They were only two plays in an August exhibition, but they provided a glimpse of what the Carolina Panthers saw in Shaq Thompson that prompted them to draft him in the first round this past spring.
After sitting out the first exhibition at Buffalo, Thompson started at strongside linebacker last week against Miami and turned in a pair of first-quarter plays that showed both his athleticism and his tackling ability.
That tackling ability was called into question by a few draft experts after the Panthers used the 25th pick on a player some scouts viewed as an NFL safety, one of three positions Thompson played during his final season at Washington.
So while Thompson’s pass breakup on a deep pass to Dolphins tight end Jordan Cameron was nice, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was most impressed with the hit Thompson made on Miami running back Lamar Miller near the goal line.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“The biggest thing was the knock about his physical play,” Rivera said after Wednesday’s practice. “And I think he’s shown that he does play physical, and that’s exciting.”
He’s shown that he does play physical, and that’s exciting.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, on rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson
Thompson also pointed to the goal-line stop as the play he was most satisfied with in his first NFL exhibition.
With the Dolphins at the Carolina 3, Thompson and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly were shaded to the right side of the formation. Thompson checked Cameron after the ball was snapped before passing him off to Kuechly.
Thompson then came up and made a clean tackle of Miller, who caught Ryan Tannehill’s pass in the flat and was brought down short a yard short of the end zone.
Thompson said he had been getting beaten on the play when the Panthers practiced against the Dolphins last week in Spartanburg.
“It just finally came natural,” Thompson said. “It was one of those goal-line plays.”
You can be in the right position, but you don’t make the tackle and it doesn’t matter. But he was able to capitalize on the position.
Luke Kuechly, on Shaq Thompson’s goal-line tackle of Miami’s Lamar Miller
Kuechly said Thompson recognized the Miami formation and had good pre-snap communication with Kuechly.
“He knew what was coming. He had a good alignment. And the toughest thing is, obviously he was where he was supposed to be, but it’s making the tackle,” Kuechly said. “You can be in the right position, but you don’t make the tackle and it doesn’t matter. But he was able to capitalize on the position.”
On the Dolphins’ next possession, Thompson (6-foot, 230) was in man coverage on Cameron, a Pro Bowler who was flexed out along the Miami sideline and a ran a go route. Thompson matched Cameron stride for stride, and stuck his hand out just as Tannehill’s pass arrived to prevent Cameron from pulling it in for a touchdown.
Thompson also covered Dolphins wide receivers on a couple of other snaps.
“The thing that’s really exciting is the athleticism is exactly what we saw,” Rivera said. “We actually matched him on a wide receiver a couple times and when they came out in two tight ends and flexed one of them, we matched him on the flexed one.
“These are all the things we talked about early when we first drafted him. Now this gives us the flexibility with how we can attack (teams).”
Another part of Thompson’s skill set will be kept under wraps until the regular season. After the Panthers drafted Thompson, Rivera talked at length about how he could help in blitz situations.
But defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is unlikely to show any of the pressure packages until the games count.
But like Rivera, McDermott was pleased with what Thompson did against the Dolphins.
“It was nice to see,” McDermott said. “He played in the box. He played on the edge a little bit. He ran with the tight end down the sideline.”
It was the first glimpse most fans had of Thompson, who missed the majority of OTAs while finishing his classes at Washington and then pulled his hamstring shortly after arriving in Charlotte.
But he’s made an impression on coaches and teammates.
“He’s good,” Kuechly said. “I think with Shaq, and I’ve said it, he’s a guy who works hard, humble, he’s willing to ask questions, he flies around and that’s a great combination for him. With the limited amount of snaps he’s gotten in OTAs and camps and the game, he’s done a great job so far.”
For a guy who does a lot of things well, Thompson said the key will be trying not to do too much.
“I’ve just got to keep doing my job, don’t try to do other people’s jobs,” Thompson said. “Just do my job and when my number’s called, try to make a play.”