Not long ago, the Carolina Panthers overflowed with linebacking talent, so much so that Shaq Thompson, a first-round pick, was forced to bide his time with star Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis entrenched in starting roles.
Fast forward to 2020, and Thompson is the last man standing from the trio. Davis left Carolina after the 2018 season. Kuechly retired this offseason and transitioned into the front office.
Joining NFL Network's Total Access on Wednesday night, Thompson said he knows that Kuechly's retirement puts the onus on him to step into that leadership role.
"You had to bring that one up," he said. "I'm still hurting to this day about that one. I lost a great friend, a brother, just a great teammate overall. Luke taught me a lot in my five years, just playing alongside of him and just playing and just learning from him. I'm gonna go out there and try my best. Luckily, we still have him in the organization, in the office. So he can probably come down and show us things and stuff like that. So he'll still be around to help out with any questions, any football things on and off the field. So, we're glad to have him. But I gotta step up as the last linebacker [of that] trio that we had with Thomas Davis and Luke. So I gotta step up and fill that role and be that leader."
Thompson generated his most productive season in 2019, compiling a career-high 109 tackles, including 11 for loss, to go with three sacks and three passes defended. With Davis gone, it was no surprise to see Thompson, who signed a four-year contract extension in December, finally get a bulk of the snaps -- 903 last season -- after never seeing more than 609 in any of the previous four seasons.
The Panthers used all seven of their draft picks this year on the defensive side of the ball -- three on the D-line and four on secondary players. With Kuechly retiring, Thompson's play will be even more vital for a young, growing defense in 2020.