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Steve Wilks delivers a progress report on his defense

Posted May 16, 2017

Four months after his promotion, Panthers new defensive coordinator offers some updates.

t’s one of those good problems to have. 
In the two seasons since the Panthers used a first-round pick on linebacker Shaq Thompson, he’s played less than 50 percent of possible defensive snaps. That’s mostly because Thomas Davis refuses to give into Father Time. 
But now it’s time for Carolina’s new defensive coordinator to find solution – even if it includes continuing to plan for life without the heart and soul of the defense. 
“With Thomas Davis getting up there in age and years, we've got to cut down on his reps,” Steve Wilks said Monday. “So there will be times where Shaq is going to be in, and we're going to try to relieve Thomas to give him some rest.” 
Davis, who turned 34 in March, has averaged 107.8 tackles and 940.6 snaps in the five seasons since he returned from his third ACL tear. Last year, after recovering from an early-season hamstring injury, he was in for every defensive play over the Panthers’ final 11 games, finishing with a unit-high 1,009 snaps. 
Thompson, meanwhile, saw his snaps increase from 365 as a rookie to 534 in 2016. But that’s still not enough for a guy with his kind of potential. 
“We’ve got to create more packages for him, which we’ve talked about,” Wilks said. 
Toward the end of his sophomore season, the Panthers finally began putting more on Thompson’s plate, using the 23-year-old hybrid not just in traditional 4-3 sets or as a bigger nickel back, but also as a middle linebacker in place of Luke Kuechly
Still, even if the Panthers put Kuechly, Davis and Thompson on the field part-time and somewhat increase the latter’s playing time with different packages, Thompson’s path toward full-time snaps is blocked by Davis. And to make it possibly more complicated, Davis may want to keep playing even after his current contract expires at the end of this, his 13th season. 
So while it’s a good problem to have, it’s something that needs to be handled delicately. 
“Thomas is a team player,” he said, “and he understands the long season and the wear and tear on his body over the years. It's just a benefit for him.” 
More From Monday’s Conversation With Wilks
Butler’s Back
Like they did with Thompson, the Panthers kept their strengths strong last spring when they spent their top pick on a position no one would’ve labeled a need. But Vernon Butler’s first-year development wasn’t just slowed because he was behind defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei
A high-ankle sprain cost Butler five games, and he finished his rookie season with 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 225 snaps – only one more than Kyle Love, who was released in final cuts and then re-signed after Butler went down in Week 3. 
As they wrap up stage two of offseason workouts, players aren’t doing much more than conditioning and strength training. But if you could measure each nice thing Wilks said about his guys, his excitement for Butler would probably top the scale.  
“If you go out there and you watch him right now – as a matter of fact I had two clips this morning talking about him in front of the group – he is prideful right now. I mean, lights out,” Wilks said. “I’m very impressed with what he’s doing.” 
Cornerback Continuity 
Because it began by letting a Pro Bowl player leave, the Panthers’ cornerback reconstruction dominated much of last summer’s conversation. But that was nothing new for Wilks, who had to make over his secondary each year since coming to Carolina: 

CHARLOTTE – It’s one of those good problems to have. 

In the two seasons since the Panthers used a first-round pick on linebacker Shaq Thompson, he’s played less than 50 percent of possible defensive snaps. That’s mostly because Thomas Davis refuses to give into Father Time.

But now it’s time for Carolina’s new defensive coordinator to find a solution – even if it includes continuing to plan for life without the heart and soul of the defense. 

“With Thomas Davis getting up there in age and years, we've got to cut down on his reps,” Steve Wilks said Monday. “So there will be times where Shaq is going to be in, and we're going to try to relieve Thomas to give him some rest.” 

Davis, who turned 34 in March, has averaged 107.8 tackles and 940.6 snaps in the five seasons since he returned from his third ACL tear. Last year, after recovering from an early-season hamstring injury, he was in for every defensive play over the Panthers’ final 11 games, finishing with a unit-high 1,009 snaps. 

Thompson, meanwhile, saw his snaps increase from 365 as a rookie to 534 in 2016. But that’s still not enough for a guy with his kind of potential. 

“We’ve got to create more packages for him, which we’ve talked about,” Wilks said. 

Toward the end of his sophomore season, the Panthers finally began putting more on Thompson’s plate, using the 23-year-old hybrid not just in traditional 4-3 sets or as a bigger nickel back, but also as a middle linebacker in place of then sidelined Luke Kuechly. 

