If he makes the roster this fall, sixth-round draft pick Darwin Thompson of Utah State will be the fourth Kansas City Chiefs running back with the name Thompson on the back of his jersey.
You’re not likely to remember Del (drafted by the Chiefs in the fifth round in 1982) or Ernie (who joined the Chiefs for a single season in 1993). Together they carried for just 35 yards on 15 attempts.
Leroy might jog your memory a little more. He played four years in the league with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots before spending the 1995 season with Kansas City. A sixth-round pick in 1991, he’d been a reasonably productive back in his earlier stops, but behind Marcus Allen and Greg Hill, he gained just 73 yards on 28 carries for the Chiefs.
Darwin hopes to change that — and as befits his name, it could end up being a case of survival of the fittest.
Standing just 5 feet 8 and weighing only 200 pounds, Thompson has been described as “rocked out” by national scout Trey Koziol, head coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach. Speaking to the media on Sunday, Thompson said that his passion for weight training began in high school.
”In my junior year of high school, a kid told me I wouldn’t be a running back,” he explained. “I was too slow, not big enough — things like that. After that year, it just never left me. Everybody always asks me how I got my traps. It was that one year of high school, I just went crazy on the traps and I never left.”
Koziol said after the draft that Thompson’s strength was one of the things that put him on the Chiefs’ radar.
“I thought he had really good strength and really good contact balance,” Koziol said. “He runs with a low center of gravity. That is one of the things that the guys at Utah State mentioned. He was pound for pound probably the strongest kids in their program, just in terms of his lower body strength.”
”I believe it’s from the weight room,” Thompson told the press on Sunday. “I have to make up for my height somewhere. I do that in the weight room. I [believe in] being strong in your lower half — in your core. I mean, you look at Alvin Kamara and see some of the things he does as far as training and the core work he does, I feel like it starts in the weight room, [but] eventually you have to translate [that] onto the field.”
In his single season at Utah State — where he transferred after playing two seasons at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami, Oklahoma — Thompson proved adept at making that translation, amassing 1,455 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns, and rushing for 6.8 yards per attempt.
Despite concerns about his abilities in pass protection and his long speed, Arrowhead Pride’s Nerd Squad had rated Thompson as a sixth-round pick in their KC Draft Guide. But it seems the Chiefs had rated him more highly. Once they had used their first sixth-round choice on cornerback Rashad Fenton with the 201st pick, Veach immediately went to work making sure they could get Thompson, too.
“We had him higher on that value board and when he fell there in the sixth round,” Veach said after the draft. “When we took Fenton, I was actually trying to make some moves to get back up there and get him because I didn’t want to lose him three or five picks before we picked.”
Veach said that despite calling “every team” picking between the Chiefs’ picks at 201 and 214, he was unable to make a deal.
“But I told the guys, I was looking at all these teams and all these teams had taken a running back earlier in the draft, so I was like, ‘These teams went running back earlier, I think we might be OK here.’ We were kind of all like a little nervous there for those 10 or 11 picks because [Thompson] was the guy our eyes immediately went to.”
Plays like this one — highlighted in Kent Swanson’s film review of Thompson — are among those that made the Chiefs want to get him.
Great finish by Thompson here for a touchdown. Catches the swing route makes the first defender miss than shows the balance and agility to elude solid contact from a second closing defender before finishing the play for six. pic.twitter.com/fBjerEsH1J— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) May 3, 2019
This is one of my favorite plays watching him. Thompson is a very sudden athlete with cuts and explosiveness. He makes the first defender miss but puts his balance and agility to work immediately after the cut to avoid a second defender while staying on his feet to get to the end zone. The movements after he avoids that first defender show so much twitch from his compact frame. Thompson makes this play look easy, but the combination of twitch and balance isn’t common in this class. Many other running backs don’t finish this play how he did.
Koziol said that Thompson will represent a change of pace in the running back room.
“He is obviously a little bit undersized,” Koziol said after the draft, “but in terms of his twitch and his burst, kind of that change of pace guy that can make moves in space. He is a big-play threat. He always was a big play threat for them at Utah State. It is a little bit different than what we had, so it gives us a little bit different dimension in terms of the passing game and guys who can operate out in space, too.”
When asked about his size on Sunday, Thompson elicited laughter from the press.
”I don’t have much to tackle,” he said. “I make a lot of people miss. It’s hard. You can’t tackle me in a phone booth. It’s a blessing in disguise.”
The Chiefs front office has emphasized that they believe Thompson will be in an ideal situation in Kansas City — despite his size and the competition he will face to find a spot on the roster. Thompson agrees.
”Just the offense and Andy Reid,” he said on Sunday. “You talk about star-struck? I met coach Andy Reid on my top-30 visit [and thought], ‘Man, this is a Hall of Fame coach. He’s on his way.’ To be in his system and to see what he did with other guys at the running back position, I’m very blessed. Perfect situation.”
Thompson had already spoken about the strong impression Chiefs coaches had left on him following his pre-draft visit.
“At the age of 35 I hope to see myself in player development,” he said after the draft. “At the age of 45 I hope to see myself as [running backs coach] Deland McCullough. At the age of 50, I hope to see myself as [offensive coordinator] Eric Bieniemy. I can see myself growing there and they’re going to push me to grow not only as a football player, but as a man. Once I [saw] that, it really blew me away just how much I related to those guys and how much we had that connection. Me and coach Bieniemy, for example, he’s got the same chip on his shoulder that I do. We both stand 5-7, 5-8 and 200 pounds. Coach Bieniemy went in the second round, ended up playing ten years in the league and always carried that chip on his shoulder. That’s the way he coaches.”
On Sunday, Thompson said that as an overlooked and underrated player, he has that chip on his shoulder, too.
“I feel like I don’t do it so much for the people that doubt me, but more for the people that are inspired by me,” he said. “It’s much more than just ‘about me’ now. I’ve got kids that look up to me from my city, and I’m happy to represent.”
Thompson said he feels he represents many constituencies and spoke with clear emotion about them.
”There’s a lot of kids who stand 5-8 — or are just from Oklahoma. People think of Oklahoma, they think we ride horses on the street; I have family in California who think we have carriages and horses. People with single mothers. Things like that. I plan to give back. That’s one of the main things I want to do. When I was younger, I had soccer cleats as my first pair of cleats. Then the next season I had to wear the same pair of cleats. So when I have enough money, I want to buy that first pair of cleats for kids that come to my camps. That way they got their first pair. Not everybody can afford it. I definitely plan on giving back to my kids.”
Speaking to the press, the soft-spoken running back seemed remarkably self-aware and mature for his modest 22 years.
”In high school, I was a stubborn kid that just believed I was a running back,” he said. “I didn’t want to play defense. I played, but I was like, ‘I want to be a running back.’ You know, every kid growing up says they want to be a running back — [they] want to be like Adrian Peterson — [but] I think over time as I sat back and humbled myself, I realized [I] can play anywhere on the field [I] need to play. Once you get to this level, you’re going to have to play some special teams. I pride myself in that, because football was taken away from me for a little bit, and now I just feel that much more in love with the game.”
And now that he’s poised to enter the NFL, Thompson seems determined to excel in whatever way the Chiefs use him.
”I’m an athlete,” he maintained. “I’m not just a running back. They put me on kickoff, I’m going to be the best player on kickoff. That’s my chance to play defense. Catching the ball out of the backfield is just something I pride myself in, because I don’t believe I’m just a running back — I’m an athlete. So doing that just shows my versatility. I can be split out in the slot... outside... just whatever. Put me anywhere.”