CHARLOTTE – In the wake of Thomas Davis' four-game suspension, the attention naturally shifts to Shaq Thompson, who is a perfect example of untapped potential.
The 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker has all the physical traits necessary to be an elite, playmaking linebacker. But if you review Thompson's first three seasons since coming to Carolina as a first-round draft choice, you'll find his impact plays are few and far between.
Thompson has played 14 games every year with 36 combined starts. His tackle totals have increased from 50 to 56 to 61. He has three career sacks and one interception.
In short, he's been solid but unspectacular.
But the Panthers have always seemed sure of an impending breakthrough. Recall when Eric Washington was promoted to defensive coordinator and remarked that Thompson is "on the cusp of being a superstar."
The plan from the beginning was for Davis to pass the baton to Thompson, and coincidentally it was Davis who announced Thompson's arrival at the 2015 draft.
But Davis' play has made that transition a bit … complicated.
The presence of Davis, who has performed at a surprisingly consistent level as a 30-something linebacker, has sometimes made it difficult for Thompson to get on the field and stay there. Davis and perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly have formed arguably the best linebacker duo in the NFL, and when Carolina goes to a traditional nickel with three corners (which happens often), Thompson has been relegated to the sideline.
At other times, Thompson has been charged with the unenviable task of covering wide receivers as Carolina's "buffalo" nickel -- a job few linebackers are capable of.
To his credit, Thompson has never once complained publicly about his role. Instead, he's talked about how beneficial it's been to learn behind a Panthers legend.
It's essentially been a "good problem to have" for the Panthers.
And to Davis' credit, he's repeatedly said he's willing to make room for Thompson to grow.
"Shaq is the future of this football team, and I understand that," Davis said following the 2016 season. "It's all about allowing him to develop, and the only way he's going to be able to do that is getting reps and play in the game."
That said, Davis had 90 more snaps than Thompson and went to his third consecutive Pro Bowl in 2017.
After this past season concluded, Davis revealed that he was preparing to play fewer snaps as Thompson steps into a larger role in 2018, but as we've seen, that transition has been much easier said than done.
Well, the door has officially opened for Thompson – for four games at least. A suspended Davis is far from an ideal scenario for Carolina, but it clears the path for Thompson to finally prove himself in a true full-time position.
"Those are big shoes to fill," Thompson said Friday, hours before learning of Davis' suspension. "TD has made his mark on this franchise. But I'm ready. I'm ready to take on that role. Having TD's support is big. I know he has my back."
View photos of the linebackers in action during the 2017 season.