CHARLOTTE — The Panthers want to keep opponents guessing this year, and they also want to keep a few guys fresh, so they're going to need linebackers who can do more than one thing.
Jermaine Carter believes that he began proving that he can be one of those guys last year, and that he can be an important part of the defense in the future.
Carter made an impression on a new coaching staff which didn't know much about him, starting the final six games of the year. At first, that assignment was because of an injury to Tahir Whitehead, but Carter began to prove he was more than capable, playing solidly down the stretch and never giving the job back.
"Early in the season, they'd throw me in there, and I'd get a couple of reps and show them what I could do," Carter said. "But I feel like they fully trusted me Week 11 against the Lions when I got my first start, and we shut them out. From that point on, I felt like the job was mine to lose. That was my attitude about it.
"I felt like if I could get out there, then I could show what I was capable of out there, and I felt like I did that."
What Carter has proven mostly is that he's able to handle multiple responsibilities.
He's learned all three linebacker positions, which is the kind of thing you have to do when you're a late-round pick and you want to get on the field any way you can. But he also learned from one of the best, as he came into the league as a teammate of Luke Kuechly, and studied under the former defensive player of the year. Carter learned quickly from Kuechly that the work didn't stop when he left the stadium at the end of the day, and that he needed to watch film differently.
"The most important thing is studying during your off time, just doing things on your own, watching film when you're at home," Carter said. "Some things Luke taught me, I'd watch TV copies of other teams, pick up the verbiage they were saying, and he taught me so much of that; how to break down film by situations instead of just watching the whole game, like first down one day, third down another. Little things like that I learned from Luke, and I think it helped me a lot last year."
Of course, Carter had an idea what Kuechly was like before the Panthers drafted him in the fifth round in 2018, and he knew walking in the door that he had a chance to learn from one of the best.
"I mean, he's going to be a Hall of Famer; he's one of the best to ever play, so I definitely took advantage of it," Carter said. "When I was in college, I'd watch film of him to see how he played, and when I ended up getting drafted here, it was a dream come true.
"I was a football nerd. I love to play football, and learn about football, but when I was able to come here and play behind Luke, I wanted to learn as much as I could. Even last year, I'd still pick his brain on things; he'd help me out on things. But learning to watch film the right way was probably the biggest thing."
Now, Carter has a chance to put some of that knowledge to the test.
The Panthers signed veteran inside linebacker Denzel Perryman this offseason to go along with Shaq Thompson. Perryman's more of a classic two-down run-stopping linebacker, and Carter hopes his versatility gives him a chance to stay on the field. Head coach Matt Rhule also mentioned during minicamp that the hope was to keep the 27-year-old Thompson fresh this year, after he played 1,034 snaps of defense last season (97.4 percent of the team total) and 90 more plays of special teams.
Rhule said they were "very happy with Jermaine" and looked forward to using him as another of their mix-and-match parts on defense.
"From this time last year to now, he knows what to expect; he knows how to get guys lined up," Rhule said of Carter. "We have three guys there, in Denzel, Jermaine, and Shaq. We looked back at last year; Shaq played like 1,100 plays, rarely came off the field. And I'd like to get that number down, so he can play fast and play late in the year.
"Those three guys give us a lot of versatility, that we can play a lot of different packages and get a guy off the field and give him a little bit of a break."
For Carter, the job might be complex, but his view of it is a simple one.
"At this point, I'm just trying to prove to my teammates and coaches that I can go out there and be the one to lead the defense," he said. "I can play any linebacker position — Sam, Mike, or Will — and I just want to show that I'm capable of doing that."
View photos from Tuesday's minicamp practice at the Atrium Health practice fields.