If it’s true that great players make others great around them, then Cardinals safety Jalen Thompson might end up owing his NFL career to All-Pro Budda Baker.
Ever since Thompson entered the league as a supplemental draft pick in 2019, the strong safety from Washington State has been able to lean on and glean from Baker, the fifth-year free safety from Washington. It was pivotal right from the start, too, as the Cardinals were thin at the position and immediately threw Thompson into a starting role as a rookie.
Now that he’s entering his third season, he might not have to rely on Baker nearly as much. But just knowing Baker is always there to have his back, on the field and off, has Thompson more motivated than ever.
“Extreme confidence. Extreme confidence,” Thompson said when asked what playing alongside Baker has done for him. “That’s pretty much all I can say. Even from my rookie year, I had probably not the most confidence, but coming into this year, it feels a lot different. I’m feeling pretty good for the most part.”
Playing in a tandem situation with such an athletic and intense competitor like Baker has allowed Thompson to seek and discover his full potential. He’s been able to find a familiar intuition with Baker, sensing his moves and anticipating his steps. Because of that, he’s playing more free and has more opportunities to take a few extra risks on game days.
“Heck yeah. Knowing he’s on the other side of me, it makes my job a lot easier,” Thompson said “It makes me look at the game a lot differently, too. It’s about getting that ball, that’s just the main thing for us.”
The main thing for Thompson, truly, is finding a way to stay healthy. After a very productive rookie season in which he totaled 57 tackles and had an interception and a fumble recovery, he missed 11 games last year with a troublesome ankle injury.
He initially got hurt on the second play of the season opener against the 49ers and then re-injured the ankle upon returning to the lineup.
“We’ve just got to keep him healthy,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “He’s got to stay on the field. But to have him back there with Budda, you feel like you’re in really good shape at the safety position.”
The Cardinals spent the offseason trying to make upgrades at every single position and they didn’t forget about the safety room. It also includes veterans Chris Banjo, Shawn Williams, Charles Washington, Deionte Thompson (no relation), Jamal Carter and rookie James Wiggins.
“It’s a deep room with lots of competition,” Kingsbury said. “There are guys that have all played and played some meaningful time for us, so I’m anxious to see how the preseason plays out with that room.”
So long as Jalen Thompson can stay on the field, Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph don’t have any plans to make a change at starting string safety. The job belongs to Thompson.
“He’s been great,” Kingsbury said. “He’s a guy we took in the supplemental draft, so that first year he didn’t have an offseason. Didn’t have an offseason last year, either (because of the COVID-19 pandemic). And so this was really the first semblance of an offseason he’s had. The progress he’s made in a short amount of time has been impressive.”
Thompson said he’s been “grinding” to get back and prepare himself for the season. If the Cardinals expect to make any noise this year, he will play an important role in the defense making it happen.
“I feel real good this year,” he said. “Offseason training this year was a real plus for me. I got my ankle a lot stronger than it was last year and I just feel a lot better this year. I’ve been getting a lot of treatment as well, keeping up on it, so I feel pretty good.”
It helps Knowing Budda Baker is never too far away.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Thompson said. “Everybody knows that Budda is the guy. He’s been teaching us a lot, everyone in the secondary. For the most part, I’m just trying to go out there and do my part and just be me. But Budda is a great player and I feel we’re going to be good.”
Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch.
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