Jalen Thompson Proves Arizona's Investment In Cover Safeties

Photo: © Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Just over two years ago, Arizona made Washington S Budda Baker the 36th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Lauded for his emphatic play style, silky movement skills, and one-click explosiveness, Baker projected for many as a free safety who could roll down into slot coverage if necessary -- that's pretty much what he did at Washington. In picking Budda, sure, you were taking a safety who wasn't going to body up tight ends in tight spaces -- but he could roll down over slot receivers and provide personnel flexibility to your nickel and dime packages. That's great news.

But the Cardinals took it even further than that. Last season, per PFF's charting, Baker (total snaps: 1010) only took 24 snaps as a free safety; 135 as a box player. The majority of his reps came indeed from a slot corner alignment: 640 of them to be exact.

Note: he also had 124 snaps from a "DLINE" alignment, because he's just that spunky.

The Cardinals took a safety with man cover skills and made him into a slot corner, grabbing critical man coverage reps over the increasingly important NFL slot while improving upon the average nickel's run support and tackling ability -- and they may have just done it again.

With a fifth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Arizona Cardinals selected Washington State S Jalen Thompson in the 2019 Supplemental Draft.

But, if you read my scouting report on Thompson, you'll quickly find that Thompson is a safety almost exclusively in name -- in a dime-heavy defense with the Cougars, Thompson was frequently aligned to the wide side of the field over the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver. Wazzu ran their fair share of man match concepts, so Thompson was often protected from press coverage, but he was responsible for tagging slot receivers and tracking them across the field.

While he is nowhere near the caliber of player Budda Baker is, Thompson is again this cover safety mold -- a player with experience in the box, filling against the run, playing that conflict role of apex defender in modern NFL defenses.

This, from my scouting report:

Fleet-footed man cover defender who has a nice understanding of route concepts. Multiple examples of great anticipation and recognition of switch stems/route pairings in half a field; has the ability to work pattern match ideas and orchestrated fellow defenders mid-play.
Regularly beats his fellow defenders to the ball when closing downhill, with nice burst in short areas. Fluidity in the hips and quickness in space may project best to more of a slot cornerback role in the NFL.

Thompson didn't play on a secondary with much NFL talent -- or, even more broadly, a defense with much NFL talent -- but he was able to generate splash plays by himself and for his teammates with his route recognition, situational awareness, and anticipation. He started off an early Washington State push in his final college game, the Alamo Bowl, with this interception off of Brock Purdy that is pure art in terms of heady cornerback play.

See how Thompson seems to know the route combo before the snap; the timing with which he identifies the QB rollout and peels off his man. This is a film study play, but there's an ingrained set of instincts you have to have to pull it off. Thompson's comfort closing down into the flats from deep alignment allows him to make plays like this on the fly -- QBs feel that he's vacated space or that he's declared his intentions, when really he's still reading, reacting, and preparing for his next move.

Thompson actually generated much a similar INT in 2017, when I watched his film for preseason evaluations before the 2018 season -- but it wasn't his catch. Rather, his anticipation and situational awareness forced a scrambling QB into a hasty throw across his body, and his teammates took advantage.

Again, that quick downhill close because he knows this route is coming to the sticks; immediately gets connected but stays in phase downfield as the WR institutes scramble drill protocol. This is just a smart player through and through.

Now, he can get physical challenged when asked to match a guy in space. Thompson is quick, but he often plays a little faster than his feet; and he isn't particularly big or particularly fast, so he can quickly be put into recovery positions. However, Thompson addresses the catch point well, and even with below average length, makes catches difficult with his dogged physicality.

Again, there's such great timing here from Thompson. He's really quite the player, in terms of staying under control and ready to explode.

I brought up Budda Baker as the archetype for Thompson's role in Arizona -- with fifth-round selection Deionte Thompson also on the squad, and free agent acquisition D.J. Swearinger manning the traditional strong safety role, there's a lot of talent in the Cardinals' safety room. But, as a player comparison, Thompson reminds me a fair bit of what the Eagles had in Avonte Maddox this past year: an undersized cover defender who exists somewhere in the gray area between corner and safety. That may not be a starting role on the roster come gameday, but it's an important role, and more than enough to make a living in the NFL.

Thompson will benefit from added size, and should he get north of 200 pounds, could develop into a more traditional box safety. While he has the frame and enough deep zone experience to call himself a free safety, it's unlikely that a player of his physical toolkit sticks as more than a backup at that position. As the Cardinals' coaching staff undoubtedly does, fans should expect to see Thompson flexed out in dime and even quarter packages over slot receivers -- and if his head for pattern-matching and QB reading translates to the NFL level, he could find consistent weekly snaps sooner rather than later.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Director of Special Projects

Director of Special Projects and Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast. The 3-Wide Raven.