Not just another guy: Chiefs rookie Cody Thompson making strong case to earn roster spot
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Cody Thompson arrived at Toledo’s campus in June 2013 with the goal of earning a football scholarship. At Huron (Ohio) High School, Thompson was versatile, athletic and talented at just about everything — he was the school’s quarterback his junior year, played wide receiver as a sophomore and was also the team’s best punter.
Jason Candle, Toledo’s offensive coordinator at the time, felt the program could always find an underrated player from the state during its annual summer camp. Before drills began, Candle never forgot the reaction from some of the coaches when Thompson was mentioned during a Friday night meeting about each athlete’s grades and rankings.
“One of the assistants said, ‘We got this guy coming from Huron,’” Candle said, “and everybody was kind of like, ‘Yeah, just another guy.’”
The next day, Thompson, playing wide receiver, executed a dig route in a one- on-one drill in front of Candle. Thompson created plenty of separation from the cornerback, but Candle noticed the trajectory of the ball. The pass wasn’t accurate.
“The ball is off the back shoulder to where this has got to be a full extension, behind-his-body catch,” said Candle, who became Toledo’s head coach in 2015. “He opens his hips up like a pro and turns his body, catches it and never breaks stride. He walks into the end zone. That’s the play that got him the scholarship.”
Toledo was the only Division I program to offer a scholarship to Thompson,
and since the day he committed to Toledo, he has been an overachiever at every stage of his career. He overachieved to the point he recorded 30 touchdown receptions at Toledo to set the school’s all-time record. He overachieved by returning from a broken right leg to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. And with the Kansas City Chiefs, Thompson has impressed coach Andy Reid by being an overachiever in training camp.
Thompson, 23, has two exceptional attributes that give him a chance — even as a long shot to make the Chiefs’ 53-man roster — to be a contributor in the NFL: his catching ability and his route running. During camp, Thompson has dropped just two passes. In the Chiefs’ one-on-one passing drills between wide receivers and defensive backs, Thompson has beaten every veteran defender except safety Tyrann Mathieu.
“I’m not the fastest guy, but I think I’ve got the speed to compete in this league and be a good player,” Thompson said last week. “My coaches at Toledo, they really ingrained (route running) in my head. Separation in college and the NFL is a big difference. Being open in college is three or four yards. Being open in the NFL is maybe half a yard.”
The Chiefs’ scouting department first learned of Thompson in 2016. During that season, Thompson was teammates with former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. Both players scored 11 touchdowns and they recorded more than 1,000 yards to earn first-team All-MAC honors.
Before the NFL Draft in late April, Thompson met with the Chiefs a few times. Lance Zierlein, a draft analyst for NFL.com, projected Thompson to be selected in the sixth or seventh round. Thompson wasn’t selected, but he said eight teams offered him a contract as an undrafted free agent. Choosing the Chiefs, he said, was an easy decision.
“It’s a high-powered offense, and you have the reigning MVP at quarterback,” Thompson said of Patrick Mahomes. “Who doesn’t want to catch passes from him? With a Hall of Fame coach like Andy Reid, it was a no-brainer for me.
I’m happy to be here, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Thompson arrived in Kansas City in May and hasn’t disappointed the Chiefs’ coaching staff with his understanding of Reid’s complex playbook. Thompson performed well during the team’s rookie minicamp, as his running was polished and his hands were the best among a group that included Mecole Hardman, whom the Chiefs selected in the second round.
Mahomes praised Thompson in June for how well he grasped the Chiefs’ offense and for his ability to make plays during the team’s mandatory minicamp.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Thompson said of Mahomes. “Where you’re supposed to be on this certain play at this certain time, he’ll tell you and he’ll help you out. He’s going to pull you to the side and let you know what you need to do better. He knows what he’s talking about.”
Last week, Reid watched Thompson beat several of his defensive teammates with subtle wiggle moves at the top of his routes, which either disrupted the defender’s footwork or encouraged him to go in the opposite direction to create more separation. Thompson has scored touchdowns in practice through connections with backup quarterbacks Kyle Shurmur and Chase Litton.
