Although the NFL Draft is barely a speck on the horizon in the rear-view mirror now, I sill hear grumblings about his being too small to play as a linebacker, or how he's not great in deep coverage as a safety, or labeling him as a dreaded "Tweener."
All these folks need to take their 20th-Century thinking into the 21st Century, and the picture should be a lot more clear. To borrow a phrase, this isn't your Father's National Football League. Since I am 48 years old, well, it isn't my college NFL, either.
Thirty Years Makes a Difference
Let's take a look at how things were when I was 17 years old and a Freshman at Auburn University. The year was an Orwellian 1984 and only a year before Doc Brown built a time machine out of a DeLorean. I think the year was a fitting outlier in the overal trend of things at the time but if you'll hang on for a bit, I'll roll back around to Shaq's situation.
I have always thought of 1984 as being a wondrous year for the NFL in general. Dan Marino blew away about every single-season passing record and was the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in a single season. He also had 48 TD passes (eclipsing the standing record at the time of 36) and led his perennial one-trick team - his arm - to his lone Super Bowl appearance but just couldn't match up with a loaded San Francisco squad. Perhaps his finest moment as a pro in a regular season game (other than the "Fake Spike" I loved it!) is the fact that he was the guy that shredded that Chicago Bears juggernaut defense on Monday Night Football. It was the lone-loss team that blew out the Deflatriots in the Super Bowl. William "The Refrigerator" Perry days.
Eric Dickerson rushed for an NFL record of 2,105 yards with no asterisks for playing a 16-game season instead of the previous era's 14-games as he actually broke the old record in game 14 anyway.
Widely-considered jerk Mark Gastineau of the New York Sack Exchange set a single-season record for sacks with 22 for the Jets. It was apparently an open secret that he was using steroids for a good part of his career plus he had Joe Klecko to help give the offensive lines they were attacking multiple worries right from the snap of the ball....regardless of whether or not it may or may not have been intentionally deflated. They just got to the quarterback before he could get rid of the thing in the first place.
Remember, this was in an era where receivers could pretty much get mugged without a second look from the officials, let alone making us wait for 5 minutes while the official goes and watching a peep show or something. Maybe they've got a beer cooler hidden back in there somewhere. No idea.
Run To Daylight
The point is a lot more inclusive than a few superstars all setting records at their respective positions. If you go back and look at the team statistics overall and compare them with last year's numbers, you'll find that four of the top five offenses are from 2014. Dan Marino led the Miami Dolphins to a ridiculous 433.5 ypg but his was the only team topping 400 total yards of offense. Four of the top five did last year.
Rushing offense was higher, passing offense was lower, Marino aside, and the trends are opposite on the defensive side, too. 2014 saw the Seattle Seahawks allow fewer than 300 ypg. In 1984, three teams accomplished it and the yardage given up defensively started to balloon quicker last year. Less offense, more defense than today's more aerial approach.
Many of the critics are simply going by their charts or ideas of height, weight, speed - all the measurables of some idealized perfect physical prototype from back when linebackers were consider "light" at under about 250 pounds.
The NFL is Evolving
Therefore, with defenses no longer able to commit felonies on a routine basis against receivers anymore, the game has evolved. It's so much easier for a receiver to get open for a moment these days because in the past he'd be on his keister half the time with his wallet and his watch missing.
We see a lot of smaller, quicker, faster guys in the slot or larger WR sets as well as much taller guys on the outside, often well over six feet tall. Dan Marino's "Marks Brothers" were both around 5'10". Kelvin Benjamin would have been a tight end in 1984.
We're seeing more running backs around the 200 lb. mark. It wasn't that long ago that Cadillac Williams was thought to be a bit small at 217 lbs running a 4.4-40 and insane cutting and acceleration that made him elusive in college at least. That Caddy couldn't handle the load in the NFL and broke down, unfortunately.
What teams need these days isn't hulking 250 pound outside linebackers but lighter, faster, athletic guys who have good instincts and can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. Those that can apply those raw skills are rare people and Shaq Thompson fits the mold to a "T" in those respects. He'll take a year or two to develop, but could really be ready to slide into Thomas Davis' role when he retires in a couple of years. I don't think it's happenstance to draft Thompson in the first round and then give TD his 2-yr $10 million guaranteed contract.
Just ignore the people that say Shaq is "too" this or that to play position "X."
The game has changed, but many talking heads have yet to notice it. I think Shaq will be putting them all on notice...and sooner rather than later.
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