Carolina Panthers

Panthers position analysis: Will play of LB Shaq Thompson affect Thomas Davis' future?

Linebacker Shaq Thompson is entering his fourth season with the Carolina Panthers.
Linebacker Shaq Thompson is entering his fourth season with the Carolina Panthers. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

After first indicating this would be his final season, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis changed course in June when he said he’d be “very open” to the possibility of playing beyond 2018.

Davis’ immediate future is more certain: The 35-year-old franchise icon will miss the first four games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

But don’t weep for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and new linebackers coach Steve Russ, who inherits a deep group spearheaded by a perennial Pro Bowler that also includes a pair of draft picks.

Breakout candidate

Shaq Thompson has worn this label just about every year he’s been in the league, and this season is no different for the 2015 first-round pick. Thompson played a career-high 75 percent of the defensive snaps in 2017, an increase due in large part to former coordinator Steve Wilks’ reliance on Thompson in the “big nickel” spot.

Thompson has had decent production his first three seasons, but will be in a position to make more plays filling in for Davis at the weakside spot. Thompson’s performance the first month of the season will go a long way in determining both Davis’ immediate and long-term future.

To be decided in camp ...

All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly sat out team drills during OTAs and minicamp while recovering from labrum surgery on his left shoulder. Kuechly said he expects to be full-go at camp, but the coaches and trainers will be cautious with a player who had the same surgery on his right shoulder after the 2015 Super Bowl season.

With Davis’ looming suspension – he’s able to practice during the preseason – and Kuechly coming off surgery, first-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington and Russ will use the early part of camp to look at different personnel groupings.

Underdog to watch

Thirteen inside linebackers were drafted ahead of seventh-rounder Andre Smith, the former UNC standout whose final college season was cut short by a knee injury. The 6-foot, 240-pound Smith, a tackling machine at Chapel Hill before he was hurt, looks like the type of player who will stand out when the pads come on.

Also keep an eye on ...

David Mayo tends to get lost in the shuffle playing behind Kuechly. But – like Thompson – the fourth-year player also will benefit from Davis’ suspension. Mayo, who’s always been a big hitter, will play the strongside spot in Washington’s 4-3 base defense.

Three bold predictions

- Kuechly will stay relatively healthy and become the first player in team history with six Pro Bowl selections (in his seventh season).

- Davis will have a double-digit tackle game against Washington in his return from suspension, but he’ll share reps with Thompson later in the season.

- Thompson, who also played safety and running back in college, will have his first pick-six in a Week 7 game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Eagles.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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