Jalen Thompson Could Be One of Cardinals’ Most Important Defensive Players in 2021

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Arizona Cardinals safety Jalen Thompson isn’t a household name in the NFL. Yet within the organization, the former Washington State Cougar is a player held in high regard. Ahead of a season that will see an entirely revamped Cardinals secondary, Thompson looks to be an integral player as the team looks to take charge in the NFC West.

Jalen Thompson Could Be One of Cardinals’ Most Important Defensive Players in 2021

Jalen Thompson Has True Free Safety Ability

Truth be told, the Cardinals got an absolute steal in Jalen Thompson. Ahead of his junior year, he was named a contender for the Chuck Bednarik Award, which is given to the nation’s best defensive player. Unfortunately, a violation of NCAA rules pertaining to a banned supplement saw Thompson lose his final year of eligibility. Thus, Arizona managed to select him in the fifth round of the 2019 Supplemental Draft.

His first start came in Week Five of his rookie year against the Cincinnati Bengals, indicating his talent and potential. His first season in the NFL also saw him grab his first career interception, picking off Jimmy Garoppolo in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Unfortunately, after being named a starter for the 2020 season, a Week One ankle injury derailed his second year. Despite returning, he only started four of five games this past year.

On tape, Thompson has the ability to be successful as a free safety for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. He has the speed and range to complement his instincts on the back end. His ball skills are good, as demonstrated throughout his college career, and he is a secure and reliable tackler. Thompson also has some experience as a cornerback, hinting towards his versatile coverage skills in Joseph’s fluid scheme. Thompson is a cerebral safety and is well suited to the single high safety role expected of him in Arizona.

Thompson’s Role in Joseph’s Defense So Far

His running mate and star strong safety Budda Baker somewhat defines Thompson’s role. Arguably the team’s best defensive player, Baker is an explosive player from wherever he lines up. His role is, owing to his versatility, is a hybrid role. He is a blitz threat, a man-to-man cover option, and patrols both deep and shallow zones. Subsequently, his alignment is closer to the line of scrimmage than a traditional safety, presenting a single high safety look on the backend of the defense.

Therefore, Vance Joseph’s ability to properly utilize Baker is reliant on Thompson’s ability to play the deep field practically on his own. From this position, Thompson provides both deep field ‘Cover 1’ coverage as well as reactive run support. Instinct and discipline are integral to the success of the role and Thompson has demonstrated proficiency in both so far in his tenure with the Cardinals. His assignment is a difficult one, but one he has the talent to play brilliantly.

2021 Offseason Could Make Thompson’s Role a Lofty Task

The Cardinals’ 2020 offseason has further complicated Thompson’s role. Patrick Peterson‘s departure cut a gaping home in the Cardinals’ cornerback room. The Cardinals have been bullish in his absence, replacing their former Pro Bowl corner with another in Malcolm Butler. The former Super Bowl hero arrives in Arizona coming off of a fantastic season in 2020 with the Tennessee Titans.

However, as Butler is now 31-years-old, there are some concerns. Namely, Butler lacks next-level speed in coverage. He ran an underwhelming 4.62-second 40-time as a draft prospect, a number that likely has only decreased with age. In man coverage, which is Vance Joseph’s staple, Butler could become a liability against vertical threats. With Butler, the Cardinals may have to roll additional coverage to his side in order to account for some of his weaknesses. This would likely fall to Thompson, adding to his already numerous responsibilities.

In a similar sense, the secondary’s revamp also has the Cardinals possibly be in the market for a top cornerback in the 2021 NFL Draft, as soon as round one.┬áLast year’s first cornerback off the board Jeff Okudah demonstrated how difficult the NFL can be for even the very best prospects, as Okudah struggled mightily from the start. Pending further additions, it is not unreasonable to expect the Cardinals’ top cornerback draftee to start early in his career. In this regard, just as with Butler, Thompson will be integral in providing backside protection as the Cardinals’ new-look cornerback room establishes itself.

2021 Could Be Boom or Bust Year

Thompson’s role as the Cardinals’ starting safety projects to be a difficult one. In just his third season as a professional, Thompson is likely to shoulder even greater responsibility in Joseph’s aggressive scheme. Yet, the challenge presents an opportunity to gain a more active role within the defense. The complexity of the role leaves a perilously low floor but, if executed correctly, Vance Joseph can draw Jalen Thompson out of Budda Baker’s shadow and establish one of the league’s most formidable safety tandems.

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