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Cowboys 2015 Draft Targets: Washington OLB Shaq Thompson

Because there has been such a high correlation in recent years between the top collegians invited to Valley Ranch for pre-draft visits and who the Cowboys end up drafting, it's important to know as much as possible about these players. As a service to you, BTB offers a series of detailed scouting reports on these players, compiled from the work of top draft analysts. Today, we look at Washington OLB Shaq Thompson

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In his three-year Washington Huskies career, Shaq Thompson played in 40 games, finishing with 3.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 16 passes defensed and five fumble recoveries. But there's more: in 2014, as a junior he was an exciting two-way player, adding 732 offensive yards to his gaudy defensive stats. He even started one game at tailback for Washington (at Colorado), rushing fifteen times for 174 yards and a score, with two receptions for 41 yards for good measure. For his work, Thompson was names the recipient of the fifth annual Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation's most versatile player.

Thompson is a twitchy athlete who boasts top-level instincts. He's a fluid, balanced athlete who changes directions easily and accelerates smoothly. As a defender, he locates the ball quickly, is poised in coverage and is a reliable tackler. That said, scouts find that he needs to become a bit more disciplined and gain strength to improve his take-on skills. The real question is where the undersized LB (he played at 219 pounds late in the season) best fits in an NFL defense. He has made it clear to NFL teams that he wants to play linebacker at the next level.

While his size will almost certainly take him off of 3-4 teams' boards (at least on their linebacker rankings), he appears the be ideally suited for 4-3 teams, such as the Cowboys, who value speed and quickness. He'd be most intriguing were he to land somewhere with a creative defensive coordinator who could use him in a hybrid role, lining up as a safety in "big nickle" deployments, where he can cover running backs, excel in underneath zones, and match up against athletic tight ends and big slot receivers.

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Want to scout like a boss? Let's start by looking at his measurables:

Height Weight Arms Hands 40yd 10yd Bench Vert Broad 3Cone 20ss SPARQ (%)
6' 0" 228 33" 9½" 4.64 1.72 -NA- 33½" 117" 6.99 4.08 119.6 (47.4)

And here they are in the form of a spider graph, courtesy of the folks at Mockdraftable.com:

And over at Draft Breakdown, they have five of his games for your delectation. Only one, the tilt against Oregon State (in which he had five tackles and a pass defensed)is from 2014. The best of 2013 can be found in three road games: at UCLA (six tackles, one PD), at Stanford ( nine stops), and at Illinois (four tackles and half a sack).

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Let's see what our esteemed panel of scouts has to say about Thompson and his game:

Gary Horton (ESPN.com) 7th-ranked OLB; 60th overall:

Instincts/Recognition: Flashes playmaking instincts. Possesses a natural feel in coverage, locating targets and getting into throwing lanes. Key and diagnose skills should continue to improve with more game experience, but still a quarter-count late with his reads too often. Also can be slow with ball reaction at times, which makes him vulnerable to second-level blockers. Will occasionally become overzealous, and can get caught out of position as a result defending the run.

Take-on Skills: Lacks ideal size and mass in lower half. Will never be a strong take-on guy, and will get overwhelmed by bigger blockers in a phone booth. However, not afraid to fire his gun and flashes some snap. Also maneuvers through clutter well, and has a natural feel for when to give ground to create space and slip off of blocks.

Range vs. Run: Excellent space player that covers sideline to sideline. Quick redirect, and flashes an explosive closing burst. Takes quality angles in pursuit, and loves to chase.

Tackling: Fundamentally sound and reliable tackler. Enters contact with quality leverage, and does nice job of wrapping upon contact. Lacks knock-back power and needs to get stronger in this area. However, has noticeable acceleration before contact, and flashes the ability to strike. Steady in in the open field. Will occasionally come in too hot, which can lead to a missed tackle.

3rd Down Capabilities: Recruited as a safety and played majority of snaps in 2014 Stanford game at SS. Has has excellent overall range in coverage for a LB. Gets quality depth in drop zones. Easy mover in space with good - but not elite - top-end speed. Has above-average man coverage skills to match up with athletic TEs. Above-average playmaking skills. Good body control with natural hands, and flashes ability to create with the ball in his hands. Lacks ideal power/strength as a blitzer. However, times his pressures well, and flashes the closing burst to generate pressure in a hurry when getting a free run.

Intangibles: Outstanding overall character. Hard worker and has developed strong leadership skills. Coaches praise work ethic and team-first approach. Versatile athlete capable of playing multiple roles on defense and special teams, and also has experience at RB position on offense. Drafted by the Red Sox in the 18th round of the 2012 MLB draft, and played on Boston's rookie-level team in the Gulf Coast League in the summer of 2012. Oldest brother, Syd'Quan Thompson (DB at Cal), was drafted in the 7th round by the Broncos in 2010.

Rob Rang (CBSSports.com) 3rd-ranked OLB; 34th overall:

Strengths: Thompson is an active, aggressive and instinctive defender with excellent agility. He reads the action quickly and slithers his way around would-be blockers to make plays all over the field, demonstrating excellent change-of-direction agility and closing speed.

Thompson is surprisingly effective in his punch to greet and discard offensive linemen, though his lack of ideal size and strength can is evident when blockers can get their hands on him. Thompson is a very reliable open-field tackler who wraps his arms securely around ball-carriers. He arrives in a flash but isn't an explosive hitter (as his zero career forced fumbles can attest). His vision and agility could make him an effective blitz threat and these traits stood out during Thompson's time at running back. Despite his inexperience at the position, Thompson shows natural elusiveness as well as the ability to set up his blocks. He has the speed to make the corner and shows good body control and balance to tightrope the sideline and keep charging ahead after absorbing contact. Natural ball-skills. Articulate and mature.

