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Next man up at linebacker


CHARLOTTE - Linebacker Thomas Davis' pain could be someone else's gain – not that those in the running to replace Davis in the starting lineup would want it to be this way.

"I've been waiting in the wings for a chance, but unfortunately it comes with us losing one of our leaders on the team, which is completely devastating," linebacker Jason Williams said Davis suffered a season-ending injury one week after the same fate befell Jon Beason. "Thomas and Beas are the guys I've been looking up to since I got there. I hate to lose both of them because they're great playmakers for our defense.

"At the same time, that's the nature of the beast. Guys get hurt all the time, and it's up to me to be ready."

Veteran Omar Gaither replaced Davis when he left Sunday's game with what proved to be a third major knee injury in less than two years, but head coach Ron Rivera said that Jason Williams, Thomas Williams and Jordan Senn also would be considered for the role when the Panthers host Jacksonville on Sunday.

"On our current roster, somebody is going to have to step up," Rivera said Monday, before the Panthers claimed linebacker Jason Phillips off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens. "One of those four guys that has been in a backup role is going to have to step up and be ready, be prepared.

"We'll go through it. I don't want to jump to conclusions."

Gaither is by far the most experienced of the candidates. The Charlotte native, who played at Myers Park High School, spent his first five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. While Gaither has played in 69 NFL games, starting 36, the other three candidates have combined to play in 63 games with four starts.

Gaither said he already considers himself to be a team leader regardless of playing time, even this early into his first season on his hometown team.

"I don't think not playing means you don't have a leadership role," Gaither said. "Being a leader isn't something you're assigned. I feel like I've been in that position since I've been here.

"I've started 16 games at weakside, and I've pretty much played all three. I'm not sure what's going to happen as far as the rotation - we're all just waiting to see."

Jason Williams is the only one of the group to have previously started at linebacker for the Panthers. The Dallas Cowboys waived their 2009 third-round selection midway through last season, and the Panthers claimed him. Williams started two games before suffering a torn ACL that sidelined him for the final month of the season and limited him for much of training camp.


"I've been full-go since probably the third preseason game," Williams said. "The coaches saw enough in me last year to know what I'm capable of, so they've been patient knowing that sooner or later I'll be back to the shape I was last year. I'm ready now."

Thomas Williams wowed the Panthers with his play at middle linebacker in the preseason, when he led the team with 21 tackles. A fifth-round pick by Jacksonville in 2008 out of Southern California, Williams spent the final three games of last season with the Panthers after the Buffalo Bills waived him but didn't appear in a game.

"You always want to have depth, but you never want to see guys go down," Williams said. "That's a huge void, but we just have to continue to prepare, and the next guy has to be excited for his opportunity."

Senn's big opportunities to date have come on special teams. He has 21 special teams tackles since joining Carolina 10 games into the 2009 season and was credited with a forced fumble on a kickoff return last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.


Senn has played in 21 games with the Panthers and 17 with the Indianapolis Colts after they signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Portland State in 2008, but he's yet to start an NFL game.

The newest linebacker, Phillips, spent his rookie season in 2009 on injured reserve before contributing exclusively on special teams for the Ravens last year, recording six tackles and one forced fumble. Phillips started 50 games at middle linebacker for Texas Christian, and Baltimore drafted him in the fifth round after he became the first player in Mountain West Conference history to receive all-conference honors four times.

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