The Panthers are in the middle of their second week of organized team activities, and longtime captain Shaq Thompson is still roaming the practice field with a commanding presence as he has done for the past eight summers.
But Thompson’s return to Charlotte wasn’t a given this offseason. Amid a near-complete retooling of the coaching staff and roster, Thompson’s status remained in limbo for roughly two months ahead the start of the new league year in March.
Thompson was entering the final year of his contract and had no guaranteed money remaining on the deal. Releasing the veteran would have saved the Panthers roughly $13.2 million on the salary cap. But instead of cutting Thompson, the Panthers agreed on a reworked deal — featuring a dramatic pay cut — with the veteran defender. In exchange for the pay cut, the Panthers tacked on an extra year to the reworked terms, offering Thompson long-term security after making a team-friendly sacrifice.
On Thursday, following the second OTA workout in front of the media, Thompson explained his decision to return to the only NFL home he’s ever known.
“Shoot, just look at the linebacker market,” Thompson said with a smile. “Nobody was getting paid. … So, it was just weighing out, do I want to be here or do I want to go somewhere else? Do I want to be with my brothers who I went to war with, or do I want to go to a different team and meet new people? I’m a big loyal guy, so I stayed with my brothers, and I was like, ‘Man, I’d rather win with you guys. If I lose, I’d rather lose with you all.’ I definitely want to win a Super Bowl, but I want to win one with them. I don’t want to win with nobody else.”
Thompson, along with the rest of the holdover defenders from the previous regime, is transitioning to a new-look defensive front.
While Thompson played in a 3-4 defense in 2019 during former head coach Ron Rivera’s final season with the franchise, he’s spent the majority of his career in a 4-3 front.
However, despite having little experience in a 3-4 front, head coach Frank Reich, defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and linebackers coach Peter Hansen all made it clear to Thompson that he was a big part of their plans for the upcoming season.
“I fit the defense,” Thompson said. “And that’s another big part of the reason I came back.”
According to Thompson, his transition into the new scheme has gone well during the offseason program.
“I actually love this,” Thompson said about the new defense. “We’re more visual. We get to play off the quarterback and play fast, and just be free.”
Bryce Young makes play of the day
Panthers rookie quarterback Bryce Young has had at least one memorable throw in team drills during each of his four workouts in front of the media this offseason. On Thursday, Young made his most impressive toss yet.
During 11-on-11 red-zone drills, Young fired a laser pass through an opening between multiple defenders and hit practice squad holdover Derek Wright in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. Young saw Wright break free in a crowded end zone and let the ball rip with notable velocity.
“In the red zone, absolutely you need high-processing speed, and you also need great accuracy,” Reich said. “But what you also need is all 11 guys being on the same page. Receivers — the windows are tight — we’ve worked really hard in the last couple of days, working these red-zone routes, trying to get them just right so we’re all on the same page. But it tightens up down there. Everybody needs to be on point.”
Young and Wright have forged a strong chemistry early on in their time together.
While it is just OTAs, Young and Wright have connected on a handful of impressive plays during the sessions open to the media. Wright — who dressed for one game but didn’t play last season — could be a dark horse to make the roster heading into training camp.
“He’s looked good,” Reich said about Wright. “And (we’re) excited about Derek. I’m excited about the whole receiver group. Really, the whole group has been good. Listen, experience tells me that you love to see guys look good in OTAs, but you’ve really got to wait until you get to training camp before you get too excited about anybody.”
Hayden Hurst talks injury and role on offense
Panthers tight end Hayden Hurst has been sidelined for the majority of the offseason program as he recovers from sports hernia surgery.
However, on Thursday, Reich announced that Hurst — along with wideout DJ Chark (ankle) — will take part in individual drills for the first time on Friday. While those drills won’t be competitive, Hurst will get to take part in football work around his teammates for the first time since he signed with the squad in free agency.
Speaking to the media for the first time since he arrived in Charlotte, Hurst said that he underwent the hernia procedure following the Cincinnati Bengals’ AFC Championship Game loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in January.
