Carolina Panthers

Washington’s Shaq Thompson could be a safety, despite LB preference

Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson (7) had six touchdowns for the Huskies in 2014, including two at running back. His best NFL position, based on his size and strength, could be safety.
Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson (7) had six touchdowns for the Huskies in 2014, including two at running back. His best NFL position, based on his size and strength, could be safety. AP

Shaq Thompson played outside linebacker, safety and running back during his three years with the Washington Huskies, and he’s made it clear he wants to be an outside linebacker in the NFL.

Voted the most versatile player in college football last year, Thompson feels he best fits as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense like the one the Carolina Panthers use.

But where Thompson plays in the NFL isn’t up to him, and he could end up playing safety for a team that takes him in the first or second round of next week’s draft.

“I’m gonna put it out there that I want to play linebacker,” Thompson said at the NFL scouting combine. “But I can’t say no to (playing safety).”

A possible Panthers target, Thompson said this week on ProFootballTalk Live that of all 32 NFL teams, Carolina has shown him the most interest. He came to Charlotte for in-house visit with the Panthers as well as a private workout.

But if Carolina picks Thompson, his best option may be at safety because of his size and strength.

Thompson scored six touchdowns last season for the Huskies. Two came as a running back, a position he has said numerous times he doesn’t want to play at the next level because of fears it could shorten his career. The other four came via an interception return and three fumble returns.

He compares himself to Tampa Bay outside linebacker Lavonte David, a tackling machine with speed. Thompson, at 6-feet and 228 pounds, looks like David.

But where David wins and Thompson doesn’t is at the line of scrimmage. David has the strength to shed blockers; Thompson acknowledges his biggest weakness is getting off blocks. Thompson’s 20 bench press repetitions of 225 pounds at his pro day would have tied for 21st among all linebackers at the combine. He needs to add weight and strength to be a successful every-down linebacker in the NFL.

“There were a couple of times where I didn’t get off blocks, but there were other times when I did,” Thompson said. “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.”

Thompson said he likes playing in space, and outside linebacker isn’t the only position where he can do that. Safety, especially strong safety, would offer that freedom for Thompson.

NFL analytics site compared Thompson’s combine numbers to those of the other strong safeties in this year’s class. Though he’s not the tallest or fastest with a 4.64 second 40-yard dash, his 33-inch-long arms are in the 89th percentile. His 228 pounds place him in the 97th percentile, though he frequently played under that weight at Washington.

His 4.08-second 20-yard shuttle put him in the 85th percentile among all strong safeties.

Those numbers are comparable to those of another versatile player – Seattle safety Kam Chancellor. Coming out of college at 6-3 with 22 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, Chancellor was taller and stronger than Thompson. But their arms are the same length and 40 times are nearly identical. Chancellor is just three pounds heavier than Thompson, who possesses more agility than Chancellor.

Chancellor, of course, terrorized the Panthers during Carolina’s playoff loss to Seattle. He totaled 10 tackles, timed jumps over both lines to affect two field-goal attempts by Graham Gano and intercepted a pass by Cam Newton to return it for a touchdown and effectively seal the game.

But Thompson hasn’t played safety much in his career. He worked at it some in practice and took snaps there against Stanford. But his body and abilities aren’t yet NFL-ready at outside linebacker either.

The Panthers have a history of moving versatile players to new positions. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis came to Carolina as a safety. Through the years, and despite three reconstructive knee surgeries, Davis has become one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL.

When Carolina drafted Davis with the 14th overall pick in the 2005 draft, Davis was an inch taller, 3 pounds heavier and essentially ran the same 40 time as Thompson.

A team source indicated getting Thompson with the 25th overall pick may be early, though it’s unlikely he’ll be available by the time Carolina picks in the second round at 57th overall. Starting strong safety Roman Harper, 32, was a step slow at times last year and is entering the final year of his contract. Davis is set to sign an extension to keep him beside middle linebacker Luke Kuechly for the next several seasons.

Thompson’s athleticism could be enough to get him into the first round of next week’s draft, and he says his biggest strengths will come out once he’s on the field.

“Just being out in the open field and making plays,” Thompson said. “Just being a team leader. I really don’t say much. I lead by example.

“Just really have fun and beat everybody else up.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9