The quietest player in the linebackers’ corner of the Carolina Panthers locker room could very well be that group’s most important defensive weapon in the years to come.
Shaq Thompson won’t be Carolina’s starter in Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season, and he knows it. That’s still veteran Thomas Davis’ job, and rightfully so, Thompson says.
“Whether I’m in 20 plays, 30 plays, 40 plays, whatever it is, I’m going to make sure I make it count,” he said after Tuesday’s OTA session wrapped. “Right now he’s the starter, and I’m going to go in whenever my number is called.”
But in new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ scheme, Thompson’s combination of size and speed could make him a key against Carolina’s division rivals in the NFC South, where versatile offensive players are flooding in.
▪ The New Orleans Saints drafted pass-catching running back Alvin Kamara and signed speedy free agent receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
▪ The Tampa Bay Buccaneers added do-it-all athletic tight end O.J. Howard in the draft and shifty home-run-hitter receiver DeSean Jackson in free agency.
▪ The Atlanta Falcons proved their offensive potency during last year’s Super Bowl run, relying especially on pass-catching backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
▪ The Panthers kept pace, drafting running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey and receiver/running back Curtis Samuel, adding versatility to the offense.
As the NFL moves to the pass-heavy spread offense, borrowed from college football and juiced up with professional talent, everyone is searching for the same thing: Mismatches.
Big tight ends who can run routes in the slot and outside – and block, if needed – are in demand. So are pass-catching running backs and inside/outside receivers with speed.
Those kinds of players are matchup nightmares for defenses, particularly linebackers who are often slower than the hybrid player they must cover.
The Panthers call his position the “Buffalo nickel,” and in it Thompson, at 6-0, 230 pounds, is a linebacker-safety hybrid. He is there to cover mismatch players – most often in the past, these were big, fast tight ends running out of the slot – but with the ability to play a more traditional role if the call suddenly changes from a pass to a run.
Thompson has grown into that role with safety athleticism and linebacker size that has been touted since the former two-way Washington star was drafted by the Panthers 25th overall in 2015.
But because of where the NFC South is headed – pass-heavy schemes with dynamic pass-catching running backs and versatile tight ends – Thompson’s role will continue to evolve.
Think about it this way: If the Falcons align Freeman in the backfield, Carolina would set up to defend the run – in its 4-3 base with three linebackers on the field. Seeing this, Atlanta may change the play to a pass, possibly to Freeman himself out of the backfield.
That switch forces Carolina’s third linebacker to drop into coverage, probably matched up against Freeman (or a tight end). If that linebacker can’t keep up, he gets burned.
But what if that third linebacker is Thompson, who despite his large frame is capable of safety speed? The Panthers hope he can reduce, or eliminate, the mismatch.
Thompson will also help in more complicated personnel situations – such as two-back looks with two pass-catching backs. And he is a big-bodied coverage option against two-tight end systems.
“When you start talking about the flow of the game and the speed of the game, and moving personnel in and out, we’re still very comfortable right there being able to leave Shaq in the game,” Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said in a phone interview this week. “What feels like tough personnel to them, we feel like we can match up well. I think just from a scheme standpoint, it gives us that flexibility.”
In essense, Carolina will throw Thompson onto the field against anything. And that’s kind of the point: In the growing challenge defenses face to contain versatility, the Panthers’ biggest weapon could be Thompson’s versatility.