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Shaq Thompson's role to grow in 2017?


CHARLOTTE – File this one under "a good problem to have."

As part of head coach Ron Rivera's review of the 2016 season, he'll look at how the Panthers used linebacker Shaq Thompson, and he'll look for ways to use him more in 2017.

Thompson said he got better as the season went on, no doubt in part because he got more playing time. With Luke Kuechly sidelined for the final six games of the season, Thompson naturally played more, getting the bulk of his additional snaps in Kuechly's middle linebacker spots in nickel situations.

"Especially with them putting me in Luke's position, that helped me understand the defense more as far as where everybody is supposed to be and what's going on in front of me," Thompson said. "I feel like I got better each and every game. It started off kind of rough, but towards the end I feel like I started picking it up, started to understand the game more."

Thompson matched a career-high with 11 tackles in the Panthers' next-to-last game, and in the finale he extended his streak of games with a quarterback pressure to four after not recording any in his first 10 games. In the first of his final four games, Thompson recorded his first career interception.

When Kuechly was out of action, putting Thompson in his spot in nickel situations – an alignment the Panthers aren't shy about using – was a no-brainer. But when Kuechly is in the lineup, we're talking about a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and unmatched tackling machine who leads all linebackers since 2012 with 12 interceptions.

So what about the other linebacker spot in nickel situations? Well, Thomas Davis is tied for second among linebackers with 10 interceptions since 2012.

"I'm not a selfish player. Whatever we can do to help this team win, I'm all for it," Davis told reporters when asked if he'd be willing to sacrifice snaps to get Thompson on the field more. "Shaq is the future of this football team, and I understand that. It's all about allowing him to develop, and the only way he's going to be able to do that is getting reps and play in the game.

"We'll just see what's going to happen moving forward."

Davis said he's seen Thompson improve with each passing game and that he's shown more leadership at a position already brimming with leaders. When the Panthers are in their base defense, no team in the league can claim a trio quite like Kuechly, Davis and Thompson.

But how will they look in nickel situations in 2017?

"The more he shows what he's capable of, the more the defensive coaches are willing to put on him," Rivera said of Thompson, who finished fifth on the team with 70 tackles. "He's done a nice job of handling all the responsibilities he's had."

View photos of the players as they pack up and head into the offseason.

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