The Shaq Thompson Conundrum: Is He a Running Back, Linebacker, or Safety?

Thompson wants to play defense in the NFL, but does he actually project better as a running back?

“Versatility” is a popular NFL scouting term used to describe a player who offers a variety of skills that can make him valuable in multiple situations on the football field.

Running backs who are proficient at catching the football are in high demand in today’s pass-heavy approach to offense. Wide receivers who are capable run blockers are another example of what many NFL front offices crave (dependent on scheme, of course).

Positional versatility -- that is, playing on both sides of the ball -- is something we almost never see in the modern iteration of football however. Under certain circumstances such as injury, it’s possible for a player to swap sides of the ball (e.g. wide receiver to cornerback). In the college ranks it’s possible to play offense and defense with some regularity due to a much lower level of completion.

But in the NFL, it’s basically unheard of.

That is what makes one prospect, Shaq Thompson, so intriguing.

Dual Threat Ability

Shaq Thompson played safety, linebacker, and running back while at the University of Washington, so it is not too surprising that he enters this year’s draft class as one of the most versatile athletes available. He has also said publicly that he has no intentions on playing running back at the next level.

And while Thompson may feel strongly about where he best projects in the NFL, what he accomplished as a junior in 2014, including lining up in the backfield, is impossible to ignore.

YearCarriesRushing YardsYPCRushing TDsTacklesINTsForced FumblesDefensive TDs

Not only did Thompson average an eye-popping 7.5 yards per carry, but he also showed the ability to catch the football averaging 14 yards per catch on a modest 4 receptions.

He was a solid contributor on defense, recording at least 74 tackles every season since his freshman year. In 2014, he also scored four touchdowns on defense to go along with his two scores on the ground.

Again, it’s important to note that his offensive sample size is very small over the length of his college career, but the fact that he played in a Power Five conference (the Pac-12) against high-level competition deserves consideration as well.

Thompson versus Outside Linebackers

Using the spider graphs from (an invaluable resource, by the way), we can visualize how Thompson’s combine measurables stack up against other athletes at the outside linebacker position.

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As you can see, the only area in which Thompson clearly excels against others at the outside linebacker position is the short shuttle. In all others, he hovers between the 70th percentile (3-cone drill) all the way down to the 4th percentile (height).

The 10 most comparable outside linebackers aren’t exactly confidence-inspiring.

No bueno.

Despite all the above information, it’s not to say that Thompson cannot succeed as an NFL linebacker; it’s just that, unlike Katniss Everdeen, the odds do not appear to be in his favor (love you, L-Law).

Thompson versus Strong Safeties

Below are Thompson’s spider charts when compared to other strong safeties. The results, much like those found above, are very underwhelming.

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The top three names on his comparables list also are not very promising: Jaquiski Tartt (2015), Antonio Allen (2012), and Justin Woodall (2010).


Thompson versus Running Backs

Thompson still does not profile as a high-end athlete compared to running backs either, but what he does have is a positive comp to one of his 2015 draft class peers.

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It’s interesting to see T.J. Yeldon, a draft prospect who many in the draft community believe has a good shot at becoming a solid NFL running back, as a close comparison.

And although there are certainly some questionable characters found on his comparable players list, (Damien Berry, anyone?) the fact that two starting-caliber backs (Stevan Ridley and Carlos Hyde) pop up is promising.

The Best Fit

No matter where Thompson ends up after the draft, he will be either a safety/linebacker or a running back -- not both. The intricacies of today’s playbooks, both offensive and defensive, severely limit the ability of a rookie who is becoming acclimated to the NFL lifestyle to be able to grasp both simultaneously.

Thompson wants to play defense, and, chances are, that’s where the franchise that picks him will want him to play as well. It’s the side of the ball he has the most experience playing and where his playmaking abilities are most likely to be best served. He is also very aware of the short shelf life of NFL running backs.

In the end, Shaq Thompson’s measureables don’t necessarily equate him to a physical freak regardless of what position you choose to categorize him in. This is a situation where metrics and tape may not exactly match one another.

His list of closest comparables points to running back being his best chance to stick at the next level, but his relative inexperience at the position will likely prevent his new employers from allowing him that opportunity.