“Probably a better inside guy in the slot position, but he’s played everywhere and (he’s) smart,” Reid said of Thompson last week. “I’m curious to see how he does in the preseason games. He’s got talent.”
In Saturday’s preseason opener, Thompson’s first highlight against the Cincinnati Bengals was on a kickoff return. He blocked rookie cornerback Anthony Chesley off the field (onto the sideline), which helped wide receiver Byron Pringle record a nifty 50-yard return.
Thompson played most of his snaps in the second half. He often lined up in the slot position, as his first reception against the Bengals was an 11-yard gain from a slant to convert on 3rd-and-5. On the next play, Thompson ran a smooth out route to connect with Litton for an 8-yard reception.
Yet Thompson’s best snap occurred in the fourth quarter, when he ran a stop- and-go-and-hitch route. When Thompson caught Litton’s pass, Chesley had fallen to the ground. But Thompson’s 20-yard reception was nullified by an illegal use of hands penalty from right tackle Chidi Okeke.
“Cody is a guy that we had as a draftable prospect,” general manager Brett Veach said in late April. “We were lucky to get him.”
In their five years together at Toledo, Candle said Thompson was known most for his remarkable work ethic and his analytical approach to games. The few times Thompson showed emotion in college was when he celebrated with his teammates after scoring a touchdown. Candle admired how Thompson was intentional with his decisions. Coaching Thompson, Candle learned, became easy.
The coaching trio of Candle, offensive coordinator Brian Wright and former wide receivers coach Derek Sage taught Thompson how to best utilize his routes in the field’s intermediate zone. The game plans included discussions of how Thompson could set up defenders with a plethora of routes during the course of game similar to how boxers use punch combinations. Thompson enjoyed manipulating zone coverages to expand passing windows for the quarterback.
“He’s very cerebral when it came to fixing mistakes and applying the coaching to the field,” Candle said. “He also has a really solid catch radius, too. He does a good job of catching the ball away from his body and extending his arms. He’s really, really quarterback-friendly.”
Almost two years ago, Thompson faced the biggest challenge of his career. In
the fifth game of the season, Thompson broke a fibula against Eastern Michigan when a defender fell on his right leg while tackling him.
“A lot of guys would’ve had the song and dance of getting carted off the field, giving the thumbs up, going to the hospital and are never heard from again,” Candle said. “But I look over in the fourth quarter of the game and that dude is sitting on the bench with a smile on his face with his teammates like nothing ever happened. He’s a special guy.”
The season-ending injury allowed Thompson to become a redshirt senior last year. Candle often asked Thompson two questions throughout his rehab.
How great do you want to be? What do you want the ending of your college story to be?
Thompson responded by studying film of wide receivers he admired, including Sammy Watkins, an explosive route runner who is now his teammate with the Chiefs. Another attribute Thompson improved was his strength, which allowed him to break many tackles in the open field. He finished his senior season by leading the Rockets with 10 touchdowns.
Candle was disappointed when Thompson wasn’t selected in the draft, but he’s not surprised his former player has been a steady performer for the Chiefs. Thompson didn’t show much emotion when he left the Chiefs’ locker room after the team’s victory over the Bengals. He had begun to think about how he can have a better performance this upcoming weekend against the Pittsburgh Steelers to increase his odds of making the Chiefs’ opening-day roster.
“I’m a big be-in-the-moment guy,” Thompson said, “but it’s hard to not look forward.”
Saturday’s game against the Steelers will be an emotional one for Thompson. His immediate family — his father, Scott, his mother, Lois, his older sister
Nicole and his younger brother Tony — will watch the game inside Heinz Field. From only one Division I scholarship offer to competing for a job in the NFL, Thompson has exceeded expectations, including his own.
Thompson’s favorite people are eager to see a play, and the route that he runs, that could propel his unusual career with the Chiefs.
“We’re very proud of him and very excited for what his future holds,” Candle said. “I’m excited for his family. It’s not out of the question that I may sneak over there myself and watch the game.”
(Photo: Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)