You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Panthers organization, or in the Carolinas, who’s ready for Thomas Davis to stop playing.
The 33-year-old linebacker, who this season earned a second straight Pro Bowl invite, reaffirmed Thursday: “My plan is to finish out my contractual obligations.”
But Davis’ plan, which would take him through at least the 2017 season, puts the Panthers in a bit of a pickle.
When he’s out there, it’s tougher to find playing time for Shaq Thompson. And as the 2015 first-round pick has shown during the second half of his sophomore season, the more he plays, the more plays he makes.
“Shaq has gotten better each and every game he’s been able to play in. We couldn’t be more proud with the progress that he’s made,” Davis said. “He’s shown a lot of leadership out there when he’s on the field, and if you look at the way he was able to play in the Atlanta game, he did a tremendous job for us.”
Against the Falcons, A.J. Klein started in place of Luke Kuechly for a fifth straight game, but Thompson nearly doubled Klein’s playing time. It was the most Thompson had played since Week 6 when the Panthers’ spate of secondary injuries forced him to stay in the slot against the smaller and quicker Saints.
In 62 snaps against Atlanta, Thompson racked up a career-high 11 tackles and added a pass breakup. And many of those snaps put him at middle linebacker in the Panthers’ nickel package, a strategy coaches curiously didn’t use in the Week 12 loss at Oakland.
“He’s done a nice job handling all the responsibilities he’s had,” coach Ron Rivera said. “I think the more and more he shows us what he’s capable of, I think the more and more the defensive coaches are willing to put on him.”
Thompson, who doesn’t turn 23 until April, is actually well ahead of his playing-time percentage from his rookie year (53.9 percent vs. 39.2 percent). But Rivera admitted one of the goals this offseason will be to find how and where to get Thompson more reps.
“(We’re) not sure yet; we just have to find it,” Rivera said. “It’s something we’ve talked about already. As we continue to sit down and think about these things, which will happen next week as to what else we can do, we’ll try to find answers.”
Thompson, who missed two games with a knee injury midway through the season, has started 11 of the 13 games he’s played with the bulk of those starts placing him and Davis on the outside with Luke Kuechly in the middle. The playing time quandary comes when the Panthers go into a smaller nickel package. For that formation, Kuechly and Davis have remained on the field while Thompson exited for a cornerback.
So when the Panthers look ahead to 2017, they may run into the same roadblock they’ve faced the past two seasons. But for now, it seems like the most logical solution would be to take some snaps from Davis and give them to his heir apparent.
“I’m totally fine with it,” Davis said when asked about that possibility. “Shaq is the future of this football team and I understand that. It’s all about allowing him to develop, and the only way he’s going to be able to do that is getting reps and play in the game.
“I’m not a selfish player. Whatever we can do to help this team win, I’m all for it. We’ll just see what’s going to happen moving forward.”