It was a bizarre case of symmetry. Future, past and present danced around each other on the NFL draft stage Thursday night as the Carolina Panthers made their first pick.
Thomas Davis was once a No. 1 pick of the Panthers himself – in 2005 out of Georgia. The Panthers took him without knowing exactly where he would play. Davis was a safety for a while, then found his niche as a standout linebacker.
And there was Davis, on the stage in honor of his selection as the 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year, announcing Washington’s Shaq Thompson as the Panthers’ first-round pick in 2015.
Thompson, like Davis was when he came out of college, is a bit of a mystery. Is Thompson really an every-down NFL linebacker? The Panthers want to think so.
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Some NFL teams had Thompson graded as a second-round pick, and that’s where Thompson was expecting to go, he said late Thursday night. He said he had heard he would be chosen anywhere from No. 20 to No. 55 and was pleasantly surprised he was taken so early.
Thompson also gained 456 yards rushing the ball for Washington in 2014, although that was his secondary position. He scored six times for Washington last season -- twice on offense and four times on defense. Some NFL teams, though, scouted him as a safety.
“He’s a unique football player, a lot like Thomas,” Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said. “But there is only one Thomas Davis.”
Ten years ago, I remember coach John Fox trying to figure out where to use Davis. It took awhile, and it may take awhile with Thompson, too.
But eventually, Davis may have just announced his own heir apparent -- a linebacker who, as Davis said on his very first press conference as a Panther, likes to “get to the ball with bad intentions.”
Thompson said he was “speechless” when talking briefly to Davis Thursday night. “Man of the Year?!” Thompson said. “That’s huge.”
Thompson won his own big award last season – the Paul Hornung award given to the nation’s most versatile player. But he’s not going to be playing any offense for Carolina. He’s there for defense, both because Davis isn’t going to last forever and because you can never have enough guys in the front seven who can knock somebody down on third-and-8.
“He prevents touchdowns, and he scores touchdowns,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said of Thompson. “Call me crazy, but I like that.”
This year, Davis can mentor Thompson and the two could start on either side of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Thompson would have to beat out A.J. Klein at weakside linebacker to do that. With his speed and coverage skills, Thompson could allow the Panthers to keep three linebackers on the field more often – Carolina often went with two in passing situations last year and added a fifth defensive back.
Gettleman said that, as the draft unfolded, the Panthers planned to take either Florida offensive tackle D.J. Humphries (who is from Charlotte) or Thompson with the 25th pick. When Arizona took Humphries at No. 24, that left Carolina with Thompson at 25 – Gettleman said the Panthers would have been “thrilled” with either one.
“We got a really good player, guys,” Gettleman said. “A really good player.”
Thompson is not a sure thing. Listed at 228 pounds, he sometimes played lighter and may need more bulk on his frame. But if the Panthers got a player anywhere near as Davis has been for the past decade, Thompson will be a bargain.
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