With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson. I got a long look at Thompson during Senior Bowl practices, and here is what I wrote about him in late January: "Brandon Thompson can go home now if he wants to. There is nothing left to accomplish … Thompson made so many plays in the backfield during 11-on-11 drills that it might be easier to list the times he didn't make a play. He stopped ball carriers. He flushed quarterbacks. He is explosive, strong, and very competitive."
I'm not the only one Thompson has impressed in recent weeks. He performed 35 reps of 225 pounds on the bench at the Combine. He had a 9-foot, 7-inch broad jump at 315 pounds at his Pro Day. Earlier this week, Falcons representatives traveled to Clemson for a special workout with Thompson and linemate Andre Branch; since the Falcons have no first round pick, it was a little like window shopping at Cartier, but 315-pound men who can move like Thompson are bound to draw a crowd.
What's all the fuss about? Just a hustling, hard working moose of a man who can line up over center in any scheme and make the whole defense better.
Pros: As the workout results above suggest, Thompson is massive, and massively strong. He anchors well against the run and can often blow the center backward. Thompson uses his leverage well and does a good job crossing his blocker's face to beat blocks and get penetration.
Thompson does not have the elite first-step quickness of a top three-technique tackle, but he is still very quick off the snap. He can disrupt zone-blocking schemes by getting through the line of scrimmage while the offensive line is still setting up its blocks.
Thompson moves down the line very well. He recorded 77 tackles, many of them when the ball carrier was moving laterally away from him. Thompson hustles and fights through blockers to get involved in plays. He is a sure tackler.
Despite low sack totals, Thompson can do a lot of things to make quarterbacks nervous: win the first step battle, bull rush, or use his leverage to disengage from a blocker. He often flushes the quarterback into another defender's arms.
Cons: Thompson did not face many double teams on the outstanding Clemson defensive lines of the last two seasons. When he did face them, he was sometimes blown backward. He held his own on other occasions, but as a one-technique tackle in the NFL, he will face constant double teams, and it is not clear how well he will hold up.
Thompson recorded just 4.5 career sacks. He lacks that explosive burst off the snap and can be outrun by all but the slowest quarterbacks in the open field.
Thompson had some ball location issues, both on screen passes and against option-heavy teams like Georgia Tech.
Conclusion: Thompson is a feisty, physical nose tackle with exceptional strength and the mean streak that is necessary at his position. He could fit as a 3-4 tackle, but he may be better suited to a 4-3 scheme, where he could line up over the center about half the time while shifting to the three-technique or some other gap depending on the front. Sliding Thompson around would allow him to put various elements of his game to better use: he could shoot the guard-tackle gap on first down, then anchor the middle on third down.
Thompson won't record many sacks, but there is far more to defensive line play than getting to the quarterback.
NFL Comparison: Ziggy Hood, Pittsburgh Steelers
More Shutdown 50:
#31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson | #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford | #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi | #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse | #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech | #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall | #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina | #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU|#50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy