- John Keim, ESPN Staff Writer
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His game film provided highlights of electric runs and flashy plays. The Redskins want a little more of both in their offense so they selected Florida State running back Chris Thompson in the fifth round. But Thompson can only help if healthy. Can he do so in the NFL?
What he’s learning: How to run at an NFL level as well as how to pass protect. Thompson has the speed; just take a look at his college film. He had mixed reviews against the Steelers, with a good first run and then fumbling on his second. He could have helped himself on the fumble by pressing the hole just a little longer, but because he cut back early the safety was in good position to fill the hole and hit him hard. That can be corrected by staying patient (which running backs coach Bobby Turner preaches; it’s an absolute must in this offense). Like fellow rookie Jawan Jamison, he can duck behind his blockers at times to sort of get lost in the crowd, making it hard for defenders to see -- and use his short stature to his advantage. Thompson said he’s not struggling with the track he must take on runs, something Alfred Morris needed to work on early last year, because it’s similar to what he ran at Florida State. It’s more about the tempo.
“Too fast or the [the hole] is closing up or just missing reads here and there,” Thompson said of what he’s learning. “I go back and look at film and try to correct it every day.”
“He shows signs of what we’re expecting,” Turner said.
Thompson also is learning how to pass protect at an NFL level. Check the next topic for the physical demands of that role, but for now it’s about learning how to read blitzes. In college, Thompson was only responsible for half the field. Here, he’d be responsible for the entire field.
Finally, Thompson has to learn how to be a returner. He said he was going to get a chance to return kickoffs against Pittsburgh, but did not. He did return kicks at Florida State early in his career. He also has been fielding punts in practice, though he never did it in college (except in practice) and, based on how he was catching the ball, has a long ways to go.
“The punters, their hang time is ridiculous at this level,” he said. “Kickoffs are a whoooole lot easier.”
What needs to be seen: Durability. Thompson missed much of training camp while recovering from knee surgery last fall. He then hurt his shoulder against Pittsburgh on his second carry. He’s listed at 5-foot-7 and 192 pounds, so his size always will draw concerns. But two years ago he broke his back and last year tore his ACL. Those can be considered freak injuries and not the nagging sort that derail some players. But even Thompson admitted he has to show he won’t be affected by his knee injury. The Redskins just ended a three-year run with pint-sized Brandon Banks, who struggled to maintain his explosiveness because of injury issues. I like Thompson's character a whole lot more, and if the Redskins truly were worried about his size they wouldn't have drafted him. But if you can't stay healthy, that' s an issue. The one benefit for Thompson is that he won’t be an every-down back in Washington; the Redskins need him to be a change-of-pace back. Still, if he plays on third downs he’ll have to prove he can handle blitz pickups. The physics of the job -- small running back meets bigger hard-charging linebacker -- can be difficult. In college, Thompson was not asked to handle much of the protection duties, especially as a senior. He did block a linebacker on one rush, hitting him low.
“I have confidence I can block anybody,” Thompson said. “I can do whatever a coach needs me to do. If he wants me to carry it 20, 30 times I can do it. Size doesn’t mean a thing. DeSean Jackson is like 160 pounds and he’s been doing great. It’s confidence. If you listen so much about people saying you’re too small and you just need to be a third-down back or catching balls out of the backfield, that’s what you’re gonna believe. I don’t believe that. I believe I can do anything.”
What stands out: His speed and quickness. That was true watching his games at Florida State in particular and at times during training camp workouts. The tough part is we only saw it in snippets because he missed all that time and was admittedly not quite yet himself. But that speed is evident, as is his ability to quickly cut. It was shown on his 8-yard run in the fourth quarter versus Pittsburgh. He ran an outside zone and was able to string the outside linebacker wider than desired. The impressive part? Thompson’s cut. He stuck his right foot in the ground and cut upfield. In about three steps Thompson executed his cut and got about 3 or 4 yards upfield. Some backs shuffle a little when they cut; he did not on this play. His size did not hurt him here either because the defense was flowing, no one was in the hole and nobody had a good angle on him so there was no clean shot. Instead, he could burrow into the opening and gain another 5 or 6 yards after contact.
“He has outstanding speed, cutting ability, ability to make the big plays and that’s what we’re looking for, to make the big plays,” Turner said.
Projection: Practice squad, assuming they keep only three running backs and a fullback. Thompson is a tough call because I know the coaches really like what he has to offer. Right now I’d take three other backs -- Morris, Roy Helu, Evan Royster -- ahead of him because I don’t see Thompson helping in any sort of big role at this point and his durability is a major issue. He’d be a Banks-type player if he makes the team, a threat in their triple-option game, etc. But Banks made the roster by making big plays; Thompson needs to do the same. However, if they keep four running backs (plus a fullback) then he has a shot because of his explosiveness. I also think Thompson’s status could change dramatically with one or two runs Saturday. But you can’t fumble after the first time you get popped -- and also hurt your shoulder (though he did return).