Why did the New York Giants, needy at the safety position after struggling there for two seasons, select Boise State's Darian Thompson in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft? Head coach Ben McAdoo put it best.
"The game is about the ball and he can get the offense the ball," McAdoo said after the selection.
Vice President of Player Evaluation Marc Ross on the selection of Thompson:
"This guy's a ball hawk. His instincts are what separates. He can anticipate where a route is, where a ball is going and he jumps on it. And that's what distinguishes him with making interceptions."
Thompson set a Boise State record with 19 career interceptions, and came to the Giants with the reputation of being both a playmaker and a vocal presence in the back of the defense. He did not disappoint in the spring, making a handful of interceptions and showing a willingness to make defensive calls from the deep safety spot despite being the new kid back there.
" ... he is assertive, he is vocal, he is not afraid to make a mistake," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "I think the first thing that you need to do at that position when we ask you to make calls is not to be afraid of making a mistake and to be vocal. If he continues to do that, he will learn the defense. He is smart enough, and then it is just a matter of when you get out there, where is his skill level, and I think we will find out a lot when we get to those preseason games."
McAdoo praised Thompson during OTAs:
"DT is a guy who looks like he is comfortable in his skin, he can communicate well and we know he has good ball skills," McAdoo said. "That showed up in his stat line and on his film study and he is making the most of his opportunities."
Thompson said during rookie minicamp that the leadership role in the secondary is "natural" for him.
"It is very important for a safety to be able to command in the secondary because they can see everything most of the time. They can be a leader back there and a quarterback of the defense. That's something I've been doing throughout the college level and it comes natural for me," he said. "It was my job (at Boise State) to communicate back there and make sure everything was running smoothly. It's something I did there and it stayed with me."
Can Thompson be a difference-maker for the Giants in 2016? Let's take a closer look both Thompson, and see what we can find out about the recent history of rookie safeties.
2015 Season in Review
Thompson had 65 tackles, 8.5 for loss, five interceptions, nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a sack for Boise State.
Here is part of the scouting report from Dane Brugler's 2016 NFL Draft Guide:
... was asked to do a little bit of everything on tape, attacking the run and playing deep coverage. Although his missed tackles are frustrating, he screams to the football as a run defender with a physical mentality to take out ballcarriers. Thompson has the anticipation and ballskills to read quarterbacks and make plays on the ball, but he also guesses too much and lacks the same cover skills once asked to turn and run. His inconsistencies make it tough to trust him as the last line of defense, but his playmaking instincts and toughness will interest NFL coaches as a downhill safety.
Here is NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock reacting after the Giants selected Thompson in the third round, 81st overall:
"When the ball is in the air, he wants it. He struggles a bit in the tackle game. A safety has to tackle. He's your last line of defense. So, I love the ball skills, but want to see him tackle."
Pro Football Focus data shows that Thompson missed a tackle once out of every 5.9 attempts last season. Only two of the 44 safeties PFF graded were worse. PFF gave Thompson mixed reviews in its draft guide:
The league is not full of players that can perform well in coverage and still offer something in the run game. Thompson flashes the ability to do both, and has graded well in each area, but just can't put it all together in a way that avoids mistakes in each facet. If he can fix those issues and the big plays they result in, he could be an excellent safety, but even with them there is a place for him in the NFL given his plus points.
2016 Season Outlook
Despite his impressive spring, it is anything but a given that Thompson will start alongside Landon Collins. Thompson and third-year man Nat Berhe split first-team reps during spring practices. That will likely continue until one of the two players clearly wins the job.
If Thompson wins the job, what can we expect?
Perhaps, while Collins is more of an in the box strong safety and Thompson is looked at as a center fielder, Collins' rookie season is instructive. When you think about Collins' rookie season, both the Pro Football Focus numbers and the eye test tell us that he got better as the season progressed. That's normal. Few rookies are finished products. There is much to learn about the NFL, both on the field and off. When the Giants drafted Kenny Phillips in the first round in 2008, he started only three games as a rookie.
A year ago, safeties coach Dave Merritt discussed the learning curve for young safeties. Though Collins has a year of valuable experience, that situation still exists for the Giants. Especially in Thompson's case.
"There's a lot of work that goes into it," Thompson said during rookie minicamp. "If you have the right study habits and mentality, it can happen. A lot of it comes with instinct and film study. I believe I have that ability, but I have to continue to work to keep it that way."
Rookie safeties can be, and have been, successful. A couple of years back, PFF studied rookie performance at the safety position over a period of several drafts, and found that in general highly-drafted safeties played at least adequately as rookies.
Thompson has shown the tools to be a playmaker and the willingness to be a decision-maker at the back of the defense. How quickly it all comes together for him once the games begin is anybody's guess. There is, however, plenty of reason to be optimistic.