Taking a look at the Redskins fifth-round pick Chris Thompson, a running back from Florida State, after watching a number of his games and highlights, thanks in part to the videos posted on Draft Breakdown. Keep in mind this is based off a TV feed but it still reveals a lot about his game.
- Durability will be an issue, obviously, after a college career in which he broke his back and also tore the ACL in his left knee. When you’re 5-foot-7, 192 pounds you need to prove that you can last (something Roy Helu still needs to do). The good news for Thompson is that he did not suffer nagging injuries; his were of the major variety. If it was just an ACL that would be one thing. But the combination, especially with the back, raises red flags. Not that he’s injury prone, but that further issues could result. At least that’s the worry, otherwise he’d have gone higher. He’s a potential home-run hitter.
- Thompson is well-suited to be a third-down threat, but there is one big question: How is his blocking? In the games I watched I saw him block twice; he mostly went out for a pass. To be a good third-down back you also must succeed in pass protection. Both Helu and Evan Royster had to learn how to block in these situations as well. Both are bigger than Thompson and that makes a difference. In the few instances Thompson blocked in protection, there was no lack of want-to. He did not lower his head, a common mistake for some backs, while taking on a blitzing outside linebacker (who weighed 231 pounds) vs. Clemson. Thompson slowed his man, showing decent technique and understanding where he needed to block his man. But the linebacker did not keep running through him – a teammate was set up with a free rush and got the sack. He popped Thompson off balance, knocking him sideways. Thompson did a nice job on this play, but it makes me wonder when he faces a 260-pound blitzing linebacker off the edge or coming up the middle. The other blitz I saw him pick up came off the edge and he tried to cut the defender at the legs. All he had to do was delay his man because the pass was thrown quickly. Desire won’t be the issue as it is with some backs. The laws of physics could be.
- It also takes time to learn how to read blitzes to know who to pick up, the angle to take and how vary your pickup. Yes, you can’t always just try to stone a guy; they get used to it and adjust. So once in a while you have to throw in a wrinkle, cutting him here or there. Alfred Morris took time to adjust to this as well.
- As a receiver, Thompson offers big-play ability because of his speed, but he was more effective in the ground game. Thompson’s long reception in college was 32 yards; he scored just one touchdown on 45 receptions. Defenses seemed to deal with him better in this role thanks to good pursuit, but they weren’t always successful in surrounding him. He was boom-or-bust in this area last year: six of his receptions totaled 144 yards; the other 15 gained 104. What I like is that he catches smoothly and turns up-field quickly. The key for a defense is to get to him before he can plant and go.
- OK, here’s what I like: watching him plant-and-go in the outside zone was a lot of fun. Unless you were on the other side of the ball. Thompson can carry the ball in other formations – he ran well at times out of the I and single back, but he also appeared to have a lot of 1- and 2-yard runs; he’s not a pile mover. But if there’s an opening, look out… Still, he’s best working the cutback lanes. Sometimes he glides through his cuts because he does not waste any steps. There are no pitter-patter steps and then a cut. It’s glide, cut and go. A long run vs. Clemson provided a perfect example. He took a handoff on an outside zone to the left. When the hole developed he cut up into a hole where a safety was coming up to fill. Thompson hopped to his left as a corner was closing in. So he shook him with a hard plant inside and burst outside. Thompson did this at full speed. The ability to create downfield is one reason why he was so dangerous in college. When healthy.
- His ability to accelerate can’t be underestimated. The agile Thompson is dangerous when he cuts because he doesn’t slow down. And he uses his lack of size to his advantage. He’s low to the ground so he’s able to stay balance. Thompson does not break a lot of tackles at the line, save for arm tackles. He did not run over linebackers, but he was able to fool them and he did run through some DBs (perfect example vs. Clemson: he ran through two arm tackles near the line, then lowered his shoulder – he’s a tough target when he does so – and ran through a DB en route to the end zone). He will need a crease in the NFL, but that’s what the stretch zone creates.
- Thompson ran with excellent vision in college. It’s hard to tell off the TV, but there were times it looked like he knew where the defender was, but was looking past him downfield to where he needed to cut. Any good running back has excellent vision; Thompson has it too. I think it allows him to keep running at full speed because he knows where he’s headed and doesn’t have to waste as much movement. I saw one scouting report after they picked him that talked about him not being economical with his moves. Based on the several games I watched I disagree, especially in the outside zones (in the Redskins’ zone read they run a lot of inside zone with Morris, but use the outside zone runs out of their base formation).
- I understand why they drafted Thompson. Though Morris was terrific in this system last season, the Redskins needed more depth. Royster is a move-the-chains runner, but not a third-down back. And Helu hasn’t proven he’s durable (yes, I know Thompson has that issue, as addressed above). So this pick makes a lot of sense. Then you factor in that Thompson offers the Redskins something they lack, which is explosiveness in the open field. Helu is fast, but does not move like this. If Thompson makes the team, he could become a returner (did it in college, though was not great with a 22.9-yard average on eight returns; one punt return in college) and perhaps a [better version of] Brandon Banks on offense, playing in their triple option look among other ways. I’d rather have this kid running the ball than Banks on the option. I haven’t mentioned Thompson’s toughness, but for him to return from a broken back and have the kind of season he was having before he tore his ACL says a lot. He did not look like a tentative runner, which would be understandable given that he wondered if he’d ever play again after the back injury. If he was worried about his back it was not evident in his performance.
- If Thompson works out, they could also use him on the jet sweeps (or dash runs) that the Niners LaMichael James scored on in the NFC Championship Game. James’ speed made that play possible and they ran it out of the pistol formation, which the Redskins obviously use. The big question is durability; if he can stay healthy then the Redskins have made a wise pick.