CHARLOTTE – Rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson, on track to return from a knee injury this week, wanted to accomplish one thing in particular after the Panthers drafted him in the first round.
"I have to come in and earn the veterans' respect," Thompson said at his introductory press conference.
Has he achieved that goal?
"He has," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "He's done it by coming in and doing things the right way."
Thompson was drafted to play alongside two of the NFL's best linebackers in Davis and Luke Kuechly. That can be a little intimidating for a wide-eyed rookie.
But Davis and Kuechly don't ask for much – mainly a humble attitude and strong work ethic.
"That's my guy. I love Shaq," Kuechly said. "He doesn't talk a whole lot. He learned and he asked questions when he needed to. That's really all I needed. He understood he was a new guy and needed to earn respect."
Davis concurred with his fellow team captain.
"Shaq has asked questions, he's learned the defense and he's done everything that's been asked of him – not just by coaches but by us as players," Davis said. "He's eager to learn, and he's gotten so much better in understanding this defense and his role.
"That's what it's all about when you come in as a rookie – not thinking that you know everything."
Thompson, a starter since the season opener, was beginning to hit his stride when he suffered a knee injury on one of the final plays of Carolina's Week 6 victory at Seattle. The linebacker stormed downfield on kick coverage and took a helmet to the knee as he made the tackle.
After missing the next two games against the Eagles and Colts, Thompson returned to practice this week and is prepared to play Sunday against the Packers.
"Shaq took every rep he was supposed to and did some special teams stuff as well," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He really looks good out there. It's good to see."
Two of the happiest people to have Thompson back?
Kuechly and Davis.
"Shaq is physical and he brings energy, and that's fun to be around," Kuechly said. "He's done a great job. I'm glad he's back."