CHARLOTTE — The Panthers put a lot on Shaq Thompson last season, so they could attempt to get better on defense.
Now they've asked him to put a little more on, so he can be a better version of who he is.
The veteran linebacker has pushed through some recent injury issues, and continued to play ironman football last year, logging 1,031 snaps on defense (97 percent of the plays). That he was doing it at less than 100 percent health, and at a lighter weight than ideal, speaks to what they think of him as a player and a leader.
And as he surveys what's around him, the longest-tenured defensive player thinks this team is on the verge of something special.
"I think this defense could be great," Thompson said. "They added a lot of talent, from the offseason to the draft. Probably the best I've seen since I've been here. A lot of guys who can play ball, and a lot of guys who know and understand ball. And you can win with that, right.
"But our biggest thing is situational football, and not beating ourselves. Once we get that down, I figure we can be one of the top defenses."
Toward that end, Thompson has taken on something resembling a coaching role for this group. At the end of minicamp in June, head coach Matt Rhule put Thompson in charge of the defense, giving him the responsibility of calling timeouts and running his side of the ball when they went through game-specific drills.
But Thompson's leadership of the defense goes back before those last few days of the spring workouts. Defensive end Brian Burns said Thompson was the ringleader and recruiter of the offseason program for a lot of the players, encouraging as many as possible to show up when they weren't required to (and every player on defense did show up for at least a portion of the voluntary work). It's worth noting that in other places, veteran players were telling teammates not to show up for offseason programs, an NFLPA talking point which didn't catch on here.
"First of all, we haven't been winning these last couple of years," Thompson explained. "We've been on the up and down roller coaster. And last year solidified that we had eight games we could have won, and we were 0-8 on last-minute drives. And I know as a defense, we could have done more, created more sacks, created more turnovers to help the offense.
"And I wanted us, since we're a new team, to have that team camaraderie, to have that defensive camaraderie. The offense, you can mess up and have another down. The defense messes up, and it's either a big play or a touchdown. And I figure if we all know each other, get to know each other, and then you're not just out there with someone you just met, like last year. We had to play like that to save our butts.
"But this year, let's come together as a defense, let's be more than just playing as teammates, let's play for each other. Let's play as brothers. I play for Burns, Burns plays for Jeremy Chinn, Chinn plays for A.J. Bouye, AJ plays for Bravvion Roy. As long as guys play for each other, this defense is going to be immaculate."
That kind of leadership is something Thompson has grown into. He also played through some shoulder injuries that kept him from being the best version of himself. Now healthy, he was able to spend enough time in a weight room this year to add 10 pounds, after playing in the 225-pound range last year.
"If you look at Shaq right now, Shaq's added some weight," defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. "I asked him to this offseason, and he's done a terrific job.
"He looks terrific, and he's moving as well or better."
When Snow said that earlier this summer, it got some attention in the media, which Thompson found out one day while buying groceries.
"I was at Harris Teeter," Thompson said with a laugh. "And some guy walks up and like 'Shaq?' And I turned around and he said: 'You put on 10 pounds?' I'm like, what the hell, you don't talk to people like that. At least ask how I'm doing first.
"People don't really know, the last two years I was going through some stuff, shoulder wise, and I wasn't able to lift, I wasn't able to put on weight because I had to get surgeries," he continued. "I finally had a season where I was able to lift, and actually had a spring break, an offseason. So I put on about seven or eight pounds of muscle.
"They don't understand what we go through, what we put our bodies through. The mornings, the tiredness, the blood, sweat, and tears we go through."
Thompson had other reasons for wanting to push through. He was new to Rhule last year, so he was in a position of proving himself to a new staff which hadn't drafted him, and didn't have the same background with him.
"Going off my injury history, they probably didn't know if I could get through a whole season," Thompson said. "But I showed them my grit. I showed them my toughness. I showed them that I'm here to play. I finished the whole season, no injuries, so I showed them that I'm willing to play, and I'm trying to be the guy."
And he's not just the guy on the field. He's the guy who got all the other guys to show up. He's the guy who has become a mentor for a young defense, while still young himself at 27.
So if you see him in the store, be nice to him. He's earned that much.
Check out select photos of Shaq Thompson from production day.