A case for Tyler Thigpen

I have a question for you guys: Name a first-year starting quarterback who accounted for more touchdowns than Super Bowl-winning veteran Ben Roethlisberger or standout rookies Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan last season? Here’s another one: Of all the players who ran the ball at least 50 times last season, who led the NFL in yards per carry?

OK, so the title of this blog makes the answer pretty much a dead giveaway. I think we all know who I’m talking about here (for the record, he averaged 6.2 yards per carry on 62 rushes). But I’m going to say it (read: type it): I like Tyler Thigpen. I’m not afraid to admit it, and I know some savvy NFL scouts/executives who value him, too.

I like Thigpen’s guts and competitiveness. I love his athleticism. I think he’s a playmaker who’s still quite raw (a 25-year-old who became a starter for a lame-duck staff last season, out of Coastal Carolina of all places) and has some warts but a ton of upside. He’s a kid who flashed some real talent, yet was surrounded by an Amy Winehouse-thin roster in Kansas City last season (having no defense and no running game did him no favors).

And it’s clear that the new Chiefs regime prefers Matt Cassel and Brodie Croyle to him — because Thigpen is being shopped — but if I’m running the average NFL team (which means I probably have 1.5 capable QBs on my roster, and, yeah I’m going to use a lot of parenthesis in this post), I’m making a play for this kid, even if it costs me more than a fifth-round draft pick (the current asking price).

So, let’s go back to the beginning here, a very good place to start.

Thigpen was thrust into duty after the Chiefs’ other quarterbacks went down with season-ending injuries. He ended up accounting for 22 touchdowns (18 passing, three rushing and one receiving) in just 11 starts for a 2-14 team that had some deep flaws. Roethlisberger, a $100 million QB, won a Super Bowl with help from the game’s best defense and accounted for 19 TDs (17 passing, two rushing) in 16 starts.

So Thigpen, as a second-year pro with no prior experience and a last-place roster around him, threw for 2,608 yards and 18 TDs with 12 interceptions in the first 11 starts of his career. And Roethlisberger, already fully polished and with a Super Bowl-quality roster around him, threw for 3,301 yards and 17 TDs with 15 interceptions in 16 games. Hmm, interesting. And Roethlisberger had as many turnovers as Thigpen did scores.

OK. In no way am I trying to say Thigpen is remotely the QB and playmaker that Big Ben is (nor could anyone expect him to be), but tell me this kid might not be worth a shot at being better than most teams’ current backup passer. (Personally, I think he’s a heck of a lot better than Croyle, for one, but I’m obviously not running any NFL teams). Hang with me here.

Ryan, the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, had the league’s best running game and a stout Falcons defense behind him, and he accounted for 17 total TDs in 16 starts. Flacco also was a first-round pick in 2008, started 16 games for a Ravens team with the league’s second-best defense and a robust running attack, and he accounted for 16 total TDs.

Let’s take it a little deeper. Well, Jason, you dope, the Chiefs stunk and Thigpen just put up a bunch of meaningless numbers while chasing teams in the second half of games, right?

Not so fast. The Chiefs either led entering the fourth quarter, led in the fourth quarter or were tied entering the fourth quarter in seven of Thigpen’s final 10 games. If anything, questionable play-calling, a horrid running game and an atrocious defense conspired against the young QB.

Overall, could Thigpen be better in the fourth quarter? Sure, he had a 62.0 rating and completed just 50 percent of his passes (four fourth-quarter TDs to four fourth-quarter interceptions isn’t that bad, though). This was a kid from a small school thrust into emergency starts with little coaching, and as we know, inexperienced passers tend to have issues late in games. Thigpen also was sacked 11 times on just 123 fourth-quarter pass attempts, so a suspect offensive line and lack of any sort of competent defense didn’t make things any easier on him.

Well, what about Thigpen completing just 55 percent of his passes and throwing 12 interceptions in just 14 games? Neither is ideal, no doubt. But let’s look at his offensive weapons. Dwayne Bowe and Devard Darling were his starting receivers. It wasn’t exactly the sure-hands crew. Besides having perennial Pro Bowl TE Tony Gonzalez, this kid was on his own.

As I said, Thigpen is raw and has some flaws, so coach him up (he was the first quarterback in Coastal Carolina history for goodness sake, with the program starting in 2003) and help him with film study and fundamentals. There is plenty to work with there.

This kid is incredibly fast — on his runs, he was almost never tackled by someone in the front seven. You can’t tell me he’s not one of the 64 best QBs out there, and given his skills and speed, he definitely could be someone who could help in the Wildcat. At 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, Thigpen can take a hit.

As for the interceptions, that’s pretty common with young QBs. And the first came in a mop-up role in his first appearance of 2008, and three more came in his first NFL start, against the eventual NFC South-champion Falcons, when you’d expect him to be nervous.

In the final 10 games, all starts, Thigpen threw 16 touchdown passes to eight interceptions. Not too shabby. And that’s far beyond anything the first-round bonus babies (JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn) from Thigpen’s draft class (2007) have accomplished.

Well, sure, those are decent numbers, but come on, the dude was in a shotgun most of the time and not a traditional offense.

Yep, the Chiefs, in desperation, got a bit gimmicky last season and spread things out. But a lot of teams are going more that route, and you guys tell me that Tom Brady (and last year, Cassel) and Flacco and Roethlisberger aren’t back there quite a bit, too.

Wow, I never thought I’d write this much about Tyler Thigpen, but, alas, it has happened. But how can you not like the kid? Never invited to the combine, seventh-round pick by the Vikings, claimed off waivers by the Chiefs in September 2007, tore his medial collateral ligament that rookie season and then ended up starting 11 games the next year when no one expected it, and, best as I can tell, did some pretty nice stuff.

And now, someone, if they’re smart, will meet the Chiefs’ price and trade for Thigpen. Sure, a third- or fourth-round pick is considerable, but when you look at what the kid has done, how valuable his position is and how few quality alternatives exist (let alone talented 25-year-olds), to me, a fourth-round pick is surely worth the shot.

The Jaguars have expressed the most interest to this point, and that’s one of several teams with a significant need for a backup QB. The Bills, Bears, Packers and Saints also have been closely monitoring the QB market. And people I talk to around the league don’t discount the Patriots making a move for a QB, too — particularly one who could provide a Wildcat element. The Ravens seriously considered trading for Thigpen before ultimately opting to sign Cleo Lemon a little while back, league sources said.

Some team will come away with a solid prospect in Thigpen, and frankly, I’m not quite sure why the Chiefs didn’t give him more of a look before locking in on Cassel.

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