If there’s one position Carolina Panthers fans have been spoiled by (and based off their team’s mediocre history, they haven’t been spoiled by much) it’s the linebacker position.
And now . . . Shaq Thompson?
Well, maybe he’s not in that company quite yet. But where does he sit among the ranks of the NFC South’s best at linebacker?
There’s a difference between being “good” and being “just good.” And while Thompson has served well for the Panthers, he may fit in the latter of those two categories.
Expectations were relatively high for 2015’s 25th overall pick, even despite his questionable fit from the very start. His eye-opening athleticism, well-noted versatility and dogged approach were evident coming out of the University of Washington and often showed up in Thompson’s game at the next level.
Overall, he’s been a firm presence for Carolina and one of the league’s better off-ball backers. But, at least recently, there seems to be a ceiling he’s struggling to break past.
Thompson has lacked in coverage over the past two seasons, having now just come off a campaign where he allowed a 73.7 completion percentage on balls thrown his way. He hasn’t exactly been the dynamic game-changer he’s capable of being either, with just one interception and four forced fumbles in his six-year career.
2020 was particularly rough—perhaps his most disappointing year yet. Don’t count on another bummer for Thompson in 2021, though. With the defense around him taking shape and coming into its own, a little extra help and his flat-out undeniable talent could make for a fine bounce-back performance.
Like Thompson, Jones will be looking to bounce back from an underwhelming 2020. His excellent, even top-end, skills in pass coverage didn’t show up and he wasn’t the most reliable run stopper either, even on his own unit.
But, also like Thompson, a step in the right direction for his defense as a whole should make his job easier in 2021. Those improvements start with the rising Foyesade Oluokun, an exciting running mate in the middle of the group, and the hiring of defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who knows how to get the most out of his linebackers.
If that’s the case, prepare to witness a return to Pro Bowl form for Jones. His 11 career interceptions and five (yes, five) touchdowns in his five-year NFL tenure are just two black-and-white examples of his transformative ability. And even in that disappointing 2020, career-highs 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits show he can disrupt the pocket at a meaningful rate as well.
Davis was overlooked for the majority of his career, particularly when he suited up for the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns between 2012-2017. Fortunately, he’s gotten his due in New Orleans, where he’s helped lead and reshape one of the league’s most sturdy defenses.
The year before he arrived, the Saints ranked 17th in overall defense, having allowed 336.5 total yards per game. That ranking has improved with each year Davis has played there—as they finished 14th in 2018, 11th in 2019 and fourth in 2020.
Those numbers are partially thanks to the impressive performances Davis has put in. Over these past three seasons, he’s cleaned up with an average of 113.3 combined tackles with 21 pass deflections. His pressure as an off-ball backer is remarkable as well, as he’s totaled the second-most pressures from the spot since entering the league while eating on 13.0 sacks and 32 quarterback hits since 2018.
White may not be that dude on this list. Hell, he isn’t even that on his own team right now, as you’ll see in a bit. But that time is coming.
Some will tell you he’s already arrived there, as White’s freakish athleticism, utterly ridiculous speed and knack for busting up plays make him one the sport’s very top inside linebackers. He made that case too in 2020, with a monstrous 140 combined tackles, 9.0 sacks and 16 quarterback hits.
The 23-year-old also registered 15 tackles for a loss, positioning himself as the NFL’s leader in tackles for a loss or no gain (33, according to Pro Football Focus) since he entered as 2019’s fifth overall pick. There’s just so much to like about the budding star, who’s already a respected team captain and a Super Bowl champion.
There’s also just one guy that tops him at the spot, and he just so happens to play right next to him.
2020 was a culmination of sorts for David, who had spent much of his incredible playing days away from the spotlight. Tampa Bay had been mostly bad in his career, having failed to clinch a single playoff berth and finishing last in the division for six of his eight pro seasons prior.
But when the Bucs became actual contenders last year, a lot of fans were suddenly very aware of how damn good this man is.
He’s been an absolute pillar for the franchise, starting in each of his 137 games out of a possible 144 over nine campaigns. Over that ironman-esque span, which is especially impressive considering he’s an inside linebacker, David has averaged 125 combined tackles per season with 12 interceptions and 51 pass deflections.
There’s not one part of the position David does not excel in either, even as he hit 30 years old. Pro Football Focus graded him out as the seventh-best run defender and the seventh-best coverage man of all linebackers in 2020.
The middle of the field is his, as is the No. 1 spot on our list.