Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. TD and Luuuuuke. Carolina Panthers fans have grown accustomed to hearing those two names together over the past half-decade due to the fact they have led their team in tackles the past six seasons and become one of the best linebacker duos in football. However, the beginning of 2018 season will be the first since 2011 that both Davis and Kuechly won’t be in the starting lineup. On April 6th, Davis announced that he had failed a drug test and would serve a four-game suspension this upcoming season. Luckily for the Panthers, linebacker is one of the few positions they are deep at thanks to their 2015 1st round pick Shaq Thompson. With Davis hinting at possible retirement after 2018, the time is now or never for Thompson to show Carolina – and the rest of the NFL – his worth.
Why Thomas Davis’ Suspension Comes at a Perfect Time for Shaq Thompson
During the Dave Gettleman era, the Panthers were notorious for taking the best player available in the first two rounds of the draft and 2015 was no different. Carolina selected Thompson 25th overall that year despite having both Kuechly and Davis on the roster. That move could pay huge dividends for them this year with Davis’ upcoming suspension.
Thompson has seen significant playing time in Carolina’s 4-3 or goal line fronts, but when the Panthers turn to their nickel package, he is the one that heads to the sidelines. As a rookie, Thompson played about 33 percent of the defensive snaps and finished the year with 48 tackles and one sack. He displayed great athleticism particularly in the passing game but was nowhere near beating out Davis for a starting position.
In 2016, Thompson received a bit more playing time due to injuries suffered by Kuechly. He finished the season with 54 tackles, five pass deflections, two fumble recoveries, one interception and one defensive touchdown. Thompson followed that up with an even more impressive 2017 recording 57 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. In the playoff game versus the New Orleans Saints, Thompson recorded eight tackles and helped contain the Saints prolific rushing duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to just 45 rushing yards.
While the numbers are nothing to write home about, Thompson has made vast improvements each year he has been with Carolina. Thompson became a prolific blitzer in 2017 recording 14 quarterback pressures, which ranked fourth among 4-3 outside linebackers and ranked third with a pass-rush productivity of 17.7 according to Pro Football Focus. The Panthers blitzed more than any other team last year and if they continue the trend in 2018, it will only add to Thompson’s value.
With Thompson’s value rising quickly, this might affect what the Panthers do come the weekend of the upcoming NFL Draft. Last off-season Carolina lost one of its more talented backups in linebacker A.J. Klein. Klein served in a similar role as Thompson and shined when given the opportunity which made him appealing to other teams when he was set to become a free agent. Klein signed a four-year/$24 million deal with the Saints that Carolina could not match. The Panthers exercised their fifth-year option on Thompson meaning he will not be a free agent until 2020, but the idea of Thompson leaving for more money in two years is very real. With Carolina’s tendency to draft the best player available, it wouldn’t be surprising if they drafted a linebacker as early as day two of the draft even if they still have bigger position needs.
The Panthers have said that Thompson was set to see an increase in playing time in 2018 prior to the announcement of Davis’ suspension. Now, Thompson will have more playing time than he could ask for and we will have to wait and see whether or not he can cash in on the opportunity and be the next great linebacker to play for – or leave – Carolina.