In the Rookie Rewind series, we’re taking a look at Kansas City Chiefs players after their first season in the league, focusing specifically on their development — and areas that led to improvement or regression in their play. How did they improve from Week 1 — or even college — to the end of their first season? And what does that say about their future?
With Chiefs’ training camp set to start on Monday, it’s time to wrap up the Rookie Rewind with our final Kansas City Chiefs draft pick to receive playing time in 2019. In the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, the Chiefs selected running back Darwin Thompson out of Utah State. There was hype surrounding Thompson as a later day-three pick because he looked fantastic in the weight room, and he was one of the best running backs in the draft class at forcing missed tackles.
Thompson was raw and his athletic testing wasn’t great given his smaller stature, so there was an expected learning curve ahead for Thompson as he joined the Chiefs. With the return of Damien Williams and Darrel Williams, as well as the addition of LeSean McCoy, it looked like Thompson would be buried on the depth chart year one.
It wasn’t until later in the season when injuries struck the Williamses — and McCoy was falling out of favor — that Thompson saw the majority of his offensive snaps. Even in more dire times, he was splitting reps with both McCoy and Spencer Ware, who the Chiefs brought back.
As we dive into the film, we’ll see why Thompson’s usage may have been limited.
Early season briefing
For the first 12 weeks of the season, Thompson saw less than five offensive snaps in every single game. The addition of McCoy paired with Damien Williams took up the bulk of the reps, while Darrel Williams soaked up the rest thanks to his passing game prowess. It wasn’t until after the bye week with the Chiefs facing the Oakland Raiders that Thompson got his shot. Even then, it took McCoy falling out of favor with ball security issues and pass protection assignments, an injury to Damien Williams and Darrel Williams going down mid-game before Thompson was trusted with any real workload.
You know the drill.
Let’s start with the player usage to get a general idea of the ideal situations the Chiefs identified for Thompson.
Darwin Thompson Rookie Rewind— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 5, 2020
Usage first, predominantly used as a receiving threat in 2019 only netting significant carries when filling in for injuries. Probably the only KC RB to amass more IZ than OZ reps.
Lot of routes into the flat - with open space - but few targets. pic.twitter.com/4Ha8sKntmm
Look at the ratio of Thompson’s snaps that were pass plays versus run plays.
Only 26% of his snaps were run plays, which is significantly lower than the Chiefs’ usual pass-centric ratio. Even more telling is that the game he netted the most rushing attempts was the first game against the Raiders. Why it’s most notable for me is because that was before the Chiefs signed Spencer Ware. It’s evident the Chiefs trusted Thompson more on passing plays than they did running plays.
The offense isn't structured around quick, short passes to the flats - anymore - which did limit some rec production. Thompson is extremely comfortable in the open field and that's where he's as his best.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 5, 2020
The combination of agility and contact balance make him dangerous in space pic.twitter.com/bM86fC9bM7
It’s easy to see why the Chiefs would deploy Thompson on passing downs, trying to get him in open space and allowing his open-field running ability to shine. It’s clearly one of the strongest points of his game, and if you can get him out into space — like on this screen play — he shows good vision and a knack for using the room to his advantage.
Strangely, this was the only screen play that Thompson ran in the games that I watched, and it accounted for over half of his receiving yards on the year. The Chiefs often just asked Thompson to dart out to the flats. He showed the capability to bend up the seam or break off a crisp angle route but was never given a shot at a reception on them.
When executing more direct runs with a more defined gaps, Thompson did a good job following his blockers and forcing the final defender to show first.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 17, 2020
Sticks to his blockers outside hip, forces the LB and S to flow wide, then cuts upfield. Good manipulation of defenders. pic.twitter.com/EoKdhGUeh7
Transitioning to Thompson as a runner — where we are dealing with a very small sample size — one of the most significant things that jumped out was how often he ran a power run play.
The Chiefs are a heavy zone-running team — specifically outside zone with the Williamses — that sprinkles in inside zone and some power runs. It was only four runs in total, but it made up 16% of Thompson’s rushes. He (arguably) looked better on these gap blocked runs. Limiting the number of reads he had to make as well forcing blockers to commit earlier allowed him to play faster and with more confidence.
