CHARLOTTE — Halfway through a Pro Bowl-caliber season, one of the Carolina Panthers' most physical and important defensive players has been felled by a noncontact injury.
The Panthers announced Monday that outside linebacker Thomas Davis, the team's second-leading tackler, was out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Davis was injured early in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 30-20 loss to the Saints at New Orleans when his knee buckled as he planted his foot in the turf at the Superdome.
"I feel bad for the young man because he's put a lot into it," coach John Fox said. "He was playing at a high level. It's unfortunate. I feel bad for him and his family."
The leading candidate to replace Davis appears to be Landon Johnson, who started 53 games in four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and once for Davis this season.
Coaches also could turn to James Anderson or Dan Connor, a 2008 fourth-round pick and former Penn State All-American.
Johnson, who had 10 tackles in a 20-9 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Oct.25, said he was sad to hear about Davis' injury but that he would do his best to fill in if called upon.
"That's obviously big shoes to fill," Johnson said.
No matter who gets the job, the Panthers (3-5) won't be able to match Davis' speed and athleticism, which was on display Sunday as he and fellow linebacker Jon Beason clamped down on the Saints' high-powered offense.
"I haven't seen another one like him on any team I've played on or on another team - just flat out crazy talent, crazy athleticism," Carolina linebacker Na'il Diggs said of Davis.
Davis ranked second on the team in tackles with 63 heading into the game and unofficially had six more against the Saints, including two for losses. (The team's final tackle tally for the New Orleans game won't be available until later this week.)
Also this season, Davis had two sacks and an interception.
The injury occurred with 10 minutes, 40 seconds remaining on a 17-yard pass from Saints quarterback Drew Brees to Pierre Thomas.
Davis wasn't in on the tackle and wasn't near the end of the play.
Davis was in the final year of a five-year contract and appeared on the verge of a potential big payday if the Panthers followed their usual form of trying to tie up their core players with long-term extensions.
Normally, a five-year veteran at the end of his contract could become an unrestricted free agent, but that'll be the case for Davis only if the NFL and NFL Players Association settle the wide divide in their negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.
If no agreement is reached, the 2010 season will be an uncapped year and players will need six years to become an unrestricted free agent, thus making Davis a restricted free agent.
However, the Panthers still could try to sign him to a new contract if they're satisfied with his prospects for recovery.
"The good thing about it is he has been playing unbelievable," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said of Davis being in a contract year. "You have 32 teams watching that. I feel like if the Panthers want to bring him back, they're not going to hold [the injury] against him because he's really done a great job this year."
In part because of Davis' play, the Panthers' defense has come on strong in recent weeks and ranks ninth in the NFL.
Even without Davis, Diggs said he thinks Carolina can continue to improve.
"It is a big loss, but guys are going to have to step up and pick their game up," Diggs said. "I've seen lesser athletes play that position in this defense, and [they] did OK. They're not a Thomas, but they get the job done. That's what we've got to have."
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