Vikings UDFA NaJee Thompson embraces special teams as path to the NFL

For the undrafted free agents signed after the NFL Draft, making the 53-man roster is an uphill battle.

It starts with rookie minicamp, which begins just two weeks after the draft for the Minnesota Vikings. Then, there’s a chance to impress during training camp and preseason and earn a role on the Vikings’ regular season roster

For the most part, those roles are special teams-based. Few undrafted rookies start their career with a role on defense and those that do likely earned their respect on special teams.

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While it may be a lost art to some, special teams are an avenue to living out the NFL dream. As a result, rookies embrace the trade, becoming as good as they can be.

Few undrafted rookies have taken the path of Vikings’ undrafted free agent NaJee Thompson.

"I want to be strictly special teams"

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In 2020, NaJee Thompson knew he needed a change.

After playing sparingly as a wide receiver, Thompson approached Georgia Southern head coach Chad Lunsford with a proposition.

Thompson, who had seen most of his snaps on special teams, wanted to switch to playing special teams full-time.


“I went to him, and I was like, ‘I’m done playing receiver. I don’t want to play receiver, I want to be strictly special teams,'” Thompson said. “That’s where my success has been, that’s what I’ve ended up loving. When you come into college, you’re coming out of high school, you’re being that guy. And sometimes, it doesn’t work out to continue to do what you did in the past.”

For Thompson, moving to special teams had its benefits.

If Thompson impressed on special teams, Lunsford – now the special teams coordinator at Florida Atlantic University – would find a way to get him on the field elsewhere. As a result, his 80 snaps on offense over the season could balloon into the triple digits.

“I was only getting 10, 15, maybe 20 plays on a good game. I’m only getting that many plays in a game. When you look at in a season, it might tally up to 100, 200, 300 snaps,” Thompson said. “And it’s like, some guys experience those snaps either in one game or really in the first five games of the season. Then, I’m getting that in a whole season.”

Thompson continued: “I got the mindset — I have to go out there and make the best out of my opportunities because, at the end of the day, they’re limited. I can’t take plays off.”


Fast forward three years and Thompson’s bet on himself has paid off.

Since that switch in 2020, Thompson became one of the nation’s best special teams players.

By moving to special teams, Thompson has gotten one step closer to his ultimate goal — the National Football League, where Thompson is hoping his play on special teams will help him get past one more hurdle and make the Minnesota Vikings 53-man roster.

Embracing Special Teams

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Thompson rise is a large contribution to what he is: a special teams encyclopedia

Not only has he played most of the spots on special teams — he says he loves being a punt gunner — but all of them are associated with a story.


His entire run on special teams can even be explained by a story.

It was 2021, Butch Jones’ first year as the head coach of Arkansas State, and Thompson believes they didn’t prepare for special teams.

Thompson tells the story like it was from a Dr. Seuss book he read as a kid. He remembers every moment. Beginning when he realized they didn’t prepare for Thompson’s ability to impact the game from the spot.

“I got the instinct from the first special teams that they didn’t do their research,” Thompson explained.

According to Thompson, he was getting free releases to begin the game, forcing Arkansas State to send more double teams his way. Thompson, who began to take more double teams throughout his career, takes these moments personally. Whenever he sees one, it’s another team who didn’t prepare and another team he needs to punish.


“It made the game so much fun, and I enjoyed it so much,” Thompson said of seeing double teams. “Because I just knew teams didn’t really respect me, and a lot of teams don’t really respect special teams.”

In 2021, Thompson took his play to another level. With a team-high 154 special teams snaps, Thompson was among the best special teamers in the country and found himself on Pro Football Network’s All-American team as a special teamer.

Thompson credits Lunsford, his former head coach, with helping his development as a special teamer. According to Thompson, Lunsford – a special teams coordinator at three different schools, including Georgia Southern – helped him develop his game, often offering advice during practice to help the special teamers.

“Him being a head coach and being a heavy special teams guy, that’s what he wanted to see on his teams,” Thompson said.


