Every person reading this now has been told they weren’t good enough to be a professional ballplayer. While life goes on, a special few have decided to switch sports and then succeed in their second career ‒ Shaq Thompson is one of those special athletes. Despite failing completely in baseball, Thompson went back to school and made himself into an NFL prospect. Brandon Magee over at SoSH Baseball looked at his ignominious baseball career, while Dave Archibald of Inside The Pylon looks at Shaq’s second act.
Carolina Panthers first-round pick Shaq Thompson made his professional debut in their second preseason game Saturday night. His professional football debut, that is – Thompson previously had a brief and ignominious stint as a minor leaguer in the Boston Red Sox organization, going 0-for-39 with 37 strikeouts for their Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2012.
He had more success on the gridiron for the Washington Huskies, making the All-Pac-12 First Team and several All-American lists for his junior season, where he racked up 80 total tackles at linebacker and safety. He also spent some time at running back because of injuries, rushing for 456 yards at an impressive 7.5 yards per carry. His contributions on defense, offense, and special teams garnered him the Paul Hornung Award for the nation’s most versatile player.
When it came to Thompson’s draft prospects, however, that versatility proved both a blessing and a curse. At 6’0” and 228 pounds, Thompson is smaller than a prototypical linebacker, but his 4.64 40 time and lack of backend experience make him a questionable fit at safety. And while his experience on offense shows his willingness to do anything to help the team, the 21-year-old considers himself a defender. On the eve of the draft, there were questions: Who would take the talented junior and how would they deploy him?
It didn’t take long to answer the first question, as the Panthers called Thompson to the podium on the draft’s first day, using the 25th overall selection. The question regarding his usage may not be answered until further along in Thompson’s career, but football fans got their first glimpses in Saturday’s game against the Miami Dolphins. Thompson missed the first few weeks of training camp and the first preseason contest with hamstring issues, but the recent game tape showed a player in full health.
Come Fly With Me
Ostensibly Thompson is playing outside linebacker, and much of the time he’s used in a conventional role as a Will (weakside) linebacker. The Panthers did take some advantage of his coverage skills and experience at safety, lining him up on the slot receiver at times. He also spent several snaps in coverage on Jordan Cameron, one of the most athletic tight ends in the NFL:
On this play, Miami lined up Cameron (#84) wide left, and Thompson (#54) followed him. Most linebackers are uncomfortable that far from the middle of the field, but Thompson plays this like a defensive back, going stride-for-stride with the speedy tight end on a streak pattern. The throw is well-placed but Thompson tracks it and knocks it out of Cameron’s hands at the last moment.
Thompson possesses excellent instincts and a nose for the ball. He displayed that quality most forcefully on one goal line play:
Thompson checks and shadows Cameron on a fade pattern, but he keeps his eyes in the backfield as he drops into coverage. When he sees the pass to running back Lamar Miller (#26) in the left flat, he puts his foot in the ground and charges, making a quick wrap-up tackle for a minimal gain. Thompson’s versatility could prove useful at the goal line, where offenses often play jumbo sets with no wide receivers and defenses have to counter by taking cornerbacks and safeties off the field. His skillset lets Carolina sub out defensive backs without compromising its pass defense. His awareness and closing speed also makes Thompson effective when patrolling underneath zones.
Off His Blocker
Not everything went perfectly in Thompson’s preseason debut. As one might expect for a smaller linebacker, he had trouble getting off blocks in the running game, particularly when engaged with offensive linemen and large tight ends. Just three plays after his terrific goal line stop above, Thompson showed himself a liability as the Dolphins punched the ball in for a touchdown:
Thompson is lined up just behind the defensive line. He is a touch slow to react at the snap and finds himself engaged with Dion Sims (#80), a 268-pound mauler of a tight end. Sims gets his hands on Thompson and drives him a couple yards back into the end zone. By the time the young linebacker wrests himself free, running back Damien Williams (#34) has already scampered into the hole for the score. There’s no time for hesitation on the goal line, especially when Thompson is giving up 30 pounds or more to blockers. This weakness showed up in college tape, as well – Thompson plays faster and more confident in space than working through blocks and congestion in tight areas. Until he improves in this department, Carolina may restrict his playing time to passing downs or situations.
A Modern Linebacker
In terms of position on the field, Thompson may not neatly fall into any box, but in today’s NFL – full of offenses shifting personnel and formations and spread multiple wideout sets with receiver-like tight ends and running backs – defense is about solutions, not positions. If his preseason debut is any indication, Thompson will provide Carolina with solutions for the modern game. He tackles like a linebacker, but covers like a defensive back. He has the size and athleticism to match up on the new breed of tight end, patrol half the field as one of just two nickel linebackers, and chase down plays from the weak side. If he can add some weight, strength, and technique to defeat blocks and stand his ground against the rush, he can become one of the best of the new breed of linebackers.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.