CHARLOTTE — For all the talk and hand-wringing about the players the Carolina Panthers lost during the offseason, there has been less attention given to one who remains.
And while Jon Beason might no longer line up in the middle of Panthers' defense, his coaches and teammates say the Pro Bowl linebacker remains that unit's heart.
With defensive end Julius Peppers now in Chicago and linebacker Thomas Davis injured, Beason is the clear leader of a defense that, based on the Panthers' preseason performance, could be the strength of the team.
The transition began last year when Beason, during an appearance on Charlotte radio station WFNZ, said he wanted to see more intensity from Peppers, the NFL's highest-paid player in 2009 at $16.7 million.
At the time of Beason's comments, Peppers had one sack for the 0-3 Panthers. Though the message seemed to motivate Peppers - he had six tackles, two sacks and two quarterback pressures in a 20-17 win against Washington the following Sunday - Beason said he should have kept the matter in-house.
"Sometimes what you say, people don't perceive it that way. It's definitely an issue I wish I could take back because I didn't want it to come across like that at all," Beason said this past week. "I definitely didn't want it to cause a problem. But nevertheless, it did, and that's something I learned from."
Beason said he was searching for answers to the Panthers' slow start, but should have gone to Peppers first before airing his feelings publicly.
"It wasn't a shot at Julius. It was just more so like, 'Hey, look, me and you, let's go out and let's do something extra. We're 0-3. We were 12-4 the year before. Basically, let's start with us first. Let's fix what we're doing and then hopefully guys will follow us.'
"Because we were the defensive captains," Beason said.
"I think before you do something or say something, you should bounce it off your other captains, especially if guys are older than you."
The Peppers situation and ensuing controversy was a lesson for Beason, whose evolution as a leader began when he was thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie.
After the Panthers drafted him out of Miami in the first round in 2007, Beason arrived in Charlotte expecting to spend a season learning the defense while hanging in the "back pocket" of starting middle linebacker Dan Morgan. But when Morgan tore his Achilles tendon in Week 3, Beason's grace period was over.
"Once Dan Morgan went down, things changed right away for me. There was a lot of pressure put on me," Beason said. "The veteran guys kind of helped me, and said, 'Look, you've got to become that leader and that vocal guy. ...'
"Now here we are again, going into my fourth year, we've lost so many guys I still look up to and admire. Now I'm in a situation where I have a bunch of young guys looking at me for answers and how to do things. And I just want to lead in the same path that those guys before me did."
Beason leads by his actions.
NFL practices are often less intense than college practices because of the grind of a 17-week schedule. But Davis, the Panthers linebacker, remembers Beason going through practice at full speed as a rookie.
"You have a guy like Jon Beason come in, and he's going 90 miles a minute," Davis said. "In order for you to at least look like a player on film while the guy's out there running, you've got to make sure you're matching his intensity."
Davis can still recall Beason's first exhibition against the New York Giants in 2007.
"He was everywhere. He was all over the place," Davis said. "Once you see a guy doing that, as an older guy, why can't you do it? So he definitely raised our level of play when he came in."
Beason's offseason workouts are just as intense.
Panthers defensive end Everette Brown, who trained at the same south Florida facility as Beason the past two years, would arrive around 8a.m. to find Beason wrapping up a workout that started at 6a.m.
But Beason wasn't finished.
"He would call me up in the afternoon and say, 'Hey, let's get a second one in. Let's go to this high school and work out with the high school guys,'" Brown said. "We'd go out there and do the same workout they do."
Beason also would stop by Miami, where he played from 2003 to 2006, and work out with the Hurricanes. Wherever Beason shows up - be it a high school or his old campus - friends say he wants to be the hardest-working guy in the weight room.
"He leads by example because he's going to try to outwork anyone who's working out with him," said Miami coach Randy Shannon, the school's defensive coordinator when Beason played there.
"He's going to get in the film room and study film until he finds out what he can get better at," Shannon added. "But also, he's going to be vocal about it. He's a very energetic guy. He's got a lot of charisma, plays the game with a lot of emotion and a lot of excitement.
"When you've got a guy that can lead in those three phases, the team can follow."
A move for the team
Beason was the Panthers' leading tackler in his first three seasons and broke his own team record last year when he finished with 169 tackles. With Pro Bowl appearances the past two seasons, Beason is considered one of the NFL's best middle linebackers.
But when Davis tore the ACL in his right knee a second time in June, Beason agreed to move to weakside linebacker to fill Davis' spot. That position lines up on the side opposite the tight end and has more coverage responsibilities. Coaches believed moving Beason gave them their strongest lineup with Dan Connor at middle linebacker.
Beason's willingness to change positions was not lost on Panthers defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
"Normally, a Pro Bowl-caliber player doesn't want to switch. But he was real receptive of it and hasn't complained about it," Meeks said. "And actually I think his game has escalated because he's taking on added responsibility."
Beason, who played the weakside at Miami, continues to call the defensive signals in the huddle. And he takes over for Connor when the Panthers bring in extra defensive backs on passing downs.
Beason said he has to be more disciplined at his new spot to not overreact and chase the play, allowing his side of the field to open up.
Davis predicts Beason will have a big year.
"I don't think it's going to slow him down one bit. It actually has me kind of worried about my job," Davis said, laughing.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning expects Beason to be more involved in the blitz packages in today's opener.
"He's still around the ball. He can really run. He (does) a little bit more dropping into the flats and covering a lot of ground," Manning said. "He'll get on the ball and rush the passer and has a great ability to do a speed rush also when they like to blitz him."
As one of the defensive captains (end Tyler Brayton is the other), Beason said he will do the things he's always done - show up to meetings and workouts on time, be accountable and pick his spots to address his teammates.
"Every once in a while you might say something that's heartfelt - not hot air," he said. "If it's too much of the rah-rah, I think guys don't respond to it."
At the end of a 10-minute interview, Beason made a point to defend management's decision not to re-sign Peppers and a number of other veterans on defense, which will send out six new starters today at New Meadowlands Stadium.
Carolina lost three-fourths of its defensive line, including Peppers. But the defense played well in the preseason, allowing an average of 206 yards in four exhibitions.
And the fact Beason is back - regardless of where he lines up - should quell some of the fans' concerns.
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