Thompson also credits his experience running track in high school for his play on special teams.

Thompson, who earned the nickname Flash Thompson because of his legit track speed, holds the South Carolina record in the 200 meters, running it in 21.06 seconds in 2018.

“The strongest person can’t get a hold of me if he can’t run with me,” Thompson said. “I can run past him. Speed has always been an advantage for me.”

"The dreams come true"

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Thanks to his play on special teams, Thompson knew he would have options during Day 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft.

During the pre-draft cycle, he had been in contact with the Vikings and Las Vegas Raiders and figured he would receive a call anytime beginning in the sixth round.


Although Thompson was not selected during the draft, the special teams standout was a wanted man.

The Seattle Seahawks called about a rookie minicamp opportunity, while the Vikings and Raiders offered him a contract.

After weighing his options, Thompson chose to sign with the Vikings.

“The dreams come true, so I’m extremely grateful for that,” Thompson said about receiving the opportunity with the Vikings. “My loyalty that I’m going to have for the Vikings and my work ethic for the Vikings — words can’t really explain that.”

Thompson’s pre-draft contact with the Vikings mostly came from special teams coordinator Mike Daniels, and that communication began to make the potential of landing in the Twin Cities a reality.


“Communication was great throughout the whole process. Talking with [Vikings special teams coordinator] coach Mike Daniels and the assistant coaches, the communication was great,” Thompson said. “I knew when the communication started coming, I had a real chance to be a Viking at the end of the day.”

While multiple things played into the decision, Thompson believes the path to making the Vikings’ 53-man roster is clearer than the Raiders.

“What I looked at was the special teams’ scheme, what players are there in the positions, who has left, what’s the availability when you come in – what are your real chances?” Thompson said. “My main quote is, ‘I don’t want to be a great football player lost in a scheme.’”

The Vikings are searching for starting special teamers after losing a chunk of their core last season. As a result, a strong training camp could push Thompson into becoming a special teams mainstay for the purple and gold.


Heading into rookie minicamp, Thompson realizes his best shot of making the Vikings’ 53-man roster is through special teams.

And it’s an opportunity he’s embracing.

“I’m going to take full advantage of the special teams moment,” Thompson said. “I’m going to go and learn what I can and take in as much as I can. And when that time comes on the field to perform, I’m going to do that. I can’t wait for the opportunity. I embrace special teams.”

Thompson, however, isn’t going to settle for just a special teams role.

Switching to cornerback

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That’s because the former wide receiver has begun to emerge as a cornerback.

In an effort to get Thompson’s athleticism on the field, Georgia Southern’s coaching staff moved Thompson to cornerback during the 2021 season. While Thompson saw limited snaps at cornerback initially, a new coaching staff led to more defensive opportunities for Thompson.

Last season, Thompson played 557 defensive snaps, earning eight starts at cornerback. Thompson finished the season with 11 pass breakups and an interception against South Alabama.

Ultimately, Thompson is raw for the cornerback position. With just over 700 career defensive snaps, Thompson is among the least experienced cornerbacks in this class, making him a blank slate for the coaching staff.

In college, the transition began with a mindset: Thompson was a role player who needed a chance to shine.

“I would always tell the guys every day – I would sit in the third spot at corner … I said, ‘when you mess up, and they call my name, I’m going in and I’m not coming out,’” Thompson said. “And that’s what I would always tell [them] every day. I had the mindset at that point of time, I was a role player, and I had always been a role player. And that was fine because if somebody messed up, they’re calling me and I’m going in.”

Although Thompson realizes he’ll have to earn his spot on special teams, he’s not ready to settle for just those reps. Thompson wants to find a role on defense and will do everything in his power to get a spot.

“With me just transitioning to defense, I’m new at the corner spot. I probably have the least amount of reps as anybody in this draft,” Thompson said. “And that’s fine. But I’m definitely going to show that I can go play corner.”

So, while Thompson’s NFL career might start on special teams, realize one thing: he’s yearning for a little bit more.

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Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire