Taylor Thompson just might be football’s version of a Rorschach test. Everyone sees him differently and according to his own experiences.
When Tennessee Titans scouts and coaches scoured the country last spring in search of an athletic tight end to add to their offense, they focused on Thompson. Never mind that SMU coach June Jones, whose vision of offense does not involve a tight end, saw a defensive end during the four years he looked at Thompson.
Tim Shaw, the Titans’ special teams captain and their leader in special teams tackles each of the last two years, sees something else.
“He could be the perfect special teams player,” Shaw said. “He’s got size and strength, long arms, and he can run. With those things — if he wants to be — he can be a dominant special teams player.”
Already, he’s pretty good.
Prior to Sunday’s game at Indianapolis, Thompson and Shaw shared the team lead with nine special teams tackles apiece. That’s already more than any of the team’s offensive players have had in the previous two seasons.
No one on offense, in fact, has led the team in special teams tackles during the Titans era, which began in 1999. Tight end Craig Stevens came close in 2009 when his 15 were second to Donnie Nickey’s 17.
“That’s where we had trouble here in the past — we haven’t had a lot of offensive guys playing special teams,” coach Mike Munchak said. “[Thompson] does, Stevens does, [Jared] Cook does a little bit. All the tight ends really help quite a bit. He stepped up, he’s had some big blocks.”
Most notable, of course, was the devastating manner in which he eliminated a would-be tackler on Darius Reynaud’s 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Detroit. The return put Reynaud’s name in the record books for the longest in franchise history, but it was Thompson’s block at the 20-yard line that drew an audible response from the LP Field crowd.
There is something else, however, that has impressed Shaw, whose primary role for four NFL teams over six seasons has been on special teams.
“One area I see him quietly dominating on is punt return,” Shaw said. “He can eliminate a guy on punt return. That’s the impressive thing I’ve seen from him.”
In basic terms, punt return is a man-to-man proposition. Players who line up on the interior engage with whoever is opposite him at the snap, and those two continue their battle down the field until the play is complete.
“Nobody notices those guys in there, but we all get assigned to a guy, and he’ll just wipe him out of the game,” Shaw said. “He does a good job locking him up. He does a good job running with him down the field. And his guy doesn’t make the tackle.”
In other words, Thompson’s man does not show up on the stat sheets or highlight reels often. Like everything else in his professional career, all of this is relatively new to him.
He has been well-publicized in his attempt to transition from a college defensive end to an NFL tight end. He was a three-time all-conference defensive end at SMU but late last fall opted to try and return to the
position he played in high school. It was at an all-star game in Arkansas that he attracted the attention of the Titans, who drafted him in the fifth round.
That process, as evidenced by his three catches through the first 12 games, remains ongoing. Skepticism peaked in Week 2, when he got behind the San Diego secondary but made a clumsy attempt to haul in Jake Locker’s long throw.
His college career did not include any special teams play either.
“None at all,” he said. “I was happy because I was getting involved a lot, because I was learning tight end, and I was learning how to cover on punt coverage, like the kickoff returns — how to pick that up.
“It was a lot of learning, but a lot of help came from the defensive background.”
The 139 tackles he made in college have served him much better when he has run down field to cover kicks and punts than when he has run pass routes.
“It’s helped a lot,” Thompson said. “It gives me an advantage, I have a lot of knowledge of how to play defense, how to tackle, especially in the open field. So it gives me an edge over a lot of other tight ends out there.
“It’s the basics of tackling and understanding your leverage, understanding holding outside contain — all the factors that go into making a tackle.”
Not that it’s been completely smooth sailing in that regard either.
Shaw noted that Thompson missed a tackle in the recent 24-10 loss to Houston, which prompted the veteran to “chew his butt.”
Those moments have been infrequent, particularly of late. Thompson did not make his first special teams tackle until the season’s fourth game, at Houston. He made one in four straight — all of them unassisted stops — beginning Nov. 4 against Chicago.
“He’s been able to help quicker than maybe he would have if he didn’t have that kind of experience [on defense],” Munchak said. “Because of his background, you thought he had a better chance than most offensive players. We all remember the return against Detroit where he had a huge block. He’s had other good blocks; he’s had some nice tackles. He’s missed some tackles, but he’s a guy that’s going to be a good help on special teams.”
Like everything else in his professional career, he simply has to learn more about it.
“Everyone makes their fair share of mistakes, but he’s definitely picked it up quickly,” Shaw said. “The good thing about special teams is it’s just attitude. You have to want to do it. You have to want to be good at it, and you have to embrace the fact that you’re out there. He’s done that, and that’s what’s brought him success.”