One of the more interesting NFL Draft debates over the past several months surrounds Washington star Shaq Thompson’s best position.
Thompson, who is projected by many to be a second-round pick this year, played inside linebacker and running back for the Huskies, and did some of his best work in coverage, which hearkened back to when he played safety during his high school days.
That’s why Thompson was the winner of the annual Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player, in 2014. He still tried to remove all doubt surrounding his best position during the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
“I tell everybody outside linebacker (in a 4-3 defense) or inside as a Will (in a 3-4),” Thompson said. “That’s where I feel the most comfortable. 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.”
As a true junior in 2014, Thompson racked up 81 tackles (2 1/2 for loss), five pass deflections, three forced fumbles and an interception for the Huskies. As a running back, he also opened eyes by rushing 61 times for 456 yards — a sterling 7.5 average — and two touchdowns.
“Shaq Thompson is one of the most fun guys to watch on tape this year,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I know GMs were looking at him as a running back, linebacker, and safety, most teams as a linebacker.”
Thompson’s athletic gifts and versatility make him an intriguing prospect. He ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash and posted a vertical jump of 33 1/2 inches, all at 6 feet and 228 pounds.
But he never played middle linebacker before college, so he is still developing his instincts there. He can occasionally be a tick slow to trigger and diagnose, something he says he’s actively working on.
“I was so used to inside and they were bouncing me around a lot, so my read progression was kind of slow,” Thompson said. “But I felt it got better at the end of the year when I was just starting to play linebacker.”
And for all his athleticism, there’s some concern he could still be a tad slight to handle repeated pounding inside the box.
“I feel like the way I am is good enough,” Thompson said. “I can move at 228 or 230. If I have to throw on more weight, we’ll see how I move. But I think I’d move fine.”
A nice compromise, however, might be at safety, where he could still get the contact he craves. It’s not hard to envision Thompson sliding inside on passing downs — like Arizona did with 2014 first-round pick Deone Bucannon — and giving a team a healthy dose of athleticism and playmaking (he scored four defensive touchdowns in 2014) at an important position in an increasingly pass-happy league.
“I’ve got him as a safety,” Mayock said. “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.”
Thompson, however, says teams should not be concerned with his ability to play in the box on an every down basis.
“I feel like size doesn’t matter,” Thompson said. “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.”
Another compromise might be playing Thompson as a 4-3 outside linebacker, where he’d likely be allowed to run and chase. Thompson, after all, patterns his game after Tampa Bay’s undersized weakside linebacker, Lavonte David, and urges teams to do look at the similar things they can do.
“He’s a little bit taller than me,” Thompson said of the 2013 Pro Bowler. “But same attributes, same speed, can cover tight ends and running backs. I feel like I can do the same thing.”
Thompson said he realized he loved linebacker in 2013, his sophomore year at Washington, when he posted 78 tackles (four for loss) and five pass deflections.
“My first year, I was getting my feet wet — I played safety for about a week in camp,” Thompson said. “(Defensive coordinator Justin) Wilcox moved me down to linebacker, I got my feet wet, learned the playbook (and) my sophomore year, I felt it was the spot for me. I had my reads right, I felt like my feet were mounted at one position as opposed to multiple positions.”
However, while Thompson seems to have his mind made up on playing linebacker, he only ruled out running back as a legitimate option at the next level.
“Running back is out of the question,” Thompson said.
The same, he admitted, cannot be said for safety, despite his preference to play linebacker.
“I’m gonna put it out there that I want to play linebacker,” Thompson said. “But I can’t say no to (safety).”