When the Panthers drafted Shaq Thompson in the first round last spring, the thought was the versatile University of Washington athlete would one day take over for Thomas Davis at outside linebacker.
But Thompson hopes that day doesn’t come Feb. 7 in the second quarter of Super Bowl 50.
Davis reiterated Thursday that that he plans to play against the Denver Broncos despite a broken arm, and he isn’t concerned about the risk of re-injury.
And while no one with the Panthers doubts the toughness of a player who has overcome three ACL surgeries, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has been working on a fallback plan in the event Davis doesn’t play or aggravates the injury at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
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And the fallback option is Thompson, the Panthers’ Swiss Army knife who isn’t ready to start the succession plan at weakside linebacker just yet.
“My mindset right now is TD’s not missing this game. I don’t want him to miss the game. He doesn’t want to miss the game,” Thompson said Thursday. “I know he’s going to finish the game, especially with the guy he is. He’s a tough guy all the way around. No one’s going to break him. The whole mindset is learn both positions just in case.”
Those positions are Will linebacker (Davis’ spot across from the weak side of the offense’s formation) and nickel back, where Thompson lined up primarily in the NFC Championship Game and harassed Cardinals slot receiver Larry Fitzgerald all night.
Thompson’s versatility is precisely why the Panthers used the 25th pick on him in last year’s draft.
Thompson played three positions at Washington – linebacker, safety and running back – and scored six touchdowns his final season (four on defense, two on offense).
Thompson’s fourth position was center field, where he played for the Gulf Coast affiliate of the Boston Red Sox in 2012. Luckily, Thompson can hit ball-carriers better than the curve: He struck out 37 times in 39 at-bats with a batting average of .000 in his lone summer of pro baseball.
Given his background, working at two spots with Davis out this week ought to be a breeze.
“They’re playing me a lot this week at the Will and nickel just in case,” Thompson said. “Like I said, I know (Davis) is going to play.”
Can Davis hold up?
The question is not necessarily if Davis plays, but whether his arm will hold up for the entirety of the Panthers’ second Super Bowl appearance.
Davis broke his right forearm in the first half of the NFC Championship Game victory over Arizona and had surgery Monday morning. Doctors inserted a plate in Davis’ arm, and he will wear a Kevlar brace against Denver on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.
“If I had concerns about hitting somebody or getting hit, I wouldn’t even take the field. It’s not even going to be something I think about one bit,” Davis said. “I’m going to go out there and play the game like I’ve always played it: fast, hard and aggressive. That’s the mindset. That’s what I have to do.”
Davis said the brace is similar to the one worn by Steve Smith after the former Panthers wide receiver broke his arm during a flag football game in 2010. Davis’ brace will be more streamlined than the bulky contraption worn by New England tight end Rob Gronkowski the past few seasons.
Still, Davis is one of the Panthers’ biggest hitters and it stands to reason his arm will be jarred at various points against the Broncos, whether it’s taking on a blocker or taking down a running back in the flat.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera was an NFL linebacker for nine seasons and won a Super Bowl with the Bears in 1985. Players still used forearm shivers when Rivera played, but that technique went the way of the drop-kick.
Davis was injured after ending up in an awkward spot when Arizona tight end Darren Fells jumped to avoid a tackle at the end of a catch, and Davis lifted his arm into him.
Rivera said most defensive players use their hands to shed blockers and make tackles.
“This was one of those things where (Davis) got into a funny position, an odd position, because the guy jumped,” Rivera said. “It was a tight end trying to make a play, trying to hurdle him. So he took a shot a little bit higher up than he normally would have.”
Limited in practice
Davis has been at practice the past two days, and participated in individual drills Thursday before heading into the training room before the start of team drills.
McDermott wants to be thorough and have Thompson ready to fill in if needed.
“Knowing Thomas, the one half of me is saying, ‘OK, relax Sean, he’s going to be there.’ The other half of me is saying, ‘Let’s make sure we’ve got all of our plans in place, and I’s dotted and T’s crossed so we’re not caught off guard,’” McDermott said. “And we’re doing that. (Linebackers coach) Al Holcomb’s done a good job this week.”
Thompson did a good job against Fitzgerald, who came to Charlotte on the heels of an eight-catch, 176-yard receiving performance in the Cardinals’ divisional-round win against Green Bay. But with Thompson knocking Fitzgerald off his routes, the perennial Pro Bowler finished with four catches for 30 yards, and he dropped two passes.
“I thought the biggest thing was he was physical in the slot for us against Larry Fitzgerald and I thought just did a wonderful job,” McDermott said. “To play in front of a future Hall-of-Famer and take him out of the game, I thought he did a nice job.”
His showing against Fitzgerald left Thompson feeling good about himself heading into the biggest game of the life. And whether he ends up playing alongside Davis or replacing him, Thompson says he’s ready.
“You’ve got to have confidence in yourself when you go on the field. If you don’t have confidence then you’re going to break down, and you’re going to be the one that sends your team home,” he said. “I have confidence.”