When linebacker Thomas Davis went down with a knee injury over the summer, there was a fear that the Carolina defense could follow.
The injury started a merry-go-round at the position. Defensive leader Jon Beason slid from the middle to Davis' spot on the weak side, while Dan Connor and James Anderson – a pair of former third-round picks who were expected to compete for one starting spot – both stepped into full-time roles.
With substantial changes already along the defensive line, it did not appear to be a recipe for success. Then again, things are not always as they appear.
After a bumpy start at the New York Giants, the Panthers defense is progressing steadily, thanks in large part to the contributions of the team's trio of linebackers. While each is playing at a similarly high level, the three are very different.
Beason has a strong football pedigree. A first-round draft choice who has become a Pro Bowl player, he makes tackles the way Warren Buffett makes money. Beason already has 533 career tackles, third best in team history behind Mike Rucker's 553. Rucker played nine years. Beason has played three years and four games.
His physical gifts are rivaled only by his selfless attitude and competitive nature. A fixture at middle linebacker, Jon moved to put Connor in the middle, where he is best suited. Normally, the switch would impact the tackle totals, but Beason's production has been anything but normal: He has still averaged a relentless 11 tackles per game this season.
Connor seemed heir to a different kind football royalty coming out of Penn State. Predicted to go in the first round of the 2008 draft, he went into a surprising freefall that did not end until he was chosen by the Panthers in the third round. A knee injury suffered as a rookie put his career on hold, but he made the most of limited opportunities last season.
Now Connor has moved into the starting role seamlessly, averaging nearly nine tackles a game. Though he will never be identified with track speed, he been all over the field, making plays behind the line of scrimmage and hurrying quarterback throws.
Unlike his more recognizable mates in the linebacker corps, Anderson is being noticed by many Panthers fans for the first time -- in his fifth year in the league.
Against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints last week, he posted a memorable single-game performance with two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a sack to go along with 15 tackles. With play like that, Anderson is sure to shed the relative anonymity of the reserve duties he held earlier in his career.
Unfortunately, the sterling play of the Carolina linebacking corps has gone largely unnoticed in a season that has not produced any wins.
However, with an average age of 25 years for the group and an eager Davis working hard to get back on the field, the attention still has time to catch up with their play.