The Panthers’ linebackers were the strength of the defense in 2018. It all starts with Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly who enjoyed another elite season, grading out as the second best linebacker in the game. Only the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner graded out higher. From Pro Football Focus:
On the strong side the ever reliable and resilient Thomas Davis had his best season since 2015. Weak side linebacker Shaq Thompson on the other hand didn’t have the break out season we were hoping for. In fact his snaps fell significantly as the season progressed until being put on injured reserve before the season finale.
2018 stats: 16 starts, 130 combined tackles, two sacks, six passes defensed and two forced fumbles
As tempting as it would be to simply say “It’s Luke Kuechly and he is an elite player. ‘Nuff said” that would be a huge disservice to the Panthers team captain. Kuechly is not only elite but a model of consistency for the past five seasons.
Kuechly will remain the centerpiece of the Panthers defense for as long as he wants to play this game.
2018 stats: 12 starts, 79 combined tackles, six passes defensed
I am completely amazed at what Thomas Davis has accomplished in his thirteen year career in Carolina. Even more so when I consider he had his third ACL surgery in 2011 and yet still played at a high level in 2018. That’s seven seasons for those not counting. Hell, Davis has basically had two careers wrapped around a couple very severe knee injuries.
I’m not here to argue for Davis’ return in 2019 but I will say his leadership will be missed. Davis is an inspiration to those around him and a guy who leads by example. He never shied away from owning up to his mistakes either. You know what I’m talking about.
While his 2018 performance wasn’t on par with some previous seasons he was still considered a top 100 player at the start of the season. I think if anything was missing it was the big plays we were used to Davis making in the past.
2018 stats: 11 starts, 79 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, one pass defensed and one forced fumble
Thompson was the guy we really expected to break out in 2018 but for some reason it didn’t happen. When I look at the PFF grades on the season in the top chart the one thing that stands out is Thompson’s poor pass coverage. With his speed I would have expected a better performance.
It may be the scheme sure, but I’m positive the Panthers were looking for more as well. It is very disappointing to to see his performance decline like it has right when we thought he would take off. I’d really like some insight on this development for sure.
2018 stats: Three starts, 14 combined tackles, one pass defensed
Mayo was the first linebacker off the bench in 2018 but otherwise left little impression. He is no A.J. Klein, the former Kuechly back up who had to leave to get a starting gig. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mayo loses his spot to one of the rookie linebackers the Panthers drafted last season. Best case scenario for him is he returns as a back-up once again.
Jermaine Carter & Andre Smith
Carter played only 85 snaps in 2018 so we didn’t get much of a look at him. He seems to be leading his fellow rookie Andre Smith though, since Smith only got 11 snaps all season. It was a bit of a surprise to see both players make the roster in 2018 but that may not be the case in 2019. I expect to see more of Carter though, who could make his way to the second string with a strong offseason.