Mentoring is a tricky balance: You teach, advise, encourage, and eventually you get out of the way.
That is kind of what this Carolina Panthers training camp is about for linebacker Shaq Thompson. His mentor, Thomas Davis, is now a Los Angeles Charger. That leaves Thompson, entering his fifth NFL season, without a daily guide to his craft. But it also provides Thompson an unencumbered path to whatever he can be for the Panthers.
Thompson can no longer huddle with Davis at practice or in the locker room. That is not the same as being abandoned.
“I’m going to miss T.D. That’s my guy since I got here,” Thompson said after moving into the dorms at Wofford College on Wednesday. “I still talk to him, still get pointers from him.
“He’s always going to be in my heart; he’s my brother. But it’s business and you have to move on from it. T.D. knows — and we all know — he will be missed.”
Davis, 36, spent all 14 of his previous NFL seasons as a Panther, overcoming multiple knee injuries to assemble one of the most accomplished careers in Carolina history.
When the Panthers selected Thompson out of Washington 25th overall in 2015, it was intended to identify a successor to Davis. They are both superior in speed and quickness, having played other positions than linebacker at least part-time in college. Thompson always looked the part of Davis’ understudy for his versatility.
But even last season, with Davis aging, coaches defaulted to the veteran on the field. During the first four games of the 2018 season, when Davis served a suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance, Thompson got all the snaps. Once Davis returned, Thompson played about half the snaps.
That four-game stint when Davis was out was Thompson’s most productive in the NFL, when he totaled 22 tackles.
The circumstances are different for Thompson now, and not just for Davis’ departure. After years of primarily a 4-3 defensive scheme, the Panthers will be more diverse this season, employing a heavy dose of 3-4 alignment. Being more exotic in scheme could play to Thompson’s athletic versatility. That was already utilized somewhat, when either he or Davis was paired with Luke Kuechly as the only linebackers in five-defensive back coverages on obvious passing downs.
“Not that much different,” Thompson said of his first season in a 3-4 alignment. “At the end of the day, it’s just football. It’s the same defense, just a different front.”
This is also a big season for Thompson financially — the last on his rookie contract before he reaches unrestricted free-agency — so there could be no more lucrative time for him to shine.
“My focus is on my kids — providing for them,” Thompson said of his son and daughter. Thompson stayed in Charlotte throughout the offseason in part not to his disrupt daughter Kya’s progress in nursery school.
“Talking, walking, running. Just goofy,” Thompson said, glowing at describing Kya’s personality. “She is more like her mom — very goofy, outgoing and funny. My son is more like me — chill and relaxed.”
Chill is fine, so long as Thompson understands he’s no longer the understudy. Davis is 3,000 miles to the west; the Panthers chose Thompson when they released Davis. And coach Ron Rivera needs more.
“Shaq is a solid football player, he’s explosive, he has a lot of the characteristics that Thomas Davis has,” Rivera said. “He’s a guy who is really poised to take the next step.”