Strongside Linebacker #1: Thomas Davis
It has been a struggle for Thomas Davis to get where he is today in his career as one of the top outside linebackers in the game. He has suffered three ACL tears since joining the Carolina Panthers but has become a leader on this defense.
This offseason has been a busy one for Davis who earned the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, announced the Panthers’ first round selection at the NFL Draft and drove the pace car at the Coca-Cola 600. The most important thing to happen for Davis this offseason was the fact that he signed a three-year contract extension to stay with the Panthers.
Since the stretch of injuries from 2009 to 2011, when he missed 39 out of a possible 48 games, he has proven to be very durable and missed only two games the past three years. Over that span he has made at least 100 tackles each season.
The consistency over that time frame has helped this defense stay in the Top 10. He is starting to get up there in age, 32 years old, however it doesn’t look like he will be slowing down anytime soon. The knee injuries over the three year span could end up being a positive because he won’t have the same mileage as some other linebackers.
Weakside Linebacker #1: Shaq Thompson
The Panther struggled at times to find a reliable third linebacker to line up with Luke Kuechly and Davis. At the start of the season the Panthers turned to Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein but both suffered injuries that forced them to miss time. Eventually, undrafted Adraius Glanton stepped into the role and finished the season as the starting linebacker.
This is why it made perfect sense when the Panthers drafted Shaq Thompson out of the University of Washington with their first round pick. In college he spent time at both linebacker and safety and prior to the NFL Draft there was some question about where he fits best in the next level.
The Panthers have made it clear that he will be playing outside linebacker for them and is expected to make this defense stronger and more versatile. They will no longer have to operate out of a nickel defense as much and instead can utilize their base 4-3 defense more often. Thompson’s coverage skills will allow him to spend more time on the field, specifically in passing situations.
Thompson’s learning curve may be a little longer because of the fact that he did not play outside linebacker full time in college. If he can prove he knows the position well enough in training camp, he should be the starter Week 1.
Outside Linebacker #2: A.J. Klein
The first linebacker off the bench would be A.J. Klein, who is entering his third season in the NFL and can step in on the strong or weakside. He has played in 30 games over the first two seasons and started eight games at weakside linebacker last year. He saw his season come to an end in Week 15 due to an ankle injury.
Klein is not a superstar by any means but has enough skills and knows this defense well enough that he could start for a long period of time if the need arises. He finished last year with 39 total tackles and two forced fumbles.
Outside Linebacker #3: Adarius Glanton
At the end of the season, the Panthers turned to undrafted rookie Adarius Glanton to step into the starting lineup to replace the injured Klein. He still has room to grow but certainly showed enough to believe that he can play at this level.
In limited action, he finished with 13 tackles but 11 of them came in the final two regular season games. He also had a forced fumble in Week 17 against the Atlanta Falcons, one that was recovered by Thomas Davis and returned inside the 10-yard line.
The playing time he got at the end of last year should help speed up the process for Glanton. The coaching staff should feel comfortable turning to Glanton if the need arises in 2015.
Outside Linebacker #4: Kevin Reddick
The Panthers signed Kevin Reddick to their practice squad about halfway through last season after he was waived by the San Diego Chargers. Riddick, a former UNC Tar Heel, started his career with the New Orleans Saints.
Reddick will have some work to do this training camp if he hopes to make the Panthers’ final 53-man roster. In addition to the players listed above, the team also has Jason Trusnik, who could step in at outside linebacker if the need arises.
There certainly could be a training camp battle between Glanton and Reddick for a spot on the roster. Right now Glanton has to have to the edge with the playing time he earned at the end of the season.
Brandon Croce is the Lead Publisher for PantherInsider.com. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonCroce.