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Shaq Thompson a luxury? Not if he can fill role for Carolina Panthers

mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Shaq Thompson was a second-round pick on the draft boards of most teams and on some he might have slipped to third.

So why did the Carolina Panthers invest their first-round pick on Thompson? They took him in the first round because if they had waited until the second he’d be gone.

But they weren’t supposed to draft Thompson in the first round. Somewhere linebackers are ranked, and teams aren’t supposed to deviate from the rankings. Penalties and criticism ensue.

Late Thursday night on ESPN somebody on the set called Thompson a “luxury pick.” Enough Pantherland residents borrowed the phrase Friday that luxury pick was in danger of becoming a cliché.

Choosing Thompson is not safe. The pick presupposes that when an opponent runs a two tight-end set next season, Thompson won’t have to leave the field. That is, a cornerback won’t have to rush out to save the defense. At 6-foot and 228 pounds, Thompson’s size will confer an advantage.

Imagine Luke Kuechly in the middle, Thomas Davis on one side and Thompson on the other. If Thompson can cover backs and, especially, tight ends, he creates options. If he can’t, well, um, there are always special teams.

The Panthers have a solid third linebacker in A.J. Klein. But Klein leaves the field on obvious passing downs.

Carolina did not spend the draft’s 25th pick on Thompson so he can play special teams and ease into the lineup. They drafted him to start.

Are the Panthers smarter than the other teams that envisioned Thompson as a second- or third-round pick?

It’s not about intelligence. It’s about how a player fits a team’s philosophy, a team’s identity and a team’s schemes.

New Orleans, for example, needs to better protect quarterback Drew Brees. To be effective, Brees has to be able to step up in the pocket. Last season he could not. So with the 13th pick in the 2015 NFL draft, the Saints selected 6-7, 316-pound Andrus Peat. Some teams might not have had Peat as high. One senses the Saints don’t care.

Thompson is considered a reach because he’s considered a man without a position. At Washington last season he played running back, safety and linebacker.

In high school he played quarterback and he punted (and sprinted and long jumped and was a baseball star).

I ask Thompson Friday if there’s a position in football he hasn’t played.

“Defensive line,” he says.

So you played offensive line? He played left guard.

Nobody in the NFL would play him at left guard or at running back, even though he averaged 7.5 yards per rush for Washington last season.

Most teams, however, would debate whether to play him at safety or linebacker. Baseball has utility infielders. Thompson would be a utility defender.

Carolina knew what Thompson was before it drafted him.

When the Panthers selected Thomas Davis in the first round of the 2005 draft, they knew he was fast and they knew he was athletic and they had no idea if he was a safety or a linebacker. While they experimented, Davis starred on special teams.

Carolina’s inability to find Davis a position worked against him because he had two roles to learn. Only when the Panthers realized he was a linebacker did his instincts begin to catch up with his athleticism. Those of us who watch him season by season, game by game and play by play still marvel – that he’s never played in a Pro Bowl.

To suggest that Thompson will be the next Davis is ludicrous. To suggest that he’s a worthy pick is not.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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