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2013 CAROLINA PANTHERS

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Normal and healthy is especially welcoming to Carolina Panthers’ Thomas Davis

Being – and staying – healthy bolsters outlook for Panthers linebacker

Like every summer, Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis has shown up at Bank of America Stadium nearly every day.

Unlike the past three offseasons, however, Davis no longer heads directly to the training room after getting to the stadium.

As he prepares for his ninth NFL season, Davis said he feels better than he has since 2009 when his right knee first gave out in New Orleans. It was the first of three ACL tears in less than a two-year span, making Davis a daily visitor to the training room and leaving his future very much in doubt.

But after a 2012 season void of any major injuries and a showing worthy of the Comeback Player of the Year Award in most years, Davis has relished strengthening his body this summer rather than rehabilitating it.

“It’s a world of difference walking into the weight room knowing that I don’t have to stop by the training room to find out what’s going on for the day,” Davis said last week. “I can go get dressed and walk right into the weight room, start my workout and then go run. It’s exciting times right now.”

These are exciting times for Davis and the Panthers’ defense, a top-10 unit last year that hopes to be better with the addition of rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short and the return of Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason from two injury-marred seasons.

Davis and Beason will flank middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, named the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 after becoming the first rookie to lead the league in tackles since San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis in 2007.

If everyone stays healthy, Panthers coach Ron Rivera – a former Chicago Bears linebacker – believes Carolina could have one of the league’s best linebacker units.

“I’m real excited about the speed of that group,” Rivera said recently. “I think those three linebackers, plus adding (free agent) Chase (Blackburn) and (rookie) A.J. Klein to the mix, and Jordan Senn, really gives us a formidable group. I’m pretty excited about watching these guys develop.”

After bringing Davis along slowly last preseason, Rivera watched the former Georgia safety continue to get stronger and post the second 100-tackle season of his career. Davis had 18 tackles in a Week 11 loss to Tampa Bay, which tied for the third-most in a single game in team history, and intercepted Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter to seal a Week 14 win against his home-state Atlanta Falcons.

The victory against Atlanta was the highlight of a late-season surge that pulled the Panthers to a second-place finish in the NFC South behind the Falcons. Though Carolina (7-9) missed the playoffs, the stretch of five wins in six games sent the players into the offseason on a positive note.

“This is the most excited I’ve been about going to training camp in the last four years,” Davis said last week at Bobcats president Fred Whitfield’s charity golf tournament. “Definitely looking forward to going down there (to Spartanburg) and re-connecting with everybody and starting out right.”

Davis, 30, who will shift to the strong side so Beason can play the weak side, thought the defense looked good during organized team activities and a three-day minicamp. After an appearance at the Charlotte Touchdown Club last month, Davis said the Panthers could finish as the league’s top-ranked defense in 2013.

He said last week he would have a better read after players arrive at Wofford next week.

“Once we put the pads on we’ll find out what the maturity level is like on this team, whether guys have been doing what they need to do in their down time,” he said. “And we’re going to find out how tough some guys are.”

Davis’ toughness has been well documented. He is believed to be the first player to come back and play a full season following three ACL surgeries on the same knee.

“There was a stretch during OTAs that we were careful with T.D. But the last week of OTAs he really stepped it up,” Rivera said. “So we cut him loose, and he’s been outstanding.”

Finally healthy, Davis made the most of his summer.

“I went (to the stadium) every day,” he said. “I’ve developed a routine and it’s all about making sure I stay as healthy as I possibly can. In order to do that, I know I have to work. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”

“I know a lot of guys are working,” he added. “But you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy that’s working harder than me right now.”

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