Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis is entering his 10th season in the NFL, all with the Panthers.
He has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee three times, and rehabbed three times. Each time, the Panthers stuck with him.
After a record season in 2013, the Panthers picked up two option years on Davis’ contract and gave him a $5 million bonus.
Davis doesn’t take the show of loyalty lightly. Without the option, he said he would have retired.
“If I’m going to play football and represent an organization, it’s going to be with the team that stuck beside me and never gave up on me,” Davis, 31, said, staring straight into an Observer reporter’s eyes. “My mindset right now is, I’m going to play for the Carolina Panthers or I’m done playing football.”
February’s restructuring was the third time in four years the Panthers had renegotiated Davis’ deal because of injury and/or the team’s salary cap position.
Drafted 14th overall by the Panthers in 2005, Davis first tore his right ACL midway through the 2009 season. The second time was less than a year later, during non-contact drills in offseason workouts. He tore it for a third time in the second game of the 2011 season.
Davis said he didn’t consider retiring after the third tear, and after consulting with coach Ron Rivera and team owner Jerry Richardson, they decided a spot on the 2012 Panthers team would be there for Davis if he could rehabilitate. He is believed to be the first player in NFL history to return from three ACL tears to the same knee.
He logged 105 tackles in 2012, and 123 tackles and a career-high four sacks in 2013, when he was also the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November.
The Panthers picked up Davis’ two option years for $16.5 million while also saving $3 million in cap room by adding three voidable years (2016-2018).
“It was up to them to make the decision whether they wanted to keep me around,” Davis said. “And fortunately enough for me I played well enough for them to bring me back.”
Davis has looked different this offseason than in years past. The black knee brace that had clung to him in every practice for years is gone. Davis said he feels confident without it, and he wouldn’t have done it for the three-day minicamp without the OK from head trainer Ryan Vermillion.
He can change direction more smoothly, and said he doesn’t feel the limitations he did before.
In one minicamp practice, Davis had a bead on running back DeAngelo Williams. Williams broke through the line, and Davis came running from his left, almost guaranteeing a collision if the two were in pads.
“You better turn your head,” Davis told Williams.
“I saw you,” Williams retorted.
Even Rivera had to admit Davis looked faster without the brace.
“But I’d rather see him practice with it on. Thank you for reminding me,” Rivera said. “He’s going to get in trouble with me.
“It’s good to see him move around. Last year about this year he came up to me and said, ‘You know, coach, it was great to work on me and not work on my knee.’ That was good to hear.”
Davis will play for no one else. He has a comfortable life with his wife, Kelly, and their children. He also hosts annual events with his charity, the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation.
“My kids are growing up and I want to be at home with them,” Davis said. “This is the perfect situation for me now. We made this decision that Charlotte is our home and this is where we’re going to be.”
Though Davis went through strenuous rehabilitation for three years, Rivera is encouraged that Davis saved 39 games of wear and tear on his body. By Davis not playing those two-plus seasons, Rivera believes Davis can add them to the latter half of his career.
When he was told it was Panthers or no one for Davis, Rivera smiled and said he felt “very satisfied.”
“You try to build is loyalty and trust, and along the way you develop a relationship,” Rivera said. “You have to be honest and you have to stay with it. For the commitment T.D. has made to this team, I didn’t think it’d be right to cast him aside.
“And secondly, you always say if he ever comes back healthy and he’s right, he’s as good as it gets.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9