NaJee the Nightmare Came Back with a Vengeance

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

NaJee Thompson can be a nightmare to block on special teams.

In Week 9, the backup corner consistently got down the field in a hurry, helping Minnesota’s defense to work with more favorable field position. No doubt, Thompson’s effort was easy to overlook since Josh Dobbs was busy re-establishing what’s possible with only a few days to prepare. But make no mistake: the UDFA special teams ace was instrumental in the victory.

NaJee Thompson, a Nightmare to Block, is a Menace as a Gunner

First, the basic statistics.

After being inactive for Week 7 and Week 8, Thompson got back into uniform for Minnesota. He did so while picking up 21 snaps on special teams, a career high for the rookie. He rewarded Matt Daniels & Co. by picking up a pair of tackles (again, a career high) while offering some strong pursuit on several other plays.

NFL: 2023 Season Player Headshots
NFL Minnesota Vikings cornerback NaJee Thompson

Coming into the season, the Vikings were insisting on ongoing competitive football because of the offense’s potential to become elite and the special teams’ potential to be very good (expectations were low for the defense but Brian Flores has been busy turning skeptics into believers). So far, those things haven’t fully occurred, but there have been glimpses.

Matt Daniels is getting his crew to hang in there. Ryan Wright has taken a step back and Greg Joseph has continued to battle inconsistency, but the Vikings’ special teams have by no means been terrible. Instead, there have been some poor mistakes here and there alongside some questionable kicking.

One wonders, though, if Thompson’s re-emergence can help make things look better. After all, a punter is going to love having a beast at gunner since the returner will have a more difficult time bringing the ball back for significant yardage.

Sep 10, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings punter Ryan Wright (14) punts the ball during the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

During the preseason, NaJee Thompson raised expectations from the fans due to some truly stellar efforts in punt coverage. Against both the Titans and Seahawks, Thompson showed what he’s capable of.

Consider Exhibit A:

And for your humble consideration, here is Exhibit B:

Folks, there’s simply no way of being a better gunner on these plays. In each instance, Thompson shut down the returner before there was ever a chance of picking up yards. Mr. Wright — a.k.a The Stallion — is always going to be pleased by that kind of effort and physicality.

Early on, Thompson didn’t always replicate the special teams brilliance. Making the jump to regular season football isn’t easy, so perhaps the expectations were a touch too high. Instead of immediately downing returners, Thompson sometimes overpursued and missed, leaving room on the field for the returner to do damage.

Consider, though, an excellent play against the Falcons. After the safety, Minnesota had to punt the ball on kickoff. Take a look at who makes the tackle and when contact occurs:

A couple things stand out in the video. Thompson — the one wearing yellow cleats and who is immediately to the left of the punter — almost immediately gets himself into the lead position. He gets down the field faster than any other Viking.

A blocker does get his mitts on Thompson but it doesn’t amount to very much. More of a yield sign rather than a stop sign as the young special teamer barely does a rolling stop, instead working through the intersection as if there was no hindrance. And then, of course, there’s the finish. He extends himself fully, using those long arms to trip up the Falcon.

The end result is a measly 5(ish) yards on the return, an outcome Matt Daniels and Kevin O’Connell will take every single time.

Vikings OTAs
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver K.J. Osborn (17) is congratulated by head coach Kevin O’Connell after scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants during the second quarter of a wild card game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the season, Daniels was outspoken about his desire to get NaJee Thompson to Minnesota. In fact, the special teams coordinator found out about Thompson a year before he became eligible to get into the NFL. According to Daniels, Thompson’s abilities in college translated to the NFL preseason, confirming the talent that had jumped off the tape.

Now, things didn’t necessarily begin perfectly during the regular season, but the rookie UDFA had a wonderful day at the office last Sunday, sparking optimism about what he’s capable of doing moving forward.

Next up are the New Orleans Saints, a team boasting an identical 5-4 record. The bevy of injuries means Minnesota is facing an uphill battle, so some stellar special teams will be a welcome boost for O’Connell and the Vikings more broadly.

Keep an eye on #11 with the yellow cleats.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.