Just like the humidity and luxury SUVs streaming into the parking lots, a sure sign the Carolina Panthers have arrived at Wofford College is a reporter asking linebacker Shaq Thompson if this will be the year he gets on the field more.
Thompson acknowledged Wednesday that “every year” that question gets asked at training camp.
But this year feels different, beginning with the fact that Thompson is seemingly guaranteed to see more action during Thomas Davis’ four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy.
But it’s more than that, according to Thompson, the first-round pick from Washington in 2015.
Beginning when he was in Seattle and at home in northern California during the offseason, Thompson kept noticing the number 54 — his jersey number — everywhere he looked.
“I ride by a car, I see 54. I look at a billboard, I see 54. I look at something (else) that says 54,” Thompson said. “So, I mean, that’s a sign in my eyes.”
What does it mean?
Thompson isn’t sure, but he’s hoping it signals a breakthrough for a versatile athlete whose playing time has increased each year he’s been in the league, climbing to a career-high 75 percent of the defensive snaps in 2017.
A new opportunity
Thompson didn’t want to discuss Davis’ suspension, saying: “What happened, happened, and we’re moving on from it.”
He also doesn’t want to take anything for granted, although the first four games represent an opportunity for a player who’s had the benefit — and misfortune, in terms of playing time — of joining a linebacker corps led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Kuechly and Davis have combined for six Pro Bowl bids during Thompson’s first three years in the league, and one of them has led the team in tackles in each of those three seasons.
Meanwhile, Thompson’s best showing team-wise was when he finished sixth in tackles in 2016.
But Thompson, the one-time minor league baseball player, says he’s not going to change his approach while sliding into his Davis’ weakside spot for at least the first month.
“It starts here. I’m still going to go out and compete against everybody because it’s a fair game,” Thompson said Wednesday after checking into the dorm at Wofford.
“It’s not my position. It’s not TD’s position. It’s not anybody’s position. It’s an open market for anybody to play that position. That’s my whole mindset right now and that’s what I’ll go into camp with.”
The Year of 54?
Thompson’s playing time percentage spiked last season in large part because former defensive coordinator Steve Wilks used him at nickel over Captain Munnerlyn, trying to get more size at that position.
But he should be in a position to make more plays while lining up closer to the action manning Davis’ spot.
Thompson, 24, has been considered Davis’ successor since former general manager Dave Gettleman drafted him 25th overall in ’15. With the 35-year-old Davis entering the final year of his contract, that transition seems likely to happen this offseason.
But Thompson says he’s still trying to take his game to the level of his two teammates, pointing to Kuechly’s ability to diagnose an opponent’s plays as an example.
And even after three years in the NFL, Thompson still will sit down next to Kuechly or Davis in the meeting room to try to learn something new.
“I ask questions that I even know the answer to, just to make sure I see it the same way (Kuechly) sees it. And just to make sure we’re on the same page,” Thompson said. “I do the same thing with TD or if I’m in with David (Mayo) or Ben (Jacobs) or something like that. I just want to make sure we all see it the same way.”
What Thompson keeps seeing this summer are signs that this could finally be his year. He’s not trying to figure out the mystery of all the 54 sightings; he’s just rolling with it.
“The crazy thing is I’ve just been seeing the number 54 everywhere,” he said. “My whole mindset is just the Year of 54. I’ve been seeing it everywhere.”