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Shaq Thompson understands he needs to lead in 2020

Shaq Thompson

CHARLOTTE — There's an expectation of leadership that surrounds Shaq Thompson.

The linebacker is entering his sixth pro season as a former first-round pick out of Washington. He signed a lucrative four-year contract extension late last season, with general manager Marty Hurney saying at the time that Thompson "fits the blueprint for what we want at the position." He's played with and learned from two of the best to ever do it at his position in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, picking up leadership tips from both.

It's no secret that the Panthers are in a transitional phase when it comes to leadership. Four of the five captains from the 2019 season are no longer with the organization — defensive tackle Kawann Short is the lone holdover

In years past, Thompson felt his place was behind those established leaders at his position. But the situation has changed.

Part of being a leader means raising the standard of performance. The Panthers' defense clearly was not good enough in 2019, allowing a league-high 31 rushing touchdowns and 5.2 yards per carry. Thompson expects those numbers to change in 2020.

"We've got a whole new standard. We've got a whole different coaching staff. So we're going to go with their standard, and we're going to play ball," Thompson said. "We can't talk about last year because that's a whole different staff and it's a whole different team. We've got new players, we've got some old players. But we can't dwell on how last year went. All we can do is fix this year."

So far, Thompson has liked what he's learned about coordinator Phil Snow's scheme.

"This defense allows a lot of athletic guys to be on the field and make plays and just play football," Thompson said. "I think Coach Snow's done a great job with just installing stuff like that, and we'll be ready to go."

There are new faces to aid in that improvement: an all-defensive, seven-man 2020 draft class. But it'll be up to veterans like Thompson and Short— suddenly the longest-tenured defenders on the roster — to bring along the young guys.

"He's a ball magnet, so he's going to be around the ball. Every highlight around here, every tape around here, you just see Shaq in the picture," Short said. "I think Shaq's one of those guys who, from year one to year (five) now, that's improved every year. And you see now that he's put himself in one of those top positions to be one of those dominant linebackers right now."

Thompson's effectiveness will be connected to his partnership with new middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead. While the two haven't practiced together yet, they've communicated throughout the offseason to establish chemistry.

"Wherever we found out that we picked him up, I actually asked for his number and just to try to build a relationship, and I think it just popped off right off the bat," Thompson said. "We know that the relationship has to happen quick and we know that we can do that.

Whitehead said last month he's excited to play alongside Thompson and wants to make Thompson feel like he has the freedom to make plays just as he has in the past.

"He's a great guy," Whitehead said. "He was one of the first ones when I signed, between him and (Christian) McCaffrey, to hit me up and welcome me to the team. And that was major for me. No matter if you're a vet or not, whenever you're going to a new place, you want to feel welcome."

The Panthers do have a young team getting ready to play in an unprecedented situation. But Thompson is betting with veteran leaders like himself, Carolina will be able to navigate through the obstacles by falling back on what they know.

"They've just got to know, and we've got to teach them, that the game's going to move fast," Thompson said. "But just settling down like, 'Man, it's just football, you've been playing football your whole life. Just go out there, play your game, play your technique, your assignment in the defense and you'll be alright.'"

View photos of Shaq Thompson from the 2019 season as he set a career high in tackles.

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