The linebacker positions in a 4-3 defense have become a bit of an after thought for NFL general managers, but not so for the Panthers' Dave Gettleman. Gettleman has continued to add viable pieces to a linebacking corp that was already stacked prior to his arrival in 2013.
What's fascinating is behind arguably the best starting trio in the league (if I may be a bit presumptuous about rookie Shaq Thompson), the Panthers have solid, starting-quality depth. The best part is this second group of LBs are willing, if not spectacular special teams players as well. Everyone in that LB room will be earning their check, and that makes a strong room even stronger.
Let's examine the depth, and as per our position preview format, provide an educated guess at the likelihood of each player starting and/or making the team:
Chance of starting 100%.
What a treat it's been to have this guy as a Carolina Panther. Not to sound retrospective like we're at his retirement press conference, but when you look at what this guy has overcome to be who he is today, it's remarkable. It's not just his determination as a player, even more it's his dedication to the Charlotte community and the rest of the Carolinas.
No doubt the 2014 Walter Peyton Man of the Year will look to further cement his legacy with some serious winning now that he can see the light at the end. The scary thing is, even after a decade in the league and three ACL reconstructions, TD his still very much in his prime -- if not getting better. Expect 2015 to be one of his best seasons yet.
Chance of starting: 100%.
I wanted to put a veteran first (as the order of appearance in this list is a rough depth chart), but you have to be realistic here... Thompson was drafted to be a starter from day one. The sneaky good athlete with great football instincts comes to the Panthers at a time when they aren't necessarily hurting for options at LB. That should tell you how highly the Panthers brass thinks of Shaq.
His story begins much like Thomas Davis' did a decade ago... A college safety/rover type who is a bit undersized for a 4-3 LB as a young man (Davis has grown into the position). Despite his lack of size, Thompson is a guy who has a nose for the football; a tough, smart player who plays downhill and thrives on contact.
There were writers and Panthers fans alike who questioned this pick on draft day, fancying a left tackle or wide receiver in round one, but give the defensive coaches an offseason with this young man and it should be clear why they jumped at the opportunity to draft him 25th overall.
Chance of starting: 75%. Chance of making the roster: 100%.
Klein is a solid depth player given the nature of our LB corps, but likely a starter on team devoid of so much talent. Let's face it, unless you are one of the best players at your position like Thomas Davis, you are going to get over-shadowed by Luke Kuechly -- especially if you look like him. I mean, the man can't even make his own tackles without hearing "Luuuuuke."
All that aside, AJ could easily hop in at the WLB spot and the Panthers wouldn't miss a beat. In fact, I expect he will get in the rotation on early downs when the threat of a running play is more prevalent -- keeping Thompson fresh for defending the pass. Meanwhile, Klein will contribute to special teams and be that solid young-veteran presence for the rooks to lean on.
Chance of starting: 10%. Chance of making the roster: 90%.
The 2015 5th round pick impressed coaches in the rookie camp and in OTAs. He is already making all the calls for the second-team defense. It will be interesting to see what the plan is for Mayo. Do they have him pegged as a base SLB, set to take over when Davis moves on (with Thompson at WLB)? Clearly there isn't going to be much playing time at MLB for the next 10-12 years. Maybe they simply saw a good player still available in round 5 and decided to runneth their cupeth over-floweth or what have you. It's hard to say where he fits, but he is going to fit.
Chance of starting: 5%. Chance of making the roster: 75%.
Glanton is an enigma. Every team (particularly the Panthers) have several players like this every year, but very few pan out. Let me explain: A guy comes in late in the regular season with a fresh body and looks competent in mop-up duty, but can't hold a candle when everyone is fresh and foaming at the mouth the next September. Maybe Glanton isn't that guy? Maybe he's one of the few who break through and stay on a roster for a while?
Glanton was impressive in a few games late last season. He made a few nice plays against the run as the WLB in the base set. Glanton is fast and plays downhill. He's brings a good pop and is a decent athlete. But until you see a guy play a full-time role for an entire season, it's hard to say what you have.
Chance of starting: 5%. Chance of making the roster: 70%.
Trusnik was a free agent pickup this past offseason. If you haven't heard of him, shame on you. He is, as trite as it is to say, a special teams ace, as well as competent defensive player. The 9 year veteran has been with the Jets, Browns and Dolphins, averaging over 30 defensive (not special teams) tackles the last six seasons. The appeal with Trusnik was likely the fact that he can play any LB position in a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. At 6-4 and 250lbs, he has the size to rush the passer and despite his 3.5 career sacks, he has some ability there.
Chance of starting: 5%. Chance of making the roster: 65%
Ben Jacobs, Kevin Reddick, Brian Blechen
All three of these players should be on an NFL roster or practice team. The problem for them right now is they are with the Panthers. Assuming Trusnik is the 7th LB (provided the Panthers keep that many), there is simply no more room for anyone else on the final roster. Don't be surprised if any or all of these three are put on the practice squad, to keep a proportional amount of practice LBs to LBs on your roster.