Darian Thompson Offers NFL Teams Versatility and Consistency
For whatever reason, the NFL keeps undervaluing safeties. It should have changed this offseason when George Iloka hit the open market. Iloka is an exceptional talent who is about to hit his prime years, yet he re-signed with the Cincinnati Bengals for a minuscule deal relative to his impact on the field.
The safety position should matter a lot more to teams than it does, but we’re past the point where there’s any point expecting them to alter their valuation of the position. The draft shouldn’t be any different.
If Jalen Ramsey is drafted to play cornerback, then it’s unlikely that any safety will go in the top 20 of the draft. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some quality options available after the FSU defender. Karl Joseph is a popular name amongst draft analysts. Joseph is very talented and is the most likely prospect to crack that top 20, but he has health question marks that should force him to drop into the 20s or 30s. He could even fall further than that.
After Joseph, Keanu Neal is the next most popular prospect. The Florida safety is a heavy-hitting box safety who needs work on his tackling technique but has the potential to excel in the right situation. Vonn Bell from Ohio State and Jeremy Cash from Duke are also widely viewed as second-round prospects.
Opinions are more wide-ranging on Boise State defender Darian Thompson.
Thompson is somewhat similar to Iloka. Iloka is taller but both would be considered big safeties. What makes Iloka stand out from others of similar stature is his ability to move comfortably in space while showing off awareness and controlled intensity. The Bengals didn’t ask Iloka to be the deep-lying safety in Cover-1 or Cover-3 too often, but they still allowed him to show off his versatile skill set. Thompson should be used similarly.
On this play, Thompson is responsible for the right half of the field, the wide side of the field. He has two receivers to his side, one is out of shot outside the numbers. Thompson drops a few paces back at the snap so he is in position to react to any in-breaking action from the outside receiver while also keeping the underneath slot receiver in his line of vision. He recognizes the quarterback staring down the slot receiver and is able to redirect to close on the ball as he begins his throwing motion.
Thompson is able to arrive quickly and meet the receiver before he can fully turn to run towards the sideline. Delivering a squared-off, big hit on the receiver is a superfluous bonus.
On this play, Thompson is in a similar position but appears to be playing off-man coverage on the slot receiver. He likely appreciates that he has help from the linebacker underneath but can’t be certain as it may have been dependent on the running back staying in pass protection. Thompson shows balance and timing to open his hips and turn with the receiver when he breaks infield.
He never gets near the ball, but Thompson is able to use his length to disrupt the receiver and take away any chance he could have had to complete the catch.
Although he’s not a great athlete, Thompson shows off enough range to be trusted in space. He isn’t Earl Thomas, he’s not close to Earl Thomas, but he doesn’t need to be for what he is going to do in the NFL. This type of play hinges more on his quick feet, physicality and recognition. Thompson diagnoses the route and breaks on the ball ahead of the receiver, giving himself the opportunity to make the interception.
More importantly, he completely takes away the opportunity for the slot receiver.
It’s not hard to imagine Thompson as a full-time in-the-box safety. He won’t be Deone Bucannon and shift completely to linebacker, but his quickness, awareness and physicality make him an ideal option to drop into underneath coverages in Cover-3 or act as the robber in Cover-1.
Thompson has very impressive ball skills. He made a number of impressive plays on the ball last year while picking off five passes in 11 games. Standing at 6’2″ and 208 lbs, Thompson has an ideal combination of size and fluidity to find the football against tight coverage or close on it when operating in space. One reason for those interceptions is how the safety takes risks.
Any safety who is creating turnovers consistently is taking risks, there is no problem with taking risks so long as you can take advantage of them and so long as they are calculated.
It’s unclear how calculating Thompson is as a player. The signs are mostly positive but he was also often able to take advantage of quarterbacks who stared down their first read in college, so how he reacts to smarter passers on the next level will need to be determined. In the above play, Thompson reads the eyes of the quarterback while abandoning the seam route to his side of the field so he could break on the ball.
A smarter quarterback would have recognized him abandoning his coverage to take advantage of his overly-aggressive nature. This could simply be who Thompson is, but it also could be that Thompson understood the quality of opponents he was facing at the college level.
Last year, Gerod Holliman showed off similarly impressive ball skills and racked up interceptions by jumping routes and coverages. Holliman could have thrived for the Pittsburgh Steelers but couldn’t tackle and lacked the overall athleticism for his skill set to translate.
Thompson excels at closing on the football.
He is very quick to recognize running plays and transition from dropping into coverage to closing on the line of scrimmage. When he meets a running back in the hole or in space he has enough strength and speed to punish them. In the above play, Thompson finds the football with his helmet and pops it out with the force generated. Anyone can take this aggressive approach, but not everyone has the athleticism and control to do so without missing tackles on a regular basis.
Thompson not only lands big hits but also shows off strong technique at the point of contact.
This is one of the most impressive plays you will see from a safety in run defense. Thompson doesn’t get off a block or cut through a tight gap at the line of scrimmage, but he does show off great recognition skills and the acceleration to close when the running back only needed a yard for a first down. Although the back helped him by running wide instead of upfield, this still presented a challenge for Thompson to pull him down.
Like with Iloka, Thompson’s length helps him a lot in run support. It’s easier to locate and close on ball carriers when you can pull them down without getting your shoulder to their hip.
On many occasions, Boise asked Thompson to rotate down so he was essentially in the position of an outside linebacker coming off the edge. He showed off the requisite speed and aggression to close on running backs in the backfield, but also the spacial awareness and physical talent to work through/around blocks.
Thompson isn’t a one-way safety. He offers as much value in coverage as he does in run support. Successful safeties in the NFL can’t afford to have significant flaws. Wide skill sets are what excel in the league today because of how versatile every offense is. For that reason, Thompson should be an extremely valuable piece of whatever team he joins.