Still, even if the Panthers put Kuechly, Davis and Thompson on the field part-time and somewhat increase the latter’s playing time with different packages, Thompson’s path toward full-time snaps is blocked by Davis and a defense that more often than not uses just two linebackers. And to make it possibly more complicated, Davis may want to keep playing even after his current contract expires at the end of this, his 13th season. 

So while it’s a good problem to have, it’s something that needs to be handled delicately. 

“Thomas is a team player,” he said, “and he understands the long season and the wear and tear on his body over the years. It's just a benefit for him.” 

More From Monday’s Conversation With Wilks

Butler’s Back

Like they did with Thompson, the Panthers kept their strengths strong last spring when they spent their top pick on a position no one would’ve labeled a need. But Vernon Butler’s first-year development wasn’t just slowed because he was behind defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. 

A high ankle sprain cost Butler five games, and he finished his rookie season with 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 225 snaps – only one more than Kyle Love, who was released in final cuts and then re-signed after Butler went down in Week 3. 

As they wrap up stage two of offseason workouts, players aren’t doing much more than conditioning and strength training. But if you could measure each nice thing Wilks said about his guys, his excitement for Butler would probably top the scale.  

“If you go out there and you watch him right now – as a matter of fact I had two clips this morning talking about him in front of the group – he is prideful right now. I mean, lights out,” Wilks said. “I’m very impressed with what he’s doing.” 

Cornerback Continuity 

Because it began by letting a Pro Bowl player leave, the Panthers’ cornerback reconstruction dominated much of last summer’s conversation. But that was nothing new for Wilks, who had to make over his secondary each year since coming to Carolina:

So if James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are on the field for the first defensive play in San Francisco, it’ll be the first time the same outside corners started back-to-back season openers in Wilks’ six seasons. And right now, with Bradberry coming off a solid first year and Worley impressing coaches early in his second, that looks like a safe bet. 

“You can see the development and growth from where they were last year and where they are now,” Wilks said. “The biggest thing is we always talk about that freshman to sophomore leap, and that's what we're looking for this year in those guys.” 

It’s not that simple, of course. While Wilks believes Bradberry and Worley have the physical tools to keep improving, their biggest challenge in the months ahead is mental. 

“At times last year, they were a little hesitant. You can watch them on tape – they see certain things, but they're not really reacting as fast,” Wilks said. “I think you're going to see them playing a lot faster because they understand certain things to where now they can process it quicker.” 

Captain's Chance

To fend off complacency, Wilks won’t guarantee starting spots to Bradberry and Worley. Every corner on the roster will get a look on the outside, including the presumed starter in the slot. 

“That's one of the things I told Captain (Munnerlyn) when we got him: 'Yeah, you're going to be playing nickel, but I want you to compete outside as well,’” Wilks recalled. 

“The first couple of days we were out there on the field, he came up to me and said, 'Coach, you weren't telling me a story.' I said, 'No, I'm honest. I want you to compete on the outside.’”

Last Line of Defense

Because Wilks now has to peel himself away from spending entire practices with the secondary, he needs to trust others back there. Curtis Fuller, Richard Rodgers and Jeff Imamura are listed as the unit’s coaches, but in some respects, safeties Mike Adams and Kurt Coleman could share similar titles.

“You have to have an extension of your voice whenever the coaches aren't around,” Wilks said, “and Mike is bringing that element, along with Kurt.” 

Coleman, who Wilks confirmed is sliding back over to free safety, went into last season with by far the most experience in the secondary. But now his eight years pale in comparison to Adams’ 14. 

It’s fair to wonder, though, about depth behind the two vets. 

After cutting ties with Tre Boston two weeks ago, the Panthers’ backup safeties are Dean Marlowe, Colin Jones, L.J. McCray, Travell Dixon, Dezmen Southward and converted linebacker-turned-converted-back-to-safety Brian Blechen. Of that list’s six career starts, they all belong to Jones. 

“I'm not overly concerned,” Wilks said, before singling out McCray, who played 22 games with the 49ers from 2014-15. “I was telling coach Rivera - I'm sort of intrigued by him right now, just the way he's moving out there. 

“There's going to be some competition behind those two guys, but some guys are going to have to step up and be ready to play.”