As far as Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach is concerned, getting Utah State running back Darwin Thompson in the 2019 NFL Draft was a lucky break.
After selecting cornerback Rashad Fenton with the 201st pick in the sixth round, Veach thought he was going to have to make a move to get Thompson — a player the Chiefs really wanted.
“I called every team right after we took Fenton to come right back up and get Thompson, [and I] couldn’t reach a deal,” Veach said after the draft concluded. “As soon as I got off the phone with Fenton, I was on the phone trying to get back up there to get Thompson, and I was worried about the first few teams — they didn’t take him, and even though I was calling the teams after that, I couldn’t get a deal done.
“I was looking at these teams. All these teams — they 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 a little nervous there for those 10, 11, 12 picks because that was a guy that our eyes immediately went to.”
When the 214th pick rolled around, Veach let out his breath and picked Thompson.
It’s not hard to see why Veach was interested. Although Thompson went into the draft with only a single year of NCAA Division I experience — he spent two years at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M before earning his Utah State scholarship — he made the most of it, gaining 1,376 yards from scrimmage (and scoring 16 touchdowns) on just 176 touches. He averaged 6.8 yards per rush and 15.3 yards per catch — and in the second half of the season, he averaged 22 yards a catch.
Days after the draft — calling him a “small, elusive, twitched up and dynamic offensive weapon” — our Kent Swanson summarized Thompson’s fit with the Chiefs.
Thompson can be utilized in a variety of ways for the Chiefs. He has more-than-capable hands and is a dynamic weapon in space. He made more people miss than anyone in college football last year and has balance to sustain plays through contact. There is a special athletic ability for a player his size, power, explosiveness and pass catcher traits. What’s more is he’s raw and still developing.
That all might seem like a lot of over-the-top praise for a sixth-round draft selection, but when Thompson met with the media during Chiefs training camp at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph on Thursday, the picture got a bit clearer.
Thompson came off as an extremely hard-working, focused young man who recognizes his limitations — and knows what to do in order to overcome them.
“I’ve got to make up for my size somewhere, and that’s the weight room,” he said. “I mean, every day, day in and day out, I spend time in the weight room. Knowing that I’m only 5-foot-8. I’ve got to build my base, my core and my strength. It shows on the field. My contact balance shows up on the field because of the weight room.
”I’ve gained a lot more muscle [since the draft],” he added. “I’m at 190 right now. In college I played around 200 to 205. I’m 190 right now and I move a lot faster. I’m more flexible. I can do a lot more things. I feel comfortable at 190. But I feel a lot quicker and faster.”
"All my life, it's been family, faith, football."— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) July 25, 2019
Hard not to already love rookie running back Darwin Thompson as he discusses the meaning of his tattoos. pic.twitter.com/pvXTGbkOdh
Thompson appears to feel comfortable in Andy Reid’s offense, too.
”The screen game, the inside zone, the power schemes... it’s a lot of what I did in college,” he told the press. “But this offense stretches you to be a great running back. I mean, they split you out at the receiver and the slot. It really stretches you to be a great running back in this offense.”
Still... there was a bit of youthful excitement visible in Thompson’s all-business demeanor as he talked about playing with Patrick Mahomes — whom he called “a real-life jugs machine.”
”I think I was in high school when he was in college. Once he got drafted, I graduated from high school the next year. So to take handoffs from him knowing that he’s the MVP — and knowing what he did at this level his second year — it’s surreal.”
Thompson also spoke glowingly of Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
”He coaches tough,” Thompson said. “It’s tough love on me. He’s going to press you to be great. And he’s going to break the game down scientifically. You’re going to learn the game of football inside and out. He’s a great coach.”
But while Bieniemy is typically painted as the loud motivator of the Chiefs offense — in contrast to the laid-back, grandfatherly style of head coach Andy Reid — Thompson sees running backs coach Deland McCullough in that role.
”[He’s] fired up,” Thompson said. “Energy every day. If somebody falls asleep in the meeting? There ain’t no falling asleep in the meeting. He’s always wired up. It’s eight in the morning, and he’s in there yelling — ready to go.”
But Thompson was at his most impressive when he talked about making the transition to the NFL — and how he feels about getting his chance to play in the league.
“You’re not in college anymore,” he said. “You’re not on scholarship. This is an every day job. You go from seven in the morning until ten at night. It’s an every day job.”
”It’s everything I’ve worked for,” he continued. “Nothing before this really matters now. It’s the beginning. This is the beginning of the journey. It’s a new identity I can create. They’re only going to remember me now for what I did in the NFL — not so much for what I did in college. I only played one year of D-I football — I played all in JUCO. My name before this isn’t really going to mean anything. I’ve got a chance to prove myself — to prove my worth at this level.”
Thompson — who calls himself ‘D-Train’ — was then asked about his new tattoos.
”All my life, it’s been family, faith and football,” he said. “I’ve got [tattoos of] my grandparents, my mom and my dad, when I first fell in love with the game of football, my first D-I touchdown, my last name and my brother and sister’s names. It’s family, faith and football. All my tattoos have a meaning to me.
“I also have a train on my shin. So the train tracks [represent] God’s plan; I believe in God heartily. The train is my lifestyle and everything that comes with it. I’m the conductor of the lifestyle that I’m living.
“So that’s where ‘D-Train’ comes from,” he concluded. “It’s not really about the way I run the football. It’s about how I train to prepare for football — how I take it so seriously. My conscience messes with me every day. I can’t miss a rep. I’ve got to go full speed. Somebody is out there ready to take my spot.”
I dare you: just try not to root for this young man.