James Anderson has a unique perspective of a linebacker's role in the Panthers' defense, having seen it from all three positions. As a rookie in 2006, he played weakside linebacker and made two starts at strongside linebacker. The next season, Anderson worked on the weakside and strongside in addition to starting one game at middle linebacker. In 2008, he was a reserve weakside linebacker. Last year, Anderson served as the backup weakside linebacker before starting one game on the strongside and six on the weakside.
Entering his fifth NFL season, Anderson has finally settled in to a spot in the linebacking corps. During Carolina's post-draft minicamp and summer school sessions, he has lined up as the starting strongside linebacker. He said the time spent playing all three positions has been good preparation and that this defense fits him well.
"It feels good to know that you go out there with the first group and have a spot. But in our defense, we've got to have versatile backers, so I still play pretty much all three spots," Anderson said.
"This defense suits a backer who can run and hit. I fit that physically. Playing the (strongside) linebacker, that's a guy that has do all of the dirty work. He's got to be able to take on blockers. He's got to cover the tight end. I feel like I'm suited to do all those things. I'm a little bit bigger this year as well as faster, so it plays into what I do well."
Patience has played an important part in Anderson's career. When the Panthers selected him in the third round from Virginia Tech in 2006, two starting positions were up for grabs. Unrestricted free agent Na'il Diggs filled one, and Thomas Davis moved from safety to linebacker. In 2007, Carolina drafted Jon Beason, and those three formed the starting unit until now.
"It feels good to know that putting in the time, praying, working hard and waiting on it that your chance will come," Anderson said. "I am excited to be going into the season with the first group and fighting for that spot. Any time you can play with the first group, you're out there with guys who are more comfortable and you can build a bond together. Everything is faster because you are usually going against the first-team offense, so you are getting better looks."
Anderson gained valuable experience working with the first group at the end of last season after season-ending injuries to Davis and Landon Johnson. He started the last six games at weakside linebacker and responded by finishing the year ranked third on the team with 72 tackles. Anderson turned in perhaps his best performance as a pro in prime time on NBC Sunday Night Football versus Minnesota, posting 11 tackles and one sack and helping the defense limit the Vikings to season lows of seven points and 41 rushing yards.
"It was great. It helped build confidence," Anderson said. "Any time you can get out there and play a number of reps and know that they want you to be the guy, that gives you more confidence in yourself as well as confidence in the system and understanding your abilities versus the guys you play against."
That system was new last year as defensive coordinator Ron Meeks brought his defense to Carolina. And Anderson's six starts in 2009 gave him a chance to settle in. As a result, he feels comfortable with the defense and playing together with Beason and Davis.
"It's a lot of fun because those guys are fast and physical. When you've got three guys that can run and can hit, it's a lot of fun," Anderson said. "You can cause a lot of havoc and make a lot of things happen."
That is exactly what head coach John Fox wants from his linebackers, and he likes the growth he has seen in Anderson.
"He's done well. Last year with the injuries we had at linebacker, he had an opportunity to get a lot of playing time, both on the weakside and the strongside," said head coach John Fox. "James is a guy that has been dependable as far as knowing his playbook. He's gotten those reps and opportunities, so, hopefully, he can build on that."