There’s less of Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Shaq Thompson this year, which might mean more of him on the field.
After the Panthers drafted him 28th overall in 2015, Thompson spent a sizable chunk of his first two seasons playing behind Pro Bowl linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
He tried gaining weight last season, thinking it would help him withstand the battles closer to the line of scrimmage. But the extra 10 to 12 pounds left the 6-foot Thompson feeling a little sluggish in coverage.
So Thompson dropped the weight during the offseason and believes his leaner frame is more suitable to the versatile skill set that convinced former GM Dave Gettleman to draft him in the first round.
“I’m moving a lot more and able to run with wide receivers,” Thompson said. “I just feel great.”
When most players arrive at training camp a few pounds lighter, they usually attribute it to clean eating, protein-rich meals or some other diet.
His weight loss-program?
“I starved myself,” he said. “I’d just eat twice a day.”
Thompson said he skipped breakfast most mornings during the offseason. When reminded that’s the most important meal of the day, Thompson said: “Hey, when you lose weight, it ain’t that important.”
Thompson insists getting on the field more is not important to him as he begins his third training camp. It’s hard to get too worked up about playing time when the other linebackers include a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a 34-year-old who’s come back with a vengeance from three ACL surgeries.
“I understand my role. My role is to go in when my number is called. That’s who I am and that’s what I do,” Thompson said following Saturday’s practice.
“I love (and) enjoy watching Thomas and Luke out there play. They fly around. They do it in practice. They do it in games,” he added. “I know when my number’s called I’ve got to go out there and be productive.”
Thompson started 10 games at strongside linebacker as a rookie during the 2015 Super Bowl season, but took only 39 percent of the defensive snaps. His playing time increased last year when he made 12 starts and was in for 57 percent of the snaps on defense.
Thompson’s reps increased in part because of Kuechly’s concussion, which sidelined him for the final six games. Thompson said learning the responsibilities at middle linebacker, or Mike, helped his development.
“Knowing the Mike position you eventually learn the whole defense,” Thompson said. “It makes things much easier, just seeing formations and recognizing plays a lot faster.”
Thompson has been a multi-tasker since his days at Washington, where he played linebacker, safety, special teams and even took a few snaps at running back.
The Panthers have looked for ways to use Thompson, who’s had success playing “buffalo nickel,” a hybrid linebacker/safety designed to cover bigger receivers or tight ends.
Thompson’s biggest moment as the buffalo nickel came in the NFC title game two seasons ago, when he held Arizona wideout Larry Fitzgerald – who had caught eight passes for 176 yards in a divisional win against Green Bay the previous week – to only four receptions for 30 yards.
Thompson has had a couple of other big games. He scored his first touchdown on a fumble return against San Francisco last season, and posted 11-tackle games against Atlanta and New Orleans.
But Thompson’s production has been limited by his sporadic playing time – something Panthers coach Ron Rivera would like to change.
“I just think we have to look at opportunities and some things that we can do differently to put him in position to stay on the football field,” Rivera said. “He’s too productive a guy for us to rotate him on and off.”
Thompson believes he could play safety if called upon in a pinch, but was not advocating for a position switch. But one of the Panthers starting safeties – newly acquired Mike Adams – has been a fan of Thompson’s for a while.
“Even before I got here I liked watching Shaq. He’s a young fireball that just runs to the ball,” Adams said. “He’s athletic. And he’s one of those guys; he’s going to be in the league a long time and he’s going to be a great player.”