By Matt Waldman
Author's Note: For all of the RSP Film Room excerpts with Ryan Riddle, you'll have to click the red and white play button in the center of the screen and then click the refresh symbol (the half circle with an arrow in the lower left corner of the video frame) for the excerpt to cue to the appropriate setting. The length of the video might be the cause of this quirk.
Last week, Futures profiled UCLA linebacker/running back Myles Jack as one of college football's ultimate rarities. However, those words may ring hollow to those in Seattle and the rest of the conference if the University of Washington continues showcasing Shaq Thompson's two-way talents.
The Huskies defender has two seasons with at least 74 tackles and the big plays are coming fast and furious as a senior. He's a playmaker in all three phases of the game. As of September, Thompson has 82 yards and a touchdown on six carries from the backfield; 15 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble against Eastern Washington; an interception return for a touchdown; and two fumble returns for scores, including one that he forced in last week's Stanford game. He's also a fantastic gunner in the return game who is often the first downfield and carrying dire news when he reaches the ball carrier.
If Thompson's workload increases at running back, speculation may arise about his professional future as an offensive weapon. The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Thompson sports an upright gait that delivers equal doses of power and speed. His style has echoes of Chris Warren, another Seattle sports legend, and there's an outside chance Thompson could make a compelling case as a pro prospect as a ballcarrier.
But the true question at this stage of Thompson's career has little to do with offense. His potential is highest when he's stopping drives rather than sustaining them. The real issue is whether Thompson has more NFL potential as a linebacker or safety.
Most talking heads in the recruiting game rated the Huskies' defender as the top high school safety in the country when he arrived in the Pac-12. Although Thompson fared well as safety in Washington's defense, the team moved him to linebacker as a junior -- or at least, that was the name given to Thompson's new role, which might not have been so new after all.
"He didn't play a lot of safety in high school if you watched him," said Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times in a March 2013 article. "He was a tailback (on offense) and when he was a safety he was down in the box near the line of scrimmage. So the things we are asking him to do are not much different, and that's what we are going to continue to use him as…we feel like this is the best thing for him and for us. He gives us some versatility in the slot because there are guys he can cover because he can run."
Watch the tape and Wilcox's assessment is accurate. Thompson's function is that of a nickelback -- a third safety functioning at linebacker depth and often facing slot receivers. Thompson's role has helped the Huskies' defense, but watch how he executes his responsibilities and the conclusion that linebacker is the senior's best position is not clear-cut.
I spent an hour in the RSP Film Room with Bleacher Report's Ryan Riddle studying three games from Thompson's 2013 season, and there are indications that Thompson looks and plays more like a safety than a linebacker. The defender still has room to develop as an athlete and student of the game, but as it stands today, there are legitimate questions about Thompson's best position for the NFL.
Playing weight could be a factor. Wilcox described Thompson in the Condotta article as "a 230-pound guy." ESPN also has the linebacker listed near that range at 228 pounds. After Riddle and I looked at the film, we wondered if Thompson's dimensions have earned him the typical major college program "dimension inflation" -- especially if the position switch is what was best for the program.
The Sideline View's John Harris described Thompson as "a thumper…physical" on his initial 2015 Player Board. Harris is a smart, dedicated draft analyst whose short summation might be describing Thompson's work on special teams or on defense in games that I have not seen.
I say this because while I agree that Thompson can lay the wood -- most notably in the return game -- neither Riddle nor I saw a "physical thumper," for a linebacker. Thompson is a quick player in space and he displays suddenness, vision to work through traffic, and the requisite skill to work through blocks, but we didn't see him tackle like an NFL linebacker.
It would be a surprise if Thompson's timed speed isn't within the range of NFL safeties, but if this is the case his best chance to have a long career in the league might come as a niche fit for a specific defense or special teams. If Thompson becomes a viable NFL linebacker, it's likely that he adds muscle, develops a more physical tacking style in the box, and he still maintains his speed.
These are all "ifs." The "now" of his game is what's on tape, and that's a player who is still sorting out who he is on the field.
Tackling: Good Technique With A Safety's Mentality
Thompson's fundamentals are good enough to get the job done as a linebacker or a safety at the college level, and there is evidence that he might have a shot to grow into an NFL linebacker role. Here's a fundamentally sound play where Thompson two-gaps the guard to make the tackle.
As Riddle mentions in the film session excerpt above, Thompson flashes the strength to stand up and shed an interior lineman to make a tackle on the ball carrier. It's important to note because Thompson's preference as a tackler is to aim for the legs and ankles, and it requires him to leave his feet.
When Thompson tackles a runner with technique focused above the waist, it's often a hit with running start downhill. Harris probably calls Thompson a "thumper" because every time he delivers a hit, the player folds. It's a routine occurrence to find Thompson delivering punishment as the first player down field on special teams.
