Before the 2020 NFL league year began in March, many assumed the Arizona Cardinals would look at free agent safeties to pair next to Pro Bowler Budda Baker.
Maybe they would draft one. When they selected Isaiah Simmons in the first round, might the do-it-all defender regularly play as a jumbo safety? Unlikely. He was labeled as an inside linebacker.
As the offseason dragged on, maybe general manager Steve Keim would file through free agents stuck in a sluggish market and find a veteran on a value contract. The clock never hit Keim time.
The reality is the Cardinals didn’t and don’t seem concerned with their safety room, because they have all the confidence in Jalen Thompson, who as a rookie supplemental draft pick last year was thrust into a pro career a year earlier than he planned.
By the end of 2019, he was Arizona’s starter alongside Baker. Maybe on the outside, it looked like that was by default after D.J. Swearinger was released mid-year and fifth-round pick Deionte Thompson was surpassed in the pecking order.
Then came defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s very strong comments about Jalen Thompson last week.
“When he played, we got better,” Joseph said. “He made plays on the ball as a coverage guy, but the best thing he did is tackle. He tackled some of the best backs in this league, one-on-one, open field. That’s tough to do. If a safety has that trait, they can play a long time.
“We gave up a lot of big plays last year in the middle of the defense early on. When that kid played, those plays stopped happening. They went from 40-yard gains to 15-yard gains. So his trait is how fast he plays and how well he tackles. Again, it’s going to be his second year in the system, as far as his IQ moving forward, it’s going to get better. He is definitely the answer for us right now at the safety position.”
Thompson said Monday he’s put on eight to 10 pounds of weight this offsesason, hoping to play faster and more physical. He knows that he’ll carry some of the load in improving the NFL’s worst defense against tight ends.
Having a virtual offseason to catch his breath, Thompson feels he can improve on the production of a year ago, when he accumulated 57 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery with a QB hit.
That all came despite the safety playing only 54% of the available snaps. He spent the first half of the year playing catchup after not joining the team until at the start of training camp, after missing OTAs and rookie mini-camp.
Thompson believes Joseph will put more on his plate in 2020, ideally being able to flip-flop he and Baker between strong and free safety.
“Obviously, I’m not at the same level as Budda right now, but I feel like if I can keep studying my plays and keep working hard, I can be on that same level,” Thompson said. “And once we’re at that same level together, I feel like we’re going to be unstoppable. Just the fact that (Joseph is) starting to trust me a little bit more and just letting us go out there and play, let us be confident in the defense, yeah, that’s the biggest thing.”
Taking it back to June 2019, Thompson lost his final year of college eligibility at Washington State after he unknowingly took and tested for a banned substance, WSU head coach Mike Leach said.
Thompson on Monday recalled the conversation he had with Leach while assessing his options. Leach pushed him to declare for the NFL in time for the supplemental draft, where he was the only player selected.
“Basically, (Leach) said I would have to go to the league and he felt like I would be ready for it,” Thompson said. “I took his advice and obviously did the whole process so I’m here now. He wasn’t wrong about what he was saying.”
The Cardinals expect Thompson to help out in a big way for a 2020 season that back in April 2019 was expected to be Thompson’s rookie year.
“Just a lot of hard work, you know? It was tough going through all that stuff during college, my senior year,” he added. “Just trying to get through that stuff, just thinking about it, it’s a blessing to be here and help the team in any way I can.”