One of the most intriguing storylines in the NFC South centers on Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who is coming off of his third ACL tear. Davis is still under contract, and many Panthers fans are wondering whether or not he should be cut with the surplus of players at the position. If he can stay healthy, then there is no doubt that he will be one of the best linebackers in the game and is a proven leader on defense. Thomas Davis has the ability to excel as a run-stuffer and is an able pass defender. However, his health is a huge question mark at this point, but there are indications that things are getting better for Davis on the health front.
One thing that scares many fans away is the fact that no player in NFL history has ever recovered from two ACL surgeries to the knee. As the overused Skyrim joke goes, many have quit after taking an arrow to the knee. How about taking a shot to the knee twice and having season-ending surgery for it? And oh yeah, Thomas Davis also had to endure an ACL tear to his other knee at one point in his career. But he is determined, and that should count for something.
Dr. James Andrews, the best orthopedic surgeon in sports, stated that Davis’s knee is “as solid as a rock”, which is by far the best indication of Davis’s improved health. There is no way that he should continue to play under the five-year, $50 million deal he signed last season, but he is far too important to this team, when healthy, to completely let go. Thomas Davis should be more than willing to take a pay cut to prove himself and continue to play with the Panthers. His best offer is going to come from the Panthers, and he already has a lot of familiarity with the organization. Why leave now if the Panthers are willing to keep him?
But that’s the thing, are the Panthers going to keep him? Marty Hurney hasn’t indicated anything with regards to Davis’s contract situation and overall future with the team. He would be crazy not to give Thomas Davis a new deal, but the fact of the matter is that nobody knows whether or not the Panthers are even going to keep him; at all. Cutting him and not extending a more practical offer isn’t the right move for them. The Panthers have talent at linebacker, but most of their LBs are solid players who lack Davis’s leadership and are not every-down linebackers.
Take a look at Jordan Senn, the guy who rose “out of nowhere” (he was always an above-average player) and had a “huge” game against the Houston Texans. While he is a phenomenal player in run defense, he is just as much of a liability in pass coverage. In fact, it’s safe to say that he is easily the worst cover man of the linebackers in the NFC South. Senn is a classic two-down linebacker who is valuable piece to the puzzle in Carolina, but he isn’t quite the all-around player that Davis is. He simply isn’t as talented, nor is he as big of an influence in the locker room. Justin Durant of the Detroit Lions is even better in run defense and is not as bad in pass coverage, but he has taken a two-down role with arms wide open and has excelled in that role for the Lions. Senn should be willing to do the same, and that is how he should be utilized in the future. He’s a good player and is at least comparable to a dominating force like Durant.
Guys like Omar Gaither and Dan Connor will also be free agents next season, but the Panthers can afford to part ways with Gaither. He is a decent player who knows Sean McDermott’s scheme well, but he is the same as Dan Connor and Jordan Senn, except less talented. All three of them are terrific in run defense and struggle in coverage, and Connor will almost definitely be brought back. Senn has a lot of momentum right now and will also be retained, which leaves Gaither as the odd man out. If any of these three guys hits the open market, they could make for an interesting signing for the Bucs. Gaither especially would be an interesting and affordable option.
Without Thomas Davis, the Carolina Panthers will be left with just two every down linebackers in James Anderson and Jon Beason. Both of them are among the best linebackers in the NFL, but Davis is a gamble well-worth taking. He will likely be inexpensive under a new contract, and a one-year, incentive laden deal that is often seen in baseball would fit. The Panthers will have three solid, two-down linebackers behind those three starters and will once again have the best linebacker core in the NFL.
Their defense was a mess last season, so keeping an established veteran and allowing him to start his key. Even though linebacker is a position of strength, the defense is a unit of weakness for the Carolina Panthers on a whole. It is best for them to keep one of their veterans, and Thomas Davis can once again be a star next season if healthy. There won’t be much risk, and the rewards are bountiful.
Of