There are several position battles brewing within the New York Giants roster as we enter the ‘summer break’ portion of the NFL offseason. Training camp begins in just under one month and one of the team’s bigger competitions will be for the starting free safety job. Third-year safety Darian Thompson is a front-runner for the job. The former 2016 third-round draft pick played roughly two games before suffering a Lisfranc Injury to his left foot. It was a lengthy recovery before he took the field in 2017.
Darian Thompson struggled at many points last year and there is a perception that he’s a different player following the injury, as many saw his 2017 campaign as a step backward in his development. He will now compete with Andrew Abrams and Curtis Riley for the starting free safety position. After a lengthy film study, it seems that Thompson remains in a precarious situation regarding his development – he was definitely hindered playing as a secondary ride with holes on a 3-13 roster. Overall, he’s an apex player whose positives and negatives start too far apart from the injury sustained in 2016. Some issues are acute, requiring more than broad strokes to fully dissect, and the upcoming training camp will be his first test.
Darian Thompson vs. the Run
The first thing that jumps out in Darian Thompson’s film is his ability to get downhill versus a wide range of targets. Against the run, he really made impressive flashes over the last two seasons. His large frame (6-foot, 208-pounds) and solid play recognition lead him to both the alley and the line of scrimmage often. He keeps good pad level as he moves and can exhibit strong athletic closure, particularly on wide angles to the sideline. Last season he showed these skills against the New York Giants’ division rival Philadelphia Eagles in Week 15:
Thompson made a quick read of outside zone and filled pretty aggressively. His technique brought a power and shifty LeGarrette Blount to the ground for a minimal gain. The young Giants’ safety is not the biggest hitter on the team but exhibited good technique keeping outside leverage while avoiding the attempted block from the tight end. In the same game against the Eagles, runner Jay Ajayi gains the edge and streaks towards the end zone. Thompson comes from the deep safety from the opposite side of the field from the 2 deep shell pre-snap. Please see below:
He very decisively closed knowing the sideline was his friend but did not risk the high hit instead of making sure he at least got feet to trip up the runner. Examples like these two in the latter half of a 2nd season are what coaches and personnel members want to see with their third-round investment.
A young player’s strengths can sometimes become his weaknesses. Coming out of Boise State there was a bit of chatter that his downhill play could occasionally get him into trouble. From his NFL.com draft profile “Needs to slow and gather himself when charging downhill to avoid missed tackles.” This criticism is somewhat logical as this type of player could be susceptible to misdirection and errors at the free safety level generally do not go over well often leading to a big play. This type of mistake was evident in the 2016 Week 1 game against the Cowboys, against Alfred Morris:
Morris’s good plant step set up Thompson for the whiff there very easily. He lacked the body control and agility to adjust to a move like that in space. Luckily the overall defensive pursuit was better in 2016 than it was in 2017 and Elliot was stopped shortly thereafter. This was Thompson’s first game, and mistakes like these improve with more reps against high premium running talent. Although, in 2017 according to Football Outsiders, Thompson had a broken tackle rate of 25% in 2017, ranking 12th worst in defensive backs (who had at least 20 solo tackles, and the list had a fair amount of New York Giants on it). So broken tackles was a problem, but the above issue against the run is overshadowed by issues in pass defense that will be investigated below. Overall, we see his run defense prowess as much more positive than negative, especially in now new defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s system.
Darian Thompson vs. the pass
Thompson’s pass coverage skills mirror his rush defense skills somewhat, and sticking with the 2016 matchup in Dallas Thompson flashed in a play that many Giants fans remember well. Giants ex-defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loved to scheme in some cases resulting in nutty matchups for his secondary. The below example was a bit tamer, but still, put his young safety in man coverage from the deep half guarding the future Hall of Famer Jason Witten. See below:
Dallas used split zone play action releasing the slice blocking tight end into the flat away from Thompson, but yet again he flashed in his ability to mentally adjust on the fly leading to very solid play speed from sideline to sideline. Thompson did score a 29 on the Wonderlic test, and this intelligence does translate on the field. Bringing up the Combine time from the draft is a bit of a sensitive subject, as he was sick and ran a sub-par 40-yard dash (4.71) and bench press (13) numbers. There was some chatter this performance weighed on him and was a reason the Giants were able to obtain him with the No. 71 overall pick. The point here is he needs to continue to use his football IQ as a weapon to increase his play speed compensating for the other issues he has. This is a key point in understanding that his ceiling is still undefined.