There's intensity to the contact, but both techniques Thompson routinely displays are more akin to safety play and are not compatible with NFL linebacker technique. As Riddle mentioned during our film session, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David -– a small player in the pros for his position -- is an exceptional case of a linebacker who leaves his feet a lot to make plays, and David has rare vision and skill to work through traffic to gain optimal position.
It's the exception, because according to Riddle, it's a risky method of tackling:
"The thing about the leg tackles that I continue bringing up is both good and bad: The more you go for the legs, the more you have to keep your head down, the more you have to leave your feet, and the more likely you are to miss some tackles. He didn't miss any tackles in this [UCLA] game and he's very good at targeting, but it's a risky way to tackle."
Advanced Tactics: Vision and Playing the Ball
There are layers to performance. The first stage is displaying sound fundamentals. However, the more advanced a player becomes at his craft, the more often he can take risks that aren't as fundamentally sound -- often abandoning fundamentals altogether -- to generate potential game-changing plays. This first quarter run where Thompson strips last week's Futures subject Myles Jack is a fine example.
Thompson takes on the blocker with a good punch and extends his arms to shed the opponent just enough to turn and punch the ball free. The defender is also athletic enough to work free from the blocker to chase the ball and nearly pounce on it for the recovery.
For an extended discussion about the rarity of finding a consistent playmaker on defense, Riddle shares his perspective as if the viewer of this play had the perspective of a helmet cam.
Thompson's playmaking is also strong because he identifies opportunities where he can be aggressive without any hesitation.
This pursuit down the line for a quick tackle is the norm for Thompson. It's related to his vision on special teams where he's often the first downfield. Here's a play where he splits blockers and wraps the return specialist for a minimal gain.
Thompson's work on special teams should buy him time to develop his game at the NFL level if his transition to safety or linebacker hits any minor roadblocks. Even if Thompson has the physical skills to fit immediately as a safety or linebacker, he may have to calibrate his thinking and reaction to the speed, complexity, and athleticism of the NFL before his talents shine.
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Predicting how fast that adjustment time will take -- if it happens at all -- is a fully guaranteed $6 million to $10 million question, with a $2 million to $5 million signing bonus on top.
Pass Coverage: Thompson's Bailiwick
Where Thompson thrives is pass coverage, especially when he's facing the target. This completion to the flat is a showcase of multiple skills that makes Thompson a good defender in space.
This three-minute excerpt from the Riddle-RSP session covers Thompson's sound fundamentals as a zone defender. Thompson takes a strong angle with his drop that not only allows the defender to watch the quarterback, but is also deep enough to test the passer's vision and/or patience to target the deeper cross behind Thompson to come open.
In this case, Brett Hundley either didn't see the receiver come open or saw the depth of Thompson's drop and it deterred him from attempting the throw. When Hundley completes the ball to his receiver in the flat, Thompson is already flying downhill at the perfect angle to make the play.
The timing of Thompson's angle with the ball in the air requires strong anticipation to limit yards after the catch, but without arriving too early to generate a pass interference foul. From his back-pedal to the depth of the drop to the angle to the receiver, Thompson displays coordination, timing, and an understanding of how to attack and limit his opponent in open space.
Against Oregon State, Thompson earns a one-on-one with the tight end in the slot and displays skill to read the quarterback while shadowing the receiver.
He's also comfortable with contact, and he times his break perfectly to undercut the target and nearly pick off the pass. Once again, the ability to compete in space is a huge part of the NFL game, and Thompson displays promise in this respect.
Tracking the ball on a vertical route against Oregon State, Thompson flashes a skill that could put him back at safety if he can cover better athletes than move tight ends in the Pac-12.
Note Thompson playing the ball while sustaining his position on the receiver, which avoids a pass interference call while preventing the receiver from winning position.
Unlike Myles Jack, there isn't a much video available of Thompson as a running back. However, this interception return for a score against the Beavers is an illustration of Thompson's skill to press position as a ball carrier.
Also note Thompson's work as a defender: he drops and undercuts the receiver in zone to make a sound play with his hands on the ball.
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It's yet another example of Thompson's playmaking tendencies that should earn him consideration in the first half of the draft. For Thompson to solidify his stock, he'll have to show that his actual weight is consistent with his current listing and his speed is as sound as it appears on tape. This will happen during all-star games, the NFL combine, and/or his pro day.
If Thompson flashes the speed of a safety, but displays consistent tackling with his feet on the ground like a prototypical linebacker, his promise as an every-down linebacker increases. From what he has shown thus far, he's a safety with skill to play at linebacker depth. If he displays enough range to cover receivers, then his work for Washington was more of a case of team need rather than an attempt to use a playmaker without a position.
It's these intricacies of talent, scheme, fit, and a player's physical and mental development that make scouting a challenging endeavor.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.