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PFF: Cardinals rookie S Jalen Thompson could project as nickel

Vic Wharton III #17 of the California Golden Bears carries the ball looking to avoid the tackle of Jalen Thompson #34 of the Washington State Cougars during the first quarter of their NCAA football game at California Memorial Stadium on October 13, 2017 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

It’s fairly easy to slot in the Arizona Cardinals’ starting defensive backs as training camp for the 2019 season nears.

D.J. Swearinger and Budda Baker will play safety. At cornerback, Patrick Peterson will be sidelined for the first six games due to his PED suspension, and Robert Alford will be the de facto first cornerback in his stead.

Free agent pickup Tramaine Brock Sr. and rookie Byron Murphy appear to be the second cornerback and nickel, in some order. After that, there’s a dropoff in experience and potential.

But Arizona’s selection of Washington State safety Jalen Thompson in the NFL supplemental draft on Wednesday might have given the team another option should one of the top three corners go down.

Thompson stands 6-foot and 195 pounds, but he’s more of a versatile defensive back in the mold of Baker, who last year played nickelback, than he is a true safety, according to Pro Football Focus. The website’s draft analyst, Mike Renner, considered him a second-round talent had Thompson, as expected, entered the 2020 NFL Draft.

Arguably his biggest strength is his ability to match routes from the type of deep-off position safeties see in quarters coverage and its many variations. In Vance Joseph’s defense, that type of ability is required from his safeties.

Could that mean Arizona looks into training Thompson as a nickel rather than a true safety?

PFF sees that potential for Thompson to play man coverage. At Washington State last season, Thompson played mostly as a slot cornerback (378 snaps) but also took 269 snaps in the box and 169 as a free safety.

Thompson allowed 17 catches on 39 targets in slot coverage, and he forced six incompletions, according to PFF, which added that he proved especially disruptive on downfield throws.

Over the last two seasons, the Washington State product has been stellar whenever he’s been tested downfield. Looking at his targets of 10 or more air yards since 2017, Thompson has allowed just nine receptions on 32 targets, allowing just one touchdown and recording eight forced incompletions in the process. The passer rating when targeting Thompson at least 10 yards downfield over the last two seasons? 33.3. Quarterbacks would have been statistically better off by just putting the ball in the stands.

Before losing his college eligibility in late June due to a failed banned substance test, Thompson expected to return to Washington State for his senior year. It’s possible he could require a year of development with the Cardinals having missed a full NFL offseason of rookie camps, voluntary workouts and installs.

Arizona defensive backs like Josh Shaw, Brandon Williams, Chris Jones and rookie Deionte Thompson are among the players who might vie for backup nickel and safety snaps. Baker could swing back to nickel in a pinch if Arizona likes its safety depth more than its corner depth.

But if Jalen Thompson can play catchup and quickly, maybe he’ll give Arizona a depth option it didn’t expect to have just a few weeks ago.

At the least, he’s a potential future piece for a team that has talent but not much depth in its current defensive backfield.

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