Thompson’s play speed was illustrated in another example this past season against the Cardinals in week 16 when Bruce Arians dialed up the dreaded slant and go route (Sluggo) for WR Brown. The Giants secondary was in a version of Cover 2, with Thompson the deep safety to that side. Please see below:
These types of coverages often read the stem of the second wide receiver from the boundary to determine which man will probably come into their zone, and Thompson’s technique with his feet perpendicular to the line of scrimmage allowed him to focus on just that. Here the No.2 WR ran a quick out, signaling to Thompson he was most likely be on the No. 1WR. Thompson did a nice job of reading the hips of the receiver, rather than trying to jump the potential slant route -showing good play speed to get north with the fast Cardinal. This is perhaps his best example of his mental processing being right and translating to good play speed.
Although parts of Darian Thompson’s pass game show promise like the above, other areas are not showing enough improvement or development. One of these areas was his susceptibility to both a quarterback’s eyes and actions from the pocket. Now, it does no good to show examples where a young safety (basically a rookie) playing single high safety is manipulated by a QB’s eyes while covering the entire field. Those mistakes are a bit unfair. The below example though, against the Eagles again in Week 15, is an issue though:
The Giants here rushed five from a two-deep safety shell, morphing into a version of “Quarters match coverage” with Thompson essentially matched up on Smith in man coverage. The Cardinals ran a Hoss Concept to Thompson’s side with the outside receiver running a hitch and the slot receiver running a go route. Thompson’s technique failed, as he peeks in the backfield for too long, and his break on a brief pump fake from Foles was troubling, as was the resulting angle he took to attempt to make the play. The throw from Foles was a bit late, and Thompson was given the opportunity to recover and make a play on the defender, even if just his hands. The resulting interference call capped off a tough series of events on a key play, where evaluators want to see higher level situational savvy from Thompson, mirroring the first examples showed above vs. the pass.
Thompson’s habits also were an area of concern as a deep safety. Thompson, at times, showed vulnerability when receivers pressed the defensive coverage vertically on intermediate or deep routes. Going back to the same Giants game in week 15 of this past season, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson dialed up a “Scissors” Concept to his X-Wide Receiver Alshon Jeffery. See below:
So after the jet motion and play action, despite no receivers on that side of the field, Darian Thompson opened his hips to his left as two receivers charge downfield on his right. It is difficult enough against receivers running forward to gain depth as a safety running backward, and in addition, he had to flip his hips to make up for the initial miscue. To be honest the late timing of Foles and poor throw were the only two things allowing him to make an athletic play on the ball. This is a great example of how a statistic can be very misleading to the quality of fundamentals. Mental mistakes like these exhibited at the end of his second season need to be cleaned up as soon as possible for Thompson to compete for starting safety positions on the Giants or any team in the NFL.
Thompson’s issues with tackling appeared above against the run when covering the pass and playing in space, a more acute issue arose from deep film study. Please see the below compilation of examples from the 2017 season:
To be clear, not all of the above examples are missed tackles per se, but a habit of overcompensation when moving to both the right and left sides clearly exists. This must be pointed out because many in the media have mentioned the Lisfranc injury to his left foot as a reason for his steps backward in 2017. This is the first time the injury has been mentioned in this investigation, and clearly, only the player can truly know if it’s bothering or affecting him or not, and causing these missteps. A more plausible explanation could his own attempts or his coaches to correct the missed tackles mentioned above in the running game, thus his apprehension to driving directly to the target.
A crossroads for Darian Thompson
Darian Thompson is coming crossroads early in his NFL career on a defense that is trying to reinvent itself. The above examples show a mixed bag of very positive run defense attributes coupled with select pass coverage highlights. The other side of the coin featured somewhat acute tackling issues as well as sub par fundamentals in pass coverage. The idea that his issues center around his injury seems like an incorrect misconception; the examples in the investigation came from a wide range before and after the injury. Instead, it is more probable that Thompson was simply a developing player trying to improve on clear issues that were exacerbated by the higher level play in the NFL and also the fact that he was part of a secondary on a 3-13 team. The new coaching staff, particularly new defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo and assistant Deshea Townend, could be the key in getting passed these issues providing fresh takes on how to get his development back on track. Many assume that players arrive at this level with perfect fundamentals and only need schematic teaching and this is simply not the case. Despite the apparent headwinds, there is enough in Thompson’s game where he can win at least a spot in the safety rotation for coordinator James Bettcher. In Arizona last year, he played a large rotation of defensive backs at all different stages of their respective careers.
Darian Thompson, although obviously not as talented as strong safety Landon Collins, could see success as a Robber-type in man coverage or a Buzz Safety in Cover 3 where his high football intelligence and downhill attributes could be honed. On early downs, he could be featured around the line of scrimmage as an apex defender, who could both blitz (something not even shown in this report) and play underneath zone coverage. Bettcher and the coaching staff on both sides of the ball have a history of putting their players in a place to succeed despite their prevalent weaknesses.