Evaluating production vs. potential is the never-ending struggle of the NFL draft.
Every year, teams find prospects who don’t test off the charts athletically, but turn into Pro Bowlers with a combination of instincts and smarts. By the same token, teams take players with underwhelming production at the collegiate level who turn into Pro Bowlers after unlocking their athletic potential.
Figuring out where a player fits on that scale is why the draft sometimes feels like a game of chance.
Boise State safety Darian Thompson finds himself smack-dab in the middle of that debate this week.
Few collegiate safeties have ever been as productive as Thompson, who broke Eric Weddle’s Mountain West record by picking off 19 passes in four seasons with the Broncos, but his physical testing at the NFL scouting combine failed to live up to the billing.
Thompson, like most of the prospects in this draft, has plenty of belief in his own abilities.
“I think I’m an all-around safety,” Thompson said. “A good tackler. I create turnovers. I’m also good at rushing the passer.”
Thompson, who did a little bit of everything at Boise State, could be an instant fit for a team like the New Orleans Saints, a team looking for a versatile safety capable of playing a diverse set of roles and backing up both Kenny Vaccaro at strong safety and Jairus Byrd at free safety.
A player who has prototypical size at 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, Thompson spent plenty of time playing around the line of scrimmage at Boise State, making 242 tackles in his career overall and 8.5 tackles-for-loss as a senior.
He can also roam center field as a free safety.
“(Teams) talk to me about what’s most comfortable for me,” Thompson said. “I tell them it doesn’t matter.”
But it’s clear that the skill that sets Thompson apart is his ability to get his hands on the football.
Thompson has good hands for a defensive back, but he credits most of his interceptions to film study, picking up opponents’ tendencies and learning when he can take a chance.
The best turnover producers have an innate sense of when to gamble.
“A lot of it is preparation,” Thompson said. “I guess there has to be some kind of instinct in there; just a knack for the football, I guess.”
Thompson’s also a leader, a quality that showed in a week of Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Alabama. Thrown into a group with some of the best defensive backs in the draft, Thompson immediately took a vocal role.
He finished a solid week by making five tackles and breaking up two tackles-for-loss for the North team in the Senior Bowl itself.
“Darian showed the capacity to support the run or defend the pass in Mobile,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said.
Despite all of those pluses after the ball is snapped, Thompson’s performance in Indianapolis sparked questions about his athleticism.
Thompson finished the 40-yard dash in a pedestrian 4.69 seconds, posted just 12 repetitions at 225 pounds on the bench press and failed to show the kind of explosive ability teams look for in safeties at the next level.
Now, any NFL team taking a close look at Thompson has to decide what matters more: the tape or the tests.
Thompson, for his part, believes the intangibles he brings are the best part of his game.
Before he even took the field in Indianapolis, Thompson was touting his strengths.
“They’re getting an extremely smart football player,” Thompson said. “A leader. Someone that’s going to go in Day 1 ready to play. Someone that has a chip on his shoulder.”
Now, with one week left before the draft, it’s up to NFL teams to decide which side of the scale carries more weight.