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The other safety: Cardinals' Jalen Thompson deserves his due in the desert

Johnny Venerable Avatar
December 9, 2021

When the Arizona Cardinals invested a fifth-round pick on safety Jalen Thompson in what was the league’s last supplemental draft, there was plenty of risk involved. Keep in mind that the Cardinals haven’t historically participated in the supplement draft, and the team had recently been burned by character issues with both Robert Nkemdiche and Darius Philon.

Thompson, a former standout at Washington State, saw his senior year of eligibility stripped after purchasing of a non-steroid, over-the-counter supplement that was banned by the NCAA. Before his lost season, the California native was seen as a potential top-50 pick by NFL scouts. Instead, the Second-Team All-Pac 12 selection became the last pick in the supplemental draft’s history.

Two years later, an argument can be made that the 23-year-old Thompson is one of the league’s best young safeties.

Following an injury-riddled 2020 season, Thompson has helped spearhead the Cardinals defensive revival. With a 74.4 coverage grade via Pro Football Focus, Thompson and his fellow Cardinals defensive backs comprise a secondary that has allowed the fewest yards and points in the NFC (fourth in the NFL).

Thompson has played a big part in cementing the Cardinals as true Super Bowl contenders.

The third-year safety is second on the team in total tackles (85), but his impact goes far beyond the box score. His physical presence is evident every time he takes the field. Thompson consistently jaws with opposing players in an effort to inspire confidence in a Cardinal defense that has lacked that swagger in years past. His versatility ranges from the ability to cover at an elite level (two interceptions, five passes defensed) to tackling with a consistency on par with former Cardinal greats Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson.

On Sunday against Chicago, Thompson turned in his best effort of the season, securing one of the defense’s four interceptions and finishing as the Cardinals’ highest graded defender (82.9) against the Bears.

“Last year, we didn’t have him for two or three games and it was different,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said recently when discussing Thompson’s impact. “To have him every week has definitely helped our defense play faster and keep the big plays to a minimum… that’s his specialty.”

On a roster where it would be easy to be overshadowed by Pro Bowl peer Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson continues to stake his claim to a lengthy contract extension. As a free agent following the 2023 season, expect Thompson to earn a contract that cements his status as one of the premier safeties in the NFL. General manager Steve Keim would be wise to engage Thompson in contract talks during this offseason to avoid repeating past mistakes with the likes of Mathieu and Jefferson.

Both fled Arizona on bad terms after Keim misjudged the safety market during negotiations.

With Thompson and Baker in house, the Cardinals have an opportunity to field arguably the league’s top safety duo. After years of watching the likes of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor terrorize this Arizona franchise as members of the Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals can repay the favor by unleashing their gifted tandem. Throw in rising corners Marco Wilson and Byron Murphy, and you’ve got a strong, core group of Arizona defensive backs, all of whom were drafted by the club.

With so much made of the Cardinals’ inability to consistently stop the run, the elite efforts of Arizona’s secondary often get lost. The fact of the matter is that the Cardinals currently sport a Super Bowl caliber defense largely because of players such as Thompson. Unlike the flashy acquisitions of Chandler Jones or J.J. Watt, Thompson is a homegrown product who was signed during the league’s dead season in July 2019. Now he is an unquestioned cornerstone piece of a Cardinals roster that is the envy of so many across the NFL.

“We knew he was gonna be a good player but this year, he’s definitely grown up,” Joseph said.

Contrary to popular belief, to win a championship, a team’s roster must be littered not only with established star players but ascending young talent alike. Jalen Thompson easily represents the finest Day-3 draft pick in Keim’s eight-year tenure as GM.

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