There is a point in almost everyone’s career where the moment comes: The bosses start thinking about replacing you with a younger version of you.
For linebacker Chase Blackburn – whose Carolina Panthers host Buffalo in Carolina’s first exhibition Friday night – that time is close at hand.
Blackburn remains a starter on defense at the moment, but the Panthers also like linebacker A.J. Klein. Blackburn is in his 10th year; Klein is in his second. Inevitably, the switch will be made – maybe in a few weeks, maybe not until next year.
Yet there is Blackburn, practice after practice, slipping up behind Klein. Is he trying to trip him? No. He’s offering advice, making sure Klein is in the right position to make the right play.
Even though he’s not ready to go, Blackburn is grooming his own replacement.
“You are teammates first,” Blackburn said. “This is my 10th season, so I’ve been in training-camp battles and position battles. I’ve had draft picks come in behind me. And that’s just the way it is, it’s part of the NFL. But when we get on the sideline, I’m going to teach him everything I can. I’m going to go through the defense because I want our team to be the best. ... If he’s going to be the guy, he needs to be ready.”
At 31, Blackburn has had a fine career for a player who began his NFL life as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Akron. He once intercepted Tom Brady in a Super Bowl, helping his New York Giants to victory. He has always been a valuable special-teamer – that skill got him into the league in 2005 and has helped keep him there since.
He played in 13 games and started seven for Carolina in 2013, missing some time with a nagging foot injury that really didn’t feel right for a lot of this past offseason, either. Now it has finally healed.
Blackburn is the relatively unknown linebacker on the field compared to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Those two are faster and play on obvious passing downs, too, while Blackburn always comes out in favor of another defensive back.
While some 10-year veterans ask for and are granted “veteran” days – meaning they skip a training-camp practice even though they are not hurt – Blackburn has made a point of not doing that in this training camp.
“You look at guys who have been in the league for awhile, they start to take days off or get a vet day,” Blackburn said. “I’m not doing any of that. I’m getting every rep I can.”
This is partly due to work ethic and self-preservation. Blackburn knows Klein is breathing down his neck. “When you get to the sort of situation with me and A.J., every rep matters,” Blackburn said.
On Friday night, Blackburn will take the first exhibition a lot more seriously than many 10-year NFL veterans do. He wants to show his foot is fine. He wants to cause a turnover.
“I want to play downhill in the run game this year,” Blackburn said, “and create some turnovers by punching at the ball. I didn’t get any turnovers last year. A couple of years ago [with the Giants in 2012] I had a bunch of turnovers, forced fumbles, things like that. That sort of thing helps our team.”
And that’s what Blackburn seems to be about – helping the team, even if it ultimately does not help his own career.