Utah State junior running back Darwin Thompson put on a show at his pro day on Wednesday, emphatically answering any questions about his athleticism following a combine snub.1
Despite splitting the Aggies’ backfield with Gerold Bright, Thompson topped 1,000 rushing yards for the third straight year, and was college football’s most elusive runner. Thompson’s weightlifting feats are becoming legendary (including a 345-pound clean as a 180-pound high schooler), and his 28 bench reps at the pro day didn’t disappoint.
Thompson declared for the NFL draft after a single season of Division I football, but at an electric 5 feet 8 inches and 198 pounds he’s already drawn comparisons to Tarik Cohen, in part because of his JUCO background. If you ask Thompson, though, he compares himself to Jerick McKinnon and Ameer Abdullah. Let’s take a look at why those two players are in fact such good comps.
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In 2015, Thompson graduated from Jenks High School in Oklahoma without any offers from four-year programs. He redshirted at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M (NEO) before starting the next two seasons and making his mark as one of the top JUCO RBs in the country. Thompson transferred to Utah State in 2018, where he quickly won a starting job alongside fellow junior Bright, and took the lead role after making numerous big plays early in the season. His 6.8 yards per carry and 15.3 yards per reception demonstrate the efficiency we’re looking for, in both the running and passing game, but his overall body of work doesn’t quite exemplify the workhorse traits that we’d like to see, especially from a smaller RB. Still, consecutive years closing in on 200 touches, with plus efficiency as a receiver, is nothing to sniff at. It’s also promising that Thompson was the “thunder” half of his committee with Bright, who was considered the speed back of the two. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Thompson has had some issues with a recurring sprained ankle dating back to high school; it doesn’t seem to have limited him much to date, but it’s something to pay attention to as the draft process gets underway.
Thompson measured 5 feet 8 inches and 198 pounds at his pro day, which was expected, but is also good confirmation that he’s more than a mighty mite with someone’s thumb on the scale. This opens the door to a wider range of comps than if he’d weighed in at 179 like Cohen.
A 39-inch vertical and a 126-inch broad jump demonstrate Thompson’s excellent explosion and would have ranked him 3rd in the vertical2 and 5th in the broad among combine invitees.3 His 28 bench reps would’ve ranked 2nd at the combine, behind only Barnes.
Reporting on Thompson’s forty time include claims of 4.47, 4.48, and 4.50, and I’m inclined to take this as evidence of good, but not elite NFL speed. If his 4.15 short shuttle time is accurate, that’s well above average and would’ve been 2nd at the combine, again only behind Barnes.
In short, Thompson is one of the very best athletes in this class, but will remain somewhat under the radar after missing out on that combine buzz. Superficially he’s been compared to Cohen, but he’s got close to 20 pounds on that player and is a different type of athlete. His self-assessment is correct: like McKinnon and Abdullah, he’s a SPARQ-y, solid BMI guy, who is overlooked because of height, despite being one of the strongest players on the field.
If we assume a forty time of 4.50 seconds, and supply a slightly above-average three cone of 7.00 seconds, the Prospect Lab gives Thompson a score of 23.
That’s not too optimistic, but we already know that the Prospect Lab is going to ding Thompson for his age, because he was a redshirt and a JUCO transfer, and for his attempts, because he didn’t take over the lead role until the fifth game of the season. A very interesting comp near Thompson is Justin Forsett, who was a similarly sized running back at Cal, who put up 26 bench reps at the combine, and scored a 24 in the Prospect Lab.
The excellent Combine Explorer doesn’t have pro day data, but we can glean some valuable insights by using a proxy for Thompson. I plugged in Justin Jackson, who has several similar measurables, and found a really interesting trio of comps in Bernard Scott, Kenjon Barner, and Jerome Harrison. All three are explosive, quick, high bench press players, who are 5-foot-10-inches or under and right around 200 pounds. These are fascinating comps to me, because all of them stuck in the league for at least five years, despite not being the flashiest of names. Scott was a bit bigger and faster, but similarly went the JUCO route before tearing up D-II at Abilene Christian, and having flashes of success with the Bengals. Harrison still holds the third highest single-game rushing yards of all time for his 286 yards against the Chiefs, but sadly had his career cut short by a brain tumor. Barner has earned another chance with the Falcons this year, and is an electric college player whose health and opportunity have never quite aligned for fantasy. What stands out to me most of all is that some of Thompson’s closest athletic comps seem to describe a profile of player that keeps earning chances in the league, which is what I’m looking for as a dynasty player with my mid- and late-round picks.
NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS
We continue to see NFL teams giving greater opportunity to smaller RBs, from top of the food chain guys like Christian McCaffrey and Devonta Freeman, to newcomers like Tarik Cohen, Matt Breida, Phillip Lindsay, and Ito Smith. Thompson’s measurables suggest that he’s not a total athletic outlier, but is well above-average across the board to go along with his feats of strength in the weight room.4 With good, but limited, Division I production, and physical comps like Ito Smith and McKinnon, I think the hope is that a team eager to use a RB committee spends a fourth-round pick on Thompson. That would hopefully give him enough opportunity to stick on a roster, while still remaining pretty cheap in rookie drafts. Landing spot and draft capital will likely be key for Thompson, but he looks intriguingly like a RB profile that has been a goldmine for dynasty drafters the past couple years.
All Aboard the “DTRAINN”