The Carolina Panthers’ linebacking corps has been considered among the league’s best the past couple of seasons, but the talented group is not without questions.
Chief among them is the health of All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has missed nine games the past two seasons because of concussions. Kuechly says he won’t change the way he plays – which is not a head-first style – and does not plan to be preoccupied with his history of head injuries.
But his position requires contact nearly every play – Kuechly has finished with more than 100 tackles in each of his five seasons – and the Panthers can only hope Kuechly doesn’t endure another concussion.
As for the veteran flanking Kuechly, Thomas Davis is entering the final year of his contract and wants an extension before the start of training camp. General manager Dave Gettleman has let other popular players leave, but it’s hard to imagine him doing that with one who means as much to the organization as Davis.
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It’s a little strange to list a first-round pick who’s played two seasons as a breakout candidate, but then again, Shaq Thompson has a couple of Pro Bowlers at his position. It’s time for the Panthers to get Thompson on the field more, which they say they’re going to do. As athletic and versatile as Thompson is, more reps almost certainly will result in more game-changing plays.
To be decided in camp
Based on past performance and his organized team activities/training camp reps, David Mayo appears to have locked down the No. 4 linebacker spot formerly held by A.J. Klein. That means the big training camp battle will be for the last one or two roster spots for linebackers. Jeremy Cash, Jared Norris and Ben Jacobs were all on the 53-man roster at the end of last season. But they’ll have to contend with ex-Clemson star Ben Boulware and former East Carolina linebacker Zeek Bigger.
Underdog to watch
Boulware is neither exceptionally big (6-1, 235) nor fast (4.85 in the 40 at Clemson’s pro day). But he is a confident leader who seems to be always around the ball. Boulware had seven sacks and six forced fumbles in two years as a Tigers starter.
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Bigger, who played at Ashbrook in Gastonia, signed as a free agent in May after sitting out last season when he went undrafted out of ECU. Bigger (6-2, 235) is a downhill run-stopper who had a career-high 17 tackles against North Carolina as a junior.
Three bold predictions
▪ Kuechly will stay healthy, finish with more than 150 tackles and be in the running for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
▪ Thompson will take advantage of his increased reps and have four interceptions – three more than he had in his first two seasons combined.
▪ Boulware will make the team and – along with Mayo – be a force on special teams.