Shaq Thompson to Carolina Panthers: Full Draft-Pick Breakdown

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIMay 1, 2015

Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson (7) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

With their first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers decided to take one of the more interesting all-around defensive prospects in the draft, Washington’s Shaq Thompson.

The Panthers had been connected with Thompson in the lead-up to the draft.  The only team that brought Thompson in for a pre-draft visit was, in fact, the Panthers, according to Pro Football Talk.  That makes the fit between the Panthers and Thompson almost a foregone conclusion.  But was it the right one?

First of all, in Thompson, the Panthers got perhaps the most versatile defender in this year’s draft.  At Washington, Thompson played both inside and outside linebacker as a starter.  He took a few snaps at strong safety as well and even contributed as a running back, gaining 456 yards rushing at a 7.5 yard-per-carry clip.

He plays with a very high motor too.  He looks like a running back when he’s playing linebacker.  By that, I mean he looks comfortable finding the gaps and making tackles, and he can obviously keep up with most opposing running backs in the passing game.  Honestly, that’s his best aspect—covering people in space.

College Football Focus charted him as its sixth-best linebacker in pass coverage, when considering only games against Power Five opposition.  He can read the opposing quarterback’s eyes and has the vision and movement in space to make the big play.  He’s an athletic marvel; of that there is no doubt.

What he doesn’t have, however, is the strength, size, or instincts to stick as an NFL linebacker. 

College Football Focus charted Thompson as only 41st out of 58 linebackers in terms of stopping the run, with a 7.3 run-stop percentage, and said that he has “poor instincts” as a linebacker.  Yes, he forced a number of fumbles in the run game and has a nose for the ball, but he’s too easily moved out of position by larger blockers.  At only 6’0” and 228 pounds, he’s dramatically undersized for a linebacker playing close to the line of scrimmage.

That’s why many scouts suggest moving Thompson back to safety, where he showed those coverage skills as an occasional nickel back, but that’s almost all projection at this point.  His athleticism is impressive for a linebacker, but it leaves something to be desired at the safety position.  He only ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and his 33.5-inch vertical jump and 117-inch broad jump were nothing to write home about, either.

Gil Brandt @Gil_Brandt

Talked to 2 teams, both say Shaq Thompson's position in NFL has to be SS. Had excellent workouts, really smart. #NFLCombine

So, he’s an undersized linebacker or an unathletic safety.  That sounds incredibly negative, and I don’t want to be too harsh on him.  He’s a jack-of-all-trades, and there’s something to be said for positional versatility.  He could play safety in dime packages, move to linebacker in the base set and even come in as a running back on goal-line packages. 

Obviously, he’s not going to replace Luke Kuechly or Thomas Davis immediately, but you get the feeling that his raw athletic ability will eventually allow him to latch on at some position in the NFL.

I also respect him tremendously off the field.  He’s a hard-working leader, willing to do what it takes to help his team win.  His ability to adjust to the linebacker position despite being recruited as a safety coming out of high school shows his ability to adjust and learn quickly, which projects well to the NFL.

As a pick on the second day, I would have thought Thompson would represent great value.  Even if the Panthers had just traded down 10 slots or so and picked up and extra Day 3 pick, I would have been thrilled with the Thompson selection.

However, the 25th pick is just too high of a choice to use on a player without a position.  I have no idea where he’ll end up when things are all said and done, and I’m not sure he’ll bump either A.J. Klein or Roman Harper out of the starting lineup in 2015.  He’s probably a dime player and a special teams contributor as a rookie.  That’s not a bad thing, again, out of a second-round pick, but you’re looking for more production out of your first selection.

Even if Thompson does become a starter, the Panthers had more pressing needs here.  Breshad Perriman was probably the best player left on the clock, and he would have made a great one-two punch with Kelvin Benjamin in the receiving corps.  The offensive tackle position was screaming for an upgrade as well, and while the run on tackles before Carolina got on the clock hurt, both T.J. Clemmings and Jake Fisher would have represented upgrades there.

All in all, I think Thompson, as a second-round pick, is an intriguing option with plenty of upside who could develop into a strong replacement for Thomas Davis in the long run.  As a first-round pick, he’s a reach on talent at a position of only moderate need.

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Carolina Panthers during the NFL Draft.  Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.