The Carolina Panthers didn’t get an offensive tackle.
Instead, they drafted a do-it-all defensive player they plan to add to an already formidable linebacking corps.
With former University of Florida and Mallard Creek tackle D.J. Humphries getting snatched up by Arizona one pick before the Panthers were on the clock, they took former University of Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson with the 25th pick in Thursday’s NFL draft.
Thompson played three positions and finished with 81 tackles and six touchdowns in his final season with the Huskies. He won the Paul Hornung Award given to the nation’s most versatile player after scoring two touchdowns as a running back and four on defense (one interception return and three fumble returns).
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Thompson, 6-foot and 228 pounds, played one game at safety for Washington.
But the Panthers drafted him as a linebacker and plan to use his versatility to add some creativity to their 4-3 scheme.
Thompson will compete at weakside linebacker alongside Luke Kuechly, a two-time Pro Bowler, and Thomas Davis, the NFL’s reigning Man of the Year who announced Thompson as the pick at the draft in Chicago.
Thompson, who watched the draft from his Sacramento hometown, said he expected to be picked in the second round. He was thrilled to hear Davis call his name and join a linebacker group that ranks among the league’s best.
“Those are two of the best linebackers, Man of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year,” Thompson said. “I feel like I can be one of those top linebackers, just progressing and learning from those guys, two of the top linebackers in the game.”
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said Thompson and Humphries were the top players on their board when the Cardinals selected Humphries, a 6-5, 307-pounder who at least one draft analyst thinks can start at left tackle in the NFL immediately.
“They’re both really talented, and they both have big upside,” Gettleman said. “We would not have been disappointed either way, either way it fell.”
Gettleman, criticized for not taking a tackle last year, said he didn’t consider moving up in the first round. He says he wants to hold on to the Panthers’ first three picks.
The second and third rounds are Friday night.
“He’s going to allow us to put three very fast linebackers on the field. I think he’s going to be a great fit with Thomas and Luke,” Gettleman said. “He gives us matchup abilities that we don’t have. There’s some different things we can do with him.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Thompson will allow defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to keep three linebackers on the field when an opponent lines up in two-tight end sets.
Rivera said Thompson, who ran the 40 in 4.64 seconds at the combine, looks comfortable in coverage and against the run.
“When you watch the way Washington used him, they used him many different ways,” Rivera said. “You watch him walk out on space, you see him out in space and he looks natural. You watch him move inside and he can play downhill, he can take on the lead (blocker).”
Gettleman said drafting Thompson would “absolutely not” change the organization’s plans to extend Davis’ contract. And while Thompson might one day succeed Davis, that’s not what Rivera was focused on Thursday.
“There’s a lot of characteristics they share,” Rivera said. “But I’ve got to be honest with you, there’s only one Thomas Davis.”
Thompson is a former baseball player who was taken in the 18th round by the Boston Red Sox in the 2012 MLB draft, despite not playing baseball from sixth grade until his senior year in high school.
He went 0-for-39, with 37 strikeouts, in 13 games with the Red Sox’s Gulf Coast League affiliate before heading to Washington in 2012.
Despite his abysmal performance, Thompson said he learned from his lone season of baseball.
“A lot of people will laugh and joke at it, 0-for-39,” he said. “But hey, some people don’t get drafted, and I was lucky enough to get drafted and I had a great experience.”
Asked about getting drafted in two sports, Thompson said: “This is much better.”