Thompson is a willing contributor on special teams and could function as an emergency running back should injuries pile up. Above all, Thompson is a football player with a rare blend of physical tools that can't be ignored.
We always hear about the right fit in the right scheme, but Thompson may be the rare exception. Should he get drafted by San Diego, Pagano and Nolan would find him a spot tailor-made to his strengths.