CHARLOTTE — Haason Reddick doesn't know if he's about to play his final game with the Panthers. He hopes he isn't, but as an unrestricted free agent in March, he knows nothing can be certain now.
But when he talked to reporters Wednesday, there was a tone of unfinished business from the Panthers' leading pass-rusher, not just because he fits in well here, but because he thinks this defense is on the cusp of something.
His 11.0 sacks this year made it his second straight double-digit sack season. He had 12.5 last year in Arizona, and over the last two seasons, only four players in the league have more sacks. That a follow-up year like that came in a new place as part of a young defense being put together on the fly — which improved to second in the league in total defense — made it more worthwhile.
"On a personal level, just happy to see me come here into a different system and still have the same kind of productivity I had last year," Reddick replied, when asked what he was most proud of this year. "Team-wise, just to see how being around, and seeing how some of these younger guys have grown, as far as maturity and the way they're starting to approach the game."
He wasn't around last week in New Orleans, as he fought through a bout of COVID-19 — "them first two days were rough days," he said. But from the vantage point of his home in Charlotte, he was impressed with how the Panthers defense played.
"We looked really, really, really good at times," he said. "Being at home and watching from the couch, I just couldn't wait to get back for this last game and get back with the guys. It looked like they were having fun, a lot of energy, and guys were flying all over the place. I was excited. It was like an extra incentive to get back on the field with these guys."
He pointed to plays like defensive tackle Derrick Brown chasing Saints running back Alvin Kamara downfield on a screen pass as evidence the team was both growing, and not giving up despite a 5-11 record.
"At the end of the day, it's a process, and guys have to understand what we're working towards," Reddick said. "We didn't hit that goal this year, but you know we've got next year. If we can keep the same pieces and get everybody to buy in, instead of taking time to buy in, if we can buy into the process earlier, and guys gelling, it makes for a better second year with the team being together."
Of course, his free agency means that second year is not a given, though pass-rush partner Brian Burns made his preferences clear.
"It would mean a lot (to have Reddick back)," Burns said. "I really don't even think, speaking from an edge point of view, I don't even think we scratched the surface of what we could have done this season.
"It would mean a lot. I think we could do something great. We've got a good amount of sacks together, and it would be great to see my dog come back. But it's a business, and I understand how things go, . . . But I'd love to have my dog back, for real, for real."
The pair combined for 20.0 sacks, 25 tackles for loss, 36 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles this year. And though having two smaller edge-rushers might have left the Panthers susceptible to the run at times, there are also benefits to having that kind of speed. The fact Reddick can play in somewhat of a traditional linebacker role at times also helps. Panthers head coach Matt Rhule noted that Reddick's flexibility gives them a chance to defend differently.
"Haason's physical; he's tough. He plays every snap, plays hard, and obviously, he gets to the quarterback," Rhule said. "I think his versatility of playing linebacker and defensive end steals you a roster spot. You can go into games; we're fortunate that we can go in with seven D-linemen because we're going to get a lot of nickel snaps out of Haason or Frankie Luvu. That provides a roster spot on game day a lot of teams don't have.
"He's a very versatile player, and has played well for us."
Of course, other people see that as well, and pass-rushers always have value. With the Panthers in a complicated spot this offseason — needing to restock their offensive line, while looking for long-term answers at quarterback, with Reddick and standout corners Donte Jackson and Stephon Gilmore headed to free agency — nothing is certain.
But Reddick's found a comfortable fit here, with the coaching staff which found the perfect role for him at Temple, and did the same here after his early years wandering in a metaphorical and literal desert.
"I've said before, I'd definitely love to be back," Reddick said. "I've received so much love from teammates, coaches, fan base, and I love it here. So I'd love to be back. So if all the cards fall that way, let's rock, Keep Pounding."
Carolina is 25-19 all-time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, posting a 13-10 record at home and 12-9 on the road.