Thompson gets up behind his pulling blocker and is able to stay just on the outside hip. This ensures that any flowing defender has to try to scrape over the top or run the risk that Thompson gets the edge for free and enters a foot race. As soon as he sees both defenders commit to contain, he plants his foot in the ground and cuts off the inside hip of his blocker. No frills, no dancing — just exploding forward on a simple “If the defender shows here, I go there; if he shows there; I go here” read.
Thompson may not be a nuanced runner at this time but he has the physical skill set to be. His lateral agility is very good and allows him to pull this cut down the entire LoS with ease.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 5, 2020
He did a good job squaring up to the LoS making it a 1on1 with a LB before exploding outside pic.twitter.com/AjEyCbTb6E
It was also interesting to see Thompson get more inside zone carries than outside zone carries given the Chiefs’ usual run distribution. Again, it’s a smaller sample size, but this shows a specific level of comfort in Thompson on these runs that wasn’t there for every running back on the roster.
Similar to the power run play example, Thompson is patient enough to allow his blockers to reach their marks and then forces defenders to commit. Once he forces the one-on-one with the linebacker, he has the athleticism to break the angle and pick up yards.
He needs to continue to work on his patience and vision allowing blockers to climb up the second level or open up lanes for him but there were some flashes.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 6, 2020
Good job pressing the LoS, sitting behind the OL, and sliding down the LoS probing for the gap. Just needs consistency pic.twitter.com/O2gOg93sw8
I wouldn’t go as far to say Thompson has good vision or patience at this point, but he flashed it in spurts. Sometimes, it looks almost “accidental,” as he’s probing the line of scrimmage for openings and his lateral agility allows him to reset his gap over and over, but the results are the same.
That probing allows his blockers to reach their marks and allows Thompson to see exactly where to go. Then his athleticism takes over.
One of the steps for Thompson to take as a runner in 2020, is dialing back the urge to bounce outside. Coming from a smaller school, out-athleting players to the edge was common but that won't work in the NFL as often.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 5, 2020
Sometimes dropping the pads and driving forward is the play. pic.twitter.com/yGNdUTOVfK
Thompson shows two significant flaws.
First, as a runner, his desire to bounce everything outside. As mentioned, Thompson likes to probe then bounce until he finds an open gap. This works in college, but this is the NFL.
Outrunning everyone up the sideline does not work, and that can’t be a default plan when the only opening is a tight gap on the interior. Sometimes, pressuring the line of scrimmage and just waiting will allow a gap to open up. Thompson has to slow down his process when things aren’t open immediately.
Thompson looks to be at his best when the aiming point/reads are relatively clean and his burst, agility, and contact balance can be put to the test.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 6, 2020
His ability to put his foot in the ground and explode upfield - on the drop of a dime - are where he can be the most dangerous. pic.twitter.com/0HsrcmeIhL
Second, Thompson could deal with clutter and muddy reads better. When the assigned running point is open, Thompson hits it with speed and conviction. Even if it requires him to control his tempo, he’s still decisive and moving quickly within the play.
The issues come when that assigned read isn’t clear. Thompson’s mental clock speeds up, and he plays more unsure of his next move. This results in the runs being bounced outside and some dancing in the backfield.
Expectations for 2020
Thompson is entering a unique situation with the Chiefs running back room in 2020. After spending a first-round pick on Clyde Edwards-Helaire and signing DeAndre Washington in free agency, the Chiefs’ room is looking rather crowded, with guys that have similar skill sets to Thompson. It may be difficult for him to earn significant reps in 2020 without showing major improvement early on.
In my opinion, Thompson needs to show more consistency with his patience and vision as a runner. The comfort the team showed with him on gap runs and inside zone runs is a good start, and that’s where he looked the most comfortable. More defined reads play to Thompson’s advantage.
My most significant concern was simply how little the Chiefs utilized him as a receiver on anything but flat routes. He will have to find a way to outshine a very talented receiving running back group if he wants to continue to net snaps.