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The Thomas Davis Extension and Shaq Thompson’s Future

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Can the Panthers find a balance with keeping a team legend on the roster while finding his eventual replacement enough playing time?

There has been much ado lately by at least a few Panthers fans about what a potential extension for OLB Thomas Davis would mean for the younger and more athletic OLB Shaq Thompson. The main concern in certain corners of Panther Nation is that a Davis extension would waste Shaq’s potential breakout years and essentially push him out the door, making him go dominate for someone else.

Concerned fans argue that a Davis extension would do a couple things. First, it would limit Shaq Thompson’s playing time, making him more likely to leave to get more reps elsewhere. Second, it would make paying Shaq while staying under the cap a little trickier after his rookie deal is up, depending on the length and amount of money Davis ends up getting. Let’s take a look at each of these two points and see if we can’t quell some anxiety.

At his current age of 34, one has to wonder how long a possible extension would be for Thomas Davis. The three seasons missed due to ACL injuries means he has more tread on the tires than some his age, but he is still past his prime. If TD plays for only two more seasons, Shaq would be able to start and star for this defense on his fifth year option. If TD’s extension goes longer than that, however, resigning Shaq would then become something the Panthers may have to contend with. But would Shaq feel the need to leave?

Thomas Davis played 91% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2015 and 94% in 2016, according to Football Outsiders. Shaq, on the other hand, played 33% and 50%, respectively, so to this point, he has been overshadowed. Thompson has definitely earned more reps, though, and there are a couple ways to make this happen.

The Panthers use the nickel package more than most teams in the NFL, so often there are only two linebackers on the field at a time. Because of this, the first and most obvious solution would be to substitute Thompson for Davis more often. Panthers DC Steve Wilks has already said he wants to limit TD’s reps in favor of Shaq Thompson. The other obvious solution would be to have Shaq cover the slot in a big nickel package. His strength and athleticism would make him a nightmare as an occasional blitzer from the slot and his coverage skills are good enough to make it work.

Another, more creative option would be utilizing Shaq as an in-the-box safety in a big nickel situation. In this scenario, the back seven would have Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at linebacker, Shaq at strong safety, Kurt Coleman at free safety, Captain Munnerlyn at nickelback, and James Bradberry and Daryl Worley on the outside at cornerback. Playing the uber-athletic Thompson at the safety position keeps this iteration of the nickel strong against the run while keeping three CBs and Coleman on the field to defend the pass. There are a host of other ways to get Shaq on the field, but these are probably the ones we will most often see. So if Shaq is getting the reps, the only other reason to leave would be the team not having enough money for him and Davis both.

So let’s talk money now. For some background, Thomas Davis will see his current contract expire after this season. Shaq Thompson is locked up at least through the next two seasons, with a third year possible via the fifth year option available on his rookie contract.

Let’s be optimistic with Davis and say he signs an extension to play for the next four seasons (essentially a three year extension). This time frame is really the only way a Davis extension might cause some cap issues. The current contract Davis is on has a cap hit of $8.25M this season. Let’s say TD signs an extension that pays him the same amount. So in 2020 Davis would count $8.25M against the cap and Shaq would be an unrestricted free agent.

But what would Shaq get on the open market? This offseason’s top OLB free agent was Jamie Collins, who re-signed with the Browns for 4 years, $50M. I think that may be the best-case scenario for Shaq as far as contracts go. So what we have set up is an absolute worst-case scenario for the Panthers. I would expect TD to take at least a small paycut on an extension and I don’t think Shaq will command $12M+ per season (Luke Kuechly gets $12.4M annually, for reference).

If I’ve lost you through all this, don’t worry. That’s what this nifty little table is for:

Davis vs Thompson Cap Hits

Player Cap Hit 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit 2019 Cap Hit 2020
Player Cap Hit 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit 2019 Cap Hit 2020
Thomas Davis $8.25M $8.25M $8.25M $8.25M
Shaq Thompson $2.4M $2.8M $8.5M* $12.5M
Total $10.65M $11.05M $16.75M $20.75M

*2019 cap hit for Shaq is an estimate based off fifth-year options for 2014 rookie class

As you can see, 2019 and 2020 get a little hairy cap-wise. While spending that much on two linebackers (one of whom would be 35+ years old) would be less than ideal, there are a few things to consider.

First is the cap increase. The 2017 salary cap saw a 7.7% raise compared to 2016. Continuing on that trend, the cap for 2019 would be $192M and 2020 would be $206M. Compare that to this season’s $167M and there is a lot more wiggle room in the future.

Another thing to consider is which salaries will be off the books by then. Players like Julius Peppers and Mike Adams will have retired, as well as a few others, possibly. Cutting Matt Kalil would save $5.5M in cap space in 2019 and $11M in 2020. Other cuts could be made as well, depending on the performance and contracts of other players. While Cap Wizard Getts is no longer with the team, there are some fairly obvious ways to work around the cap in this hypothetical scenario.

A Thomas Davis extension would most certainly impact Shaq Thompson. Overall, however, I think some fans are overblowing the possible issues. The Panthers want Shaq to get more reps (and by extension limit wear on TD) and any future cap issues could be skirted with a little creativity. The firing of GM Dave Gettleman and hiring of “interim” GM Marty Hurney has all but guaranteed an extension for Thomas Davis.

But that’s okay, allowing one of the greatest Panthers ever to retire with the team is not the end of the world. Plus we get the added benefit of TD’s continued mentorship. And if Shaq does end up leaving, it won’t be due to TD’s extension. We’ll just have to wait and see what ends up happening. In the meantime, enjoy watching the best linebacking trio in the NFL go to work every Sunday.