Carolina Panthers

Panthers analysis: Carolina’s big offseason question at linebacker is ... A.J. Klein?

Panthers' Dave Gettleman on disappointing 2016 season

The Carolina Panthers are not going away and will get the things that went wrong in the 2016 season corrected, Dave Gettleman said.
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The Carolina Panthers are not going away and will get the things that went wrong in the 2016 season corrected, Dave Gettleman said.

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said on Jan. 3 that the staff would spend two weeks analyzing the team, looking to avoid hasty, emotional decisions. The Observer will do the same, position by position. Up next: Linebackers.

Three things to know

▪  So long, Sean: The Panthers just lost their defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, to a head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills. Defensive backs coach Steve Wilks will take over that role, and he’ll continue to lean on the Panthers’ most solid defensive position – the linebackers.

▪  The gang’s all here: Veteran Thomas Davis has no plans to retire, and Carolina also will get back star Luke Kuechly after he missed the last six games – first in the concussion protocol, and then from a team decision to sit him for his long-term health.

▪  What next? This is a group that is one of the best in the NFL when healthy, and doesn’t display any immediate need for new talent. Instead, the team will focus on finding more ways to implement young backups such as Shaq Thompson, as well as possible late-round draft picks for special teams contributors.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly discusses lining up against Eagles running back DeMarco Murray, quarterback Sam Bradford, teammate A.J. Klein and Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin plus the legend of Luke.

On the roster

▪  Thomas Davis: He may be the “wise old head” of the defense, but Davis showed no signs of slowing down in 2016. He recorded 106 tackles and the first defensive touchdown of his 11-year NFL career. Where Davis might need a little help is in coverage, where near the end of the year he looked a bit off. Davis quelled retirement speculation and intends to play through at least the rest of his contract, which runs through 2017.

▪  Luke Kuechly: Possibly the most beloved of the Panthers, Kuechly had a scary moment in 2016 against New Orleans when he suffered a concussion serious enough to merit him being carted off the field. He was in the concussion protocol for three weeks, then was held out for the rest of the season for his long-term health. Kuechly is antsy to get back on the field and probably won’t miss a beat.

▪  Shaq Thompson: The Panthers staff is excited about Thompson, whose playing time gradually increased as the season progressed. While Carolina first used him mostly as a Buffalo nickel – a position designed to cover large receivers and tight ends – Thompson will also probably be rotated a bit in the middle to spell Kuechly next year, and will almost certainly rotate with Davis, who said he’d be happy to split reps. Davis went so far as to say “Shaq is the future of this team.” Thompson is skilled in coverage and adds physicality to the Panthers’ linebacker unit.

▪  Also: A.J. Klein struggled at first as the starter after Kuechly went down, especially in coverage (though that wasn’t entirely his fault). But he improved by the end of the season, and as a free agent will shop around to see where he might land a starting role. David Mayo is a serviceable backup and special teams contributor, and he had a stellar performance at Tampa Bay in the season finale. Jeremy Cash was an athletic hybrid safety/outside linebacker project and UDFA a year ago, but has since gained weight and continues to learn to play linebacker. Jared Norris will enter his second season after getting being up by the Panthers as an undrafted free agent out of Utah in 2016.

Free agent possibilities

▪  A.J. Klein: Klein will look for a place where he can be a starter, not a backup. But if the Panthers try to re-sign him, he has proven himself a reliable option and a good fit in general. A one-year deal might even be an option (although that’s only really beneficial to the Panthers) while Davis plays out the rest of his contract. If Klein can find peace in being a serviceable backup in Carolina, he might even go for a multiple year, low-money contract. But based on the way Mayo played in Week 17 against Tampa, Klein’s backup position with the Panthers might even be up for debate. It’s unlikely Klein is a priority free agent this offseason.

Carolina certainly won’t be spending money on a splashy name with the talent already on the roster. The most they would do, if Klein left, would be to sign another serviceable backup.

Draft possibilities

▪  T.J. Watt: Scouts love Watt’s versatility (he can play as an outside linebacker or inside linebacker) and football I.Q., and that’s part of the reason J.J. Watt’s younger brother declared for the draft a year early out of Wisconsin. On tape, Watt shows impressive burst and ability as an edge rusher. He recorded 14 1/2 tackles-for-loss and 10 1/2 sacks in 2016 and was also solid against the run. Still, linebacker is not an area of need – and Watt is projected to go in the mid-to-high rounds.

▪  Matt Milano: Imagine, two Boston College boys on the field at the same time – Doug Flutie would be so proud. That’s what the Panthers could get if late-round prospect Milano joined Kuechly, who just had his Boston College jersey retired. Milano is a little undersized for the NFL, at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, but he is scary-fast with a low 40-time clocked at 4.5 seconds. Milano thrives on the outside and, because he won’t get picked up early, could be a difference-maker on special teams late in the draft.

The bottom line

The continued development of the younger talent and its leadership under a new defensive coordinator and possibly a new position coach is the storyline to watch in 2017. If anything, the Panthers could add players with late-round picks who could factor in on special teams.

Other position analyses

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue