Perhaps because he also played running back and defensive back at Washington, Carolina Panthers rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson has sometimes been called a finesse player.
Phooey on that, Thompson replies.
“I might not be the biggest linebacker, but I can pack a punch,” Thompson said following Friday’s 17-16 preseason loss to the New England Patriots. “I’m not going down easily.”
Thompson made just two tackles Friday but they were both the teeth-rattling sort that grab fans’ attention. Each time Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw short passes and Thompson stepped up to slam Dion Lewis and Jonathan Krause to the ground.
The Panthers used their first-round pick, 25th overall, to select Thompson last spring, choosing to augment a strength, rather than address an area of need. The Panthers’ best unit is probably linebacker, built around stars Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Thompson isn’t particularly big for the position at 6-foot and 230 pounds. But he represents a trend in the NFL toward faster, more athletic linebackers.
Despite his missing part of the preseason with a hamstring injury – he sat out the first exhibition against the Buffalo Bills – the Panthers are fast-tracking Thompson’s development. He started exhibitions against the Miami Dolphins and the Patriots, playing ahead of veteran A.J. Klein.
Klein’s role this season will likely be subbing in at all three linebacker positions.
The third exhibition in an NFL preseason is typically most like a regular-season game. Thompson noticed the difference.
“Everything out there was going fast. I could tell that extra little notch was turned up on the Patriots’ side and our side,” Thompson said. “You’ve got to be like them and play fast.
“I’ve gotten a lot of help from the guys – Luke, A.J., Thomas Davis. They’re all supporting me, making sure I’m in the playbook and playing fast.”
Klein said one of the advantages of the Panthers’ linebacker unit is they stress communication. Thompson has helped himself by being assertive enough to seek advice, rather than just keep a low profile as a rookie.
“Shaq is a great learner. He’s come up to speed really quickly. It shows how high his football IQ is,” Klein said.
“The biggest thing is his asking questions. He’s not afraid to ask questions and that’s a very good thing. If you don’t ask those questions you never get the answers that you want.”
Klein is impressed but not surprised how quickly Thompson is having an impact as a rookie.
“His versatility,” Klein said of Thompson’s best attribute. “He’s very athletic so he can play on the outside, but also on the inside. He’s great in pass-coverage and he’s a quick-twitch player. He brings a lot of dynamics to this football team.
“I feel like he’s growing every single day. He has the drive to want to be great. He’s definitely taken off already.”
Thompson was encouraged by how well the defense did early in Friday’s game against star quarterback Tom Brady. New England’s first two possessions were 3-and-outs, followed by two interceptions of Brady passes.
“We were stopping them. We made the quarterback uncomfortable,” Thompson said. “Overall, I’d say we did great.
“Everything is starting to come easily now. I’ve got two games under my belt. I’m getting better and I’m keeping my nose in my playbook.”
And he’s changing perceptions.
“People say I was a safety. I never really played safety,” Thompson said. “My first two years (at Washington) I was an outside linebacker. I like the contact, I like the physicality of the game.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell