Shaq Thompson likely starting opener

CHARLOTTE – Rookie Shaq Thompson will likely start at strongside linebacker in Sunday's regular season opener against Jacksonville.

Head coach Ron Rivera said there is a chance that could change based on the formation the Jaguars open with, in which case A.J. Klein would step in.

"If they come out in a different personnel group, you could see A.J. go out there," Rivera said. "But as we look at it right now, it's going to be Shaq."

Carolina's first-round draft choice in the 2015 NFL Draft adds even more speed and athleticism to an already explosive group featuring Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.

Like all rookies, Thompson – who missed some training camp practices and the preseason opener with a hamstring injury – needs a lot more game experience before he'll feel completely comfortable.

But the Panthers are prepared to live with the growing pains.

"You always want more reps – even if he had taken all the reps from the spring until now, you are always going to want more from just an experience standpoint," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "He and I talked about that. He's going to make mistakes and that's all part of the learning process. But it's important that he plays fast. Good things happen when you play fast. It's a work in progress, but he's done an admirable job to this point."

Thompson is eager to show he can be counted on.

"I want to gain my teammates' respect – that's the biggest thing," Thompson said. "I have to go out there and earn it."

Klein, a third-year linebacker known for his strength against the run, knows he will have opportunities to contribute.

"I want to be that third (linebacker) on the field, but I understand my role," Klein said. "We play a lot of nickel and I have my roles on special teams playing four phases. When my number is called to be on defense, I want to play up the standard and make plays. As a linebacker group, we are constantly competing against each other, which makes us better."

View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game at the Jaguars.

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