“My goal is to get healthy,” Hurst said. “I want to play in all 17 games. I didn’t do that last year, and it’s a big goal of mine this year.”
Hurst will most likely play the F tight end position in Reich’s offense. Known for his speed and ability to pick up extra yards after the catch, Hurst follows a long line of talented players who have played the position for Reich during his many career travels.
“I think you just look at (Reich’s) track record and what he’s done with all of those tight ends — (Antonio) Gates, (Zach) Ertz, Eric Ebron when he was in Indy — being that F guy, or whatever, that hybrid, if you will, which I am, it’s fun,” Hurst said. “You can kind of move all over the place. … So, it’s a fun offense to be a part of.”
Hurst is excited to have the opportunity to join that list of standouts, especially as he takes on the top tight end role on offense.
“It’s very tight end-friendly,” Hurst said about the scheme. “When you’re in the red zone, it’s very tight end-centric. I think everything goes through that, especially when you have a young quarterback. You get the ball out quick to the guys who are in your first sight of vision. It’s exciting to be those progressions and in those reads.”
▪ It was a good day for the defense. Evero’s group was sticky in coverage throughout red-zone team drills and forced a couple of coverage sacks on the day. During 7-on-7 work, the defense forced a trio of throwaways by quarterbacks, and Young was held to a 6-of-11 success rate as a passer during that phase.
The highlight of the day for the defense was an interception by safety Sam Franklin. Third-string quarterback Matt Corral fired a shot to the back of the end zone to wideout C.J. Saunders during 7-on-7 red-zone drills. Franklin and Saunders made contact before the defender jumped the route for the pick. The offensive coaching staff, namely assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley, pleaded with the refs for pass interference on the play.
There appeared to be a lot of contact and the flag could have been thrown in a game. Then again, it was a 7-on-7 drill.
▪ Speaking of Staley, the outgoing position coach was the loudest chatter on the field. He verbally sparred with the defensive sideline throughout the practice. The on-field chatting seemed to be playful taunting, and it set the tone for team drills.
“I love it,” Reich said. “That’s why when I got this job … Duce Staley was the first phone call, because I know the type of energy that he brings to the practice. And he’s not just that — he is that — but he’s a whole lot more. He’s a great coach and a great teammate, but he does bring juice and energy. We want that competitive environment, and I think nobody is better at that than Duce Staley. There’s no question about that.”
▪ Defensive end Brian Burns (ankle), cornerback Donte Jackson (Achilles) and rookie defensive back Rejzohn Wright (undisclosed) were seen throughout the session on the field, but they didn’t not take part in drills.
Offensive linemen Austin Corbett (ACL) and BJ Wilson (Achilles), wideouts Damiere Byrd and Josh Vann and defensive linemen Jalen Redmond and John Penisini were not seen on the field. Hurst didn’t practice but emerged from the practice bubble following the workout.
▪ Tight end Tommy Tremble had an impressive grab during 11-on-11 drills. Quarterback Andy Dalton flung the ball over the middle and it got batted into the air by linebacker Frankie Luvu. The ball floated to the back of the end zone and Tremble snagged as he fell to the ground on the edge of pay dirt. Tremble has a flashed a bit during the open OTA workouts.
▪ Corral, who is working with limited reps with the third-team offense, made a nice touchdown throw during his short time in team drills. He tossed a strike to wideout Gary Jennings in the back of the end zone shortly after throwing the lone pick of the day.
▪ With Hurst sidelined, Dalton has done a really good job with his targets to Ian Thomas. During 7-on-7 work, Dalton fired a flare across the middle to Thomas for a touchdown. The quarterback trusted the tight end to make a grab in a crowded area and Thomas rewarded that decision.
▪ As previously mentioned, Chark will take part in “ball on air” drills this week. He took part in 11-on-11 install period on Thursday. Reich told reporters that there is a chance that Chark plays competitive drills before the end of the offseason program. However, the coaches are weighing holding him out of competition drills until training camp in July.