Assessing the Carolina Panthers’ status and needs, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. Next up: Linebackers
Three things to know
▪ It’s the end of an era. The Panthers have informed 14-year veteran linebacker Thomas Davis that they would not be renewing his contract in 2019. Davis anchored the second tier of the Panthers’ defense in 158 starts since 2002.
It has long been thought that once Davis retired or the Panthers moved on linebacker Shaq Thompson would step into his role. Thompson started the first four games of 2018 with Davis serving an NFL-mandated suspension, but was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury in Week 16.
The linebacker position has been so consistent in Carolina over the past several years behind Davis and Luke Kuechly that it feels strange to consider the types of changes the group will undergo now.
▪ Moving forward? Thompson is the type of versatile linebacker who can be used in creative blitz packages and can cover well. With him in a more featured role, the Panthers will likely show a lot of different looks in their front seven and continue to be fluid between 3-4 concepts against the pass and their more “traditional” 4-3 alignments against the run.
A different player will have to step up in the Panthers’ “big nickel” package with Thompson in a bigger linebacker role. That player could be safety Rashaan Gaulden, who had limited playing time as a rookie in 2018 but who was incredibly versatile in college.
▪ Luke Kuechly is still Luke Kuechly. While the defense struggled at times last season, Kuechly still anchored the unit and played well, especially near the end of the year. Kuechly earned All-Pro first-team honors and a 90.7 defensive rating from Pro Football Focus, with 130 tackles — an astounding 20 of which were for a loss.
However the defense adjusts without Davis in 2019, Kuechly will be expected to bring everybody up to speed accordingly as a defensive captain.
On the roster
▪ Luke Kuechly: Kuechly didn’t have to miss a game this year after missing 10 games in the previous three seasons while in the concussion protocol.
▪ Shaq Thompson. With all of the physical skills and mental dexterity to be a really great player for the Panthers, Thompson and has shown flashes for years. Thompson must improve his consistency — and getting more snaps will help with that in 2019.
▪ Jermaine Carter Jr. Carolina’s fifth-round pick out of Maryland in 2017, Carter got some opportunities early in his rookie season with Davis out, and later with Thompson on injured reserve. In training camp, Kuechly lauded Carter Jr.’s smarts. During the season, Carter Jr. showed athleticism and growth, and another year in an NFL weight room will continue to help his development.
▪ Also: Linebackers David Mayo, Jared Norris and Ben Jacobs are all in largely special teams roles for the Panthers, and all are also free agents this season (though Norris is restricted). Mayo and Jacobs were key figures on special teams in 2018 but Norris went on injured reserve with a calf injury in mid-October.
A promising up-and-comer on the roster is former UNC linebacker Andre Smith, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2017. Smith battle hamstring issues through training camp and parts of the season, but the Panthers like his potential and want to see what role he can play moving forward.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Mayo: He is not likely to demand a high-dollar contract, and has shown his value on special teams and as a depth player who knows Carolina’s scheme well.
▪ Jacobs: Another potential team-friendly contract, and Jacobs is a player-coach on special teams who can especially help coordinator Chase Blackburn after Blackburn’s assistant, Heath Farwell, was hired by the Buffalo Bills earlier this month.
▪ Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans: Also an option named in the defensive line position analysis, Clowney is a big, fast defensive end/linebacker hybrid who could be used in multiple facets — including in either 3-4 or 4-3 alignments. This would be a high-dollar contract, which may be unlikely considering the Panthers’ other needs. But Clowney fills the Panthers’ big need for a speedy pass-rusher and infuses built-in versatility at both defensive end and outside linebacker — two key traits, one big contract.
▪ Jachai Polite, Florida: Polite was also a player mentioned as a possibility in the defensive line analysis because he can do it all depending on the alignment. He’d be a great 3-4 linebacker in the NFL, with a 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame, and explosive, speedy pass-rush ability. He can also be a defensive end in a 4-3.
▪ Germaine Pratt, N.C. State: A long, physical converted safety, Pratt is a tackling machine — even when used more situationally before really breaking out in 2018. Pratt was named All-ACC first-team after averaging eight tackles per game in 2018 and racking up 10.5 for loss.
▪ Ben Burr-Kiven, Washington: Burr-Kiven is technically undersized for his position, but extremely explosive and aggressive. Could the Panthers see him in a big nickel/hybrid safety role, especially as they lean on the nickel so much on defense? The Panthers had lots of trouble against tight ends and in defending the middle of the field in 2018 and could use a player with his speed and tenacity there. Early projections don’t have him flying off draft boards in the opening rounds, so he could be worth a late pick.
The bottom line
Any free agent signings will probably be for special teams and depth roles unless there’s a complete scheme overhaul, and the Panthers also drafted two linebackers in 2017 in Carter Jr. and Smith.
But because they will not bring back Davis, it’s not crazy to wonder whether they look for a young replacement in the draft this year, too. As the Panthers look to counter speedy, creative offenses, linebacker will be one of the most crucial positions to re-stock with versatile players who fill those types of roles.
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @JourdanRodrigue