The New York Giants have been looking high and low for an every-down starting free safety since Kenny Phillips was lost for the 2009 season with a knee injury. That injury turned out to be a degenerative knee condition which cut the promising young safety's career short.
The next year the Giants signed Antrel Rolle to a massive contract. However injuries and inadequacies lead to him playing too many of his snaps as a slot corner or even a linebacker, rather than the free safety position he was signed to play. For a brief moment Stevie Brown looked to seize the job, but a torn ACL on top of his tendency to give up big plays while looking to create turnovers ultimately ended his time with the Giants. Next the Giants looked to Will Hill, the talented but troubled safety from the Univeristy of Florida, to lock down the back end of their defense. Hill quickly became one of the very best safeties in the NFL. His ability to cover, take away the deep pass, and lay devastating hits to ball carriers made him an instant fan favorite. However his inability to stay away from marijuana lead to too many suspensions, and the Giants cut him.
After failing to wrest Devon McCourty from New England, the Giants looked to a trio of promising young defensive backs to play free safety opposite of Landon Collins. However, a trio of leg injuries -- a torn calf for Nat Berhe, a torn ACL for Bennett Jackson, and a ruptured Achilles tendon to Mykkele Thompson -- ended the seasons of each.
In addition to getting Behre, Jackson, and Mykelle Thompson back from injury, the Giants invested a third-round draft pick in Boise State safety Darian Thompson.
Play 1 vs. Utah State
Darian Thompson is generally solid in coverage, and it is difficult to find instances where he is grossly out of position or has a coverage breakdown. However, he is an aggressive player, and when he is wrong -- either misdiagnosing or over-running the play, or missing a tackle -- it generally leads to a big play.
This is one case where Thompson does everything right, up until it is time to make the play and poor tackling leads to a big play for the offense.
The offense is lined up in the shotgun with an "10" package or four wide receiver set with one running back next to the quarterback. With Boise State bringing pressure, the Utah State offense has a terrific play-call and sets up the screen pass with the running back swinging out as the receiver.
The Boise State defense is lined up in a Cover-2 shell with Thompson is lined up deep. He quickly recognizes the screen pass and flies downhill without hesitation, actually beating the left tackle to his spot. Beating the blocker, Thompson has a perfect opportunity to tackle the ball carrier for a gain of just two or three yards. Instead of wrapping the ball carrier up securely, Thompson tries to lay a big hit on the running back and potentially knock the ball loose.
It quickly turns out to be a rash decision as Thompson misses and the running back is able to run for the touchdown. While you never want to coach a player out of being himself or playing scared, if you are going to gamble, you had better be right -- especially as a safety. Fortunately for Thompson, his instincts and football IQ mean that he is right far more often than he has been wrong.
Play 2 vs. Colorado State
Topping Eric Weddle's record for most interceptions in the Mountain West Conference, Thompson is most well known for his ability to take the ball away from offenses. He uses a high football IQ and tremendous instincts to recognize route concepts and time his breaks to get his hands on passes before receivers do.
Colorado State is showing heavy run with in-line tight ends, a full back, and a running back in the Power I formation. With only one wide receiver, this looks all the world like a running play. But being down by 17 in the third quarter, Colorado State instead decides to take a shot downfield on second-and-10 with a play-action pass.
Boise State is, predictably, stacking the tackle box to defend against the run, but they also leave two safeties deep in a Cover-2 shell.
Thompson trusts the defensive front to stop the run, dropping back in his zone. Thanks to the TV angle it's difficult to see exactly what Thompson does after dropping back, but the intended receiver is well covered, allowing Thompson to break on the ball. He takes a terrific angle, undercutting the pass, snagging it out of the air and setting him up for a great return, putting the Boise State offense in good position to extend the lead.
Play 1 vs. Colorado State
When it comes to safety play, shutting down the deep pass is the first priority, but coming down in run support is a close second.
Colorado state is showing a heavy run -- and they indeed go for the power running play. Boise state has seven players in the tackle box, and are shading both their slot corner and the other (not Thompson) safety toward the line of scrimmage. Thompson, as the red arrow indicates, is lined up as a deep safety to protect against a pass or play-action.
The Colorado State slot receiver does a very good job of blocking the slot corner, while the fullback comes up and stonewalls his linebacker, blowing open a hole for the running back. At least, until Thompson comes downhill and turns a good run into a huge defensive play.
Thompson initially retreats off the snap, backpedaling into his zone, but he quickly recognizes the handoff and comes downhill. He accurately diagnoses the play and wastes little motion coming up to fill the open hole. Thompson isn't renowned for his tackling technique, but this time he lays a solid tackle on the ball carrier, wrapping up while he puts his helmet on the ball. Not only does he stop the runner cold, he knocks the ball loose, leading to a turnover for Boise State.
Play 2 vs. Virginia
Moving on to a game against a bigger school in Virginia, Thompson shows his instincts again as he walks down and ultimately blows up the play.
Virginia is showing a heavy run, probably up the gut between the tackles, and while they do run the ball, it is with a jet sweep. Thompson sees the receiver take off down the line of scrimmage as he walks up to the line from his safety position, and jumps into the backfield to set an edge and force the play back inside rather than let the receiver get the edge and turn up-field.
The fullback kicks out to block Thompson, opening up the edge, but Thompson shows surprisingly quick feet to dance back and around the block. While Thompson isn't the one to bring the ball-carrier down, by forcing him back inside and slowing him with a shoe-string tackle, he sets the receiver up to be well and truly tackled by No. 36.
Had Thompson not slowed the play and forced it back inside, the tight end might have been able to block No. 36 long enough for the receiver to get the edge. Instead he was able to shed the block and take a straight line to the receiver.
This is team defense, the way you have to play the run, even runs like these, but Thompson played an important role in the tackle for a loss.
By mid-February Darian Thompson was generally thought of as a fringe first round prospect. By now it is well known that a poor combine performance somewhat torpedoed his stock, causing evaluators to go back and focus in on the faults in his game. And Thompson does have faults in his game. He isn't an elite athlete like Jalen Ramsey, and Thompson is an aggressive player. Most of the time his gambles are calculated, but when things go badly, they go very badly.
But his positives far outweigh his negatives. He's more athletic than he tested, and thanks to his high football IQ and tremendous instincts, he plays even faster than that. He's generally sound in his assignments and when he comes downhill, it is reminiscent of players like Kenny Phillips or Will Hill.
How the safety position eventually works out is still up in the air. Thompson is inexperienced, and as we saw with Landon Collins even smart, talented safeties will struggle when tossed in the fire their rookie year. With at least some NFL experience, it's fair to wonder if one of Bennett Jackson, Mykkele Thompson, Nat Berhe, or Cooper Taylor will initially win the starting job opposite Collins. However, it is also fair to wonder how much the injuries have affected Jackson and Mykkele Thompson.
One thing is for sure: The Giants have to be hoping that Thompson will step forward and become a valuable contributor sooner rather than later. And given the last few years, they would hardly turn away an embarrassment of riches if all of their young safeties step up.