Weaknesses: Looks more like a safety than a linebacker and for some clubs will project there - a position he hasn't played since high school. Possesses a slim waist and narrow hips, making it unlikely that he'll be able to pack on significantly more muscle mass onto his frame without losing his quickness. Can get swallowed up at the line of scrimmage and is forced to take risky angles, at times, to avoid blockers. Wasn't often asked to rush the quarterback at Washington and shows limited technique in this capacity. Likewise, he relied upon is natural athleticism as a running back and would need some patience to develop the finer aspects of the position - frequently held the ball in the wrong arm and showed limited recognition in blitz pick-up.

Compares to: DeAndre Levy, Detroit Lions -- Like Levy, Thompson lacks the size and explosiveness scouts might prefer at linebacker. Fluidity and awareness in coverage at the linebacker position are more important in today's pass-heavy NFL than ever before, making each a potential building block in a 4-3 alignment.

Lance Zierlein (NFL.com) 6th-ranked OLB; 56th overall:

Strengths: Unmatched diversity in this year's draft. Played outside and inside as a linebacker and took snaps at safety against Stanford. Gained 456 yards rushing, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Long, with athleticism and movement of running back playing linebacker. Like a magnet to the ball while pursuing in space. Second gear to finish the chase. Wins over top of second-level linemen. Can sink and search for cutback lanes as back-side defender against stretch plays. Glides laterally from gap to gap when playing inside. Reads the quarterback's eyes and shades the throwing lane as zone defender. Transitions easily from pursuit to coverage against play-action. Can cover running backs out of backfield. Instinctive with plus vision and twitch to make the big play. Scored four defensive touchdowns and forced three fumbles in 2014. Frequently attempts to strip ball. Fluid enough in space that safety could be a position consideration for the right team. Can be used as emergency No. 3 running back on game day. Had 19 tackles on special teams over last two seasons in kick and punt coverage. Football intelligence to process offensive and defensive playbooks. Strong work ethic and team-oriented player.

Weaknesses: Scouts question his natural NFL fit. Needs more mass on his frame. Played under listed weight at times. Aggressive, but lacks the play strength to back up his intentions near the line of scrimmage. Fails to consistently leverage his gap when forced inside box. Too easily redirected as blitzer. Gets blasted out of gaps by pulling guards. Must develop hands to keep linemen off of him and improve at slipping blocks. Not fully utilizing explosiveness. Fails to fire downhill and attack on the other side of the line. Ducks head into contact and will lose sight of the ball. Shoulder hitter in space rather than wrap-up tackler. Motor lets up at times when pace quickens.

Sources Tell Us: "He was 219 pounds when I visited late in the season. I'm concerned about whether he will be able to keep enough weight on to be a 4-3 WILL. Until I see him actually play deep as a safety, I'm not sure that is a projection I'm comfortable making." -- AFC North scout

Dane Brugler (NFL Draft Guide) 2nd-ranked LB:

Strengths: Above average athleticism with versatile playmaking ability...coordinated footwork and smooth hips in his movements, displaying fluid body control to break down in space...rangy player with speed to mirror at the line of scrimmage...physical wrap tackler with an accurate strike zone to hit and finish with his long arms, closing with veracity...understands field leverage, eliminating inside lanes and forcing the ballcarrier to alter his path...aggressively takes on blocks with active limbs to rip-and-tear...trusts what he sees and plays with above average ball instincts and spatial awareness to shut down zones...versatile in pass coverage with the movement skills and body control to cover down the seam...natural ballskills and timing with 16 passes defended and five interceptions on his résumé - averaged 30.4 yards per interception return with five career touchdowns on defense...heady turnover machine, always trying to rip the ball out, but not at the expense of the stop...versatile experience offense, defense and special teams - averaged 7.5 yards per carry as a running back in 2014 (61/456/2) and made an impact on special teams coverages, making impact stops as the first man down the field...above average leadership traits with the accountability, mindset and football aptitude that is expected at the next level...durable and didn't miss any playing time the last three seasons...NFL bloodlines - older brother (Syd'Quan) was a seventh round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft out of California, playing three seasons at cornerback for the Denver Broncos.

Weaknesses: Lacks ideal functional power for the position and needs to get stronger...needs to better anticipate blockers to avoid contact and keep himself clean...can be eaten up at the line of scrimmage and second level, lacking ideal hand technique and pop at the point of attack...doesn't consistently unlock his hips at contact and will wait for the ballcarrier to initiate instead of attacking...will take some wasted steps and has room to improve his discipline and anticipation...finishing power has room for improvement, allowing himself to be stiff-armed at times, causing him to slip off his target...enters the NFL with questions about his fit and might lack a natural position.

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Our estimable panel rates Thompson from 34th to 60th - in other words, somewhere in the second round. That seems about right to me, so I'll happily slot him in round two on my "little board," where the Cowboys hold the 60th pick.That might be a tall order, however; take a look at the teams that have expressed interest in the former Husky: New England (32); Atlanta (42); Cleveland (43); Minnesota (45); San Diego (48); Houston (51); Philadelphia (52); and Carolina (57). That's what we call a gauntlet of interest.

If Thompson were to pass through this and be selected by Dallas, Ol' Rabble would be just fine. I think he'd be a nice addition to a linebacker corps that needs a bit more speed and playmaking ability, and as I noted above, could be a nice piece to use in nickle and big nickle deployments. Moreover, it would mean that the team had addressed what I believe to be a more crying need (anything from a column labeled DE, CB or RB), which would make this restless soul sleep a bit more easily at night.

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Next up: Mississippi State LB Bernardrick McKinney