CHARLOTTE, NC (Brendan Marks/Charlotte Observer) - When the Carolina Panthers drafted Shaq Thompson in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, he fell into about as favorable a situation as a budding young linebacker could hope for.
Learning from a pair of All-Pro's, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
And for the past three seasons, Thompson has done just that. The former Washington Huskies star has learned to hone his athleticism into a versatile role on this Panthers defense, slotting in at linebacker, safety and nickel packages when needed.
"I still learn from those guys. It's always a game of learning," Thompson told the Observer last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Even if I know something, it's still good to have it redrilled back into my head. I just love the way they practice."
That tenacity and teaching in practice has been on display during Carolina's organized team activities. Thompson flying around the field, Davis engaging in his usual trash-talking with quarterback Cam Newton — it's all been business as usual.
Except, it isn't.
For the first time since Thompson was drafted, the player affectionately known as TD won't be in the Panthers' opening day lineup. Instead he'll be suspended for Carolina's first four games this season, the last of his pro career, because he tested positive for one of the NFL's banned substances (which he says is an estrogen blocker).
For Thompson, Davis' suspension is twofold. One, it means he'll be assuming a larger role within the defense this year with Carolina's veteran leader sidelined. But it also will give Thompson, and Panthers fans, a potential look at the future. Say, for the 2019 season, when Davis said he won't be back at all.
"Unfortunately we're missing out on a great leader, but our whole motto is 'next man up,'" Thompson said. "That's what (coach Ron) Rivera has been preaching to us, and that's the biggest thing I've heard since I got to the Carolina Panthers — 'next man up.'
"I know TD has a lot of faith in me and believes I'm going to go out there and do it. It's four games for him, and when he gets back, then it's gonna be all three of us."
At the locker room clean-out following Carolina's wild-card loss to New Orleans in January, before Davis' retirement announcement, he said he would be taking a "reduced role" in 2018. That goes hand-in-hand with Thompson playing more, something he's earned after three seasons of growth and development within this defense.
Change not limited to field
It also goes right along with Thompson becoming more of a mentor. Now entering his fourth season, he's no longer one of the (relatively) younger guys in the linebacker corps. There are rookies Jermaine Carter and Andre Smith behind him, hoping they've fallen into as favorable a situation as he did.
Part of Davis' suspension will be about Thompson adjusting on the field. But part of it will also be about adjusting in the film room, the locker room, positional meetings — all the places Davis is so obviously and naturally a leader.
Now more of that responsibility falls to Thompson.
"They're all willing to learn, eager to learn. Ready to get in the playbook, and they're all smart. That's one thing about them," Thompson said of the new additions at linebacker. "All great rookies, and I can't wait for them boys to get to camp and see how they grind. Hopefully, they're on the team so they can see how the notches keep going up and up and up."
Turning up the intensity
For now though, OTAs aren't about turning up the intensity. They're about fundamentals, getting back into a routine. And getting some rust off, sure. Or as Thompson calls it ...
"Getting all the jitterbugs off," he said with a smile. "Get vacation and all that other stuff out of the way, and it's time to come and lock in and do what we do: play football."
The Panthers have just one more week of OTAs, then three days of minicamp in June, and then won't be organized all together again until they head to training camp in Spartanburg in July.
But for now, Thompson isn't thinking that far ahead. He's also not worrying.
Davis is here for the time being, and while he is, Thompson will continue picking his brain like he has the last three years.
"He's here for OTAs, he's here for camp," Thompson said. "When that time comes (for the suspension to begin), that time comes, but right now we're locked into OTAs and how to get each other better."
OK, but what about when that time does come?
Thompson smiles again.