With the Carolina Panthers heading into their first preseason game, I thought it would be helpful to take a quick look at how the linebackers position is shaping up. The Panthers currently have nine linebackers on their roster and will keep only six or seven when it is all said and done.
The core of the group is unchanged from last season. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson make up what is perhaps the best group of starting linebackers in the entire NFC. I suspect Thompson’s role will only increase this season. Not only will he be spelling Thomas Davis when the Panthers are in the nickel package, but I also look for Thompson to play a bit of the “joker” position as he drops back into a safety role as the ball is snapped.
Two linebackers have made great strides and have elevated their game during Carolina Panthers training camp this year. David Mayo looks like he could be a starter on a good number of NFL teams. His role as Luke Kuechly’s backup is beneficial for the Panthers as well as himself. I suspect in a couple of years Mayo will jump ship for a starting role, as AJ Klein did. Who could blame him? But until then the Panthers get an excellent backup and a solid special teams player as well.
No one is talking about it yet, but Jeremy Cash is perhaps the most improved linebacker this year. Cash has gone from a fourth-string player at this time last year to getting a good amount of playing time with the first- and second-string defenses. I suspect that we will see him not only on special teams but also as needed in the defensive lineup. Should injuries occur to Davis or Thompson, Cash could quickly prove to be invaluable to the Carolina Panthers defense.
Jared Norris and Ben Jacobs are a couple of guys that have made the team primarily based on their special teams play. They are still firmly entrenched in those roles and haven’t slipped off the roster yet. Ron Rivera loves a known commodity, and these players are just that.
Zeke Bigger and Ben Boulware round out the list from the outside looking in. Neither have much of a chance of making the roster based on their play at linebacker. If either have any shot of wearing a Panthers jersey on Sundays, it will be on special teams. The next four preseason games are among the most important games of their entire lives. They will have 4 or 5 chances per game on special teams to impress the coaches enough to supplant Norris or Jacobs.