Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson isn’t mincing words about his future.
Thompson is in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. He’s eligible to sign a new deal either before or after this season. But when asked by the Observer if he’d like to remain in Charlotte long-term, he was unequivocal.
“Yeah, this is a place I’ve been for five years,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to know any other place.”
Given Thompson’s still-increasing role in Carolina’s defense, the feeling is mutual, according to coach Ron Rivera. Rivera said on the final day of minicamp in June that he hoped both Thompson and cornerback James Bradberry, who is also in a contract year, would be Panthers long-term.
“Those are young guys that you do most certainly want to have around because they are going to impact your team for years to come,” Rivera said. “They’re both, I think, at the point where they’re ready to take the next step, which is very important in our development as a football team.”
An opportunity, temporarily
When the Panthers first selected Thompson in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, they had hopes he could hone his athleticism under Pro Bowlers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. That meant fewer snaps his first few seasons while he developed a deeper understanding of Carolina’s defensive scheme.
And then, during the spring of 2018, Davis was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, giving Thompson a four-game window to prove himself in a larger role. Weeks after Davis’ suspension was levied, the team picked up the fifth-year option on Thompson’s contract.
Thompson promptly responded with 22 tackles in the first four games of the year, more than he’d accrued through four games in any other season, and by playing 100 percent of the defensive snap counts.
But when Davis returned, Thompson returned to his hybrid role. He still played some linebacker, but also lined up in the team’s “big nickel” package and occasionally at safety.
That versatility was valuable, but his snap counts never rose about 67 percent in any one game for the remainder of the season. Still, Thompson tied Davis for second on the team in tackles with 79.
Now with Davis in San Diego, Thompson has a clear path to making a larger impact. And given his pending contract situation, that opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time.
‘We’ve just got to put it together’
One other factor working in Thompson’s favor entering training camp is the team’s new defensive philosophy.
In years past, the Panthers have primarily played a base 4-3 defense, with four down linemen and three linebackers. But this offseason, the team has incorporated more 3-4 concepts, with three down linemen and four standing linebackers/edge rushers. While those outsider rushers, players like Mario Addison and first-round pick Brian Burns, will pressure the quarterback, Thompson and Kuechly will be manning the interior of the Panthers’ defense. And while that transition was somewhat confusing at first, Thompson said the spring workouts helped eliminate some of the initial kinks.
“We’re all used to 4-3, but we’re getting adjusted to this 3-4,” Thompson said. “I like it. It’s just knowing where to line up and how things fit a little bit differently with the front and all that.
“It was a little different, but now since we’ve been doing it, seeing it on paper, seeing it on film, it’s a lot easier.”
Rivera reiterated that Thompson’s skill set is a strong fit in the team’s 3-4 plays.
“One of the things we’ve seen in his development over the last couple of years is his versatility,” Rivera said. “Everything from having him line up in the nickel position covering receivers to doing some safety work for us, which you guys didn’t catch, which is good.”
None of this is to say Thompson can’t still improve. He struggled significantly in pass coverage at times last season, especially defending quicker and small players in the slot. Nor is he the near-automatic tackler that Kuechly is. For all his speed and versatility, he’ll need to improve in both areas to earn Carolina’s long-term trust.
But Thompson said he isn’t worried about his contract status now, as he prepares for training camp later in July.
The foundation he lays in Spartanburg, though, will go a long way toward preparing him for this season — and in turn, preparing him for a long-term future in Charlotte.
“I mean, it sounds good on paper,” Thompson said of Carolina’s defensive potential this season. “It’s a lot, but we’ve just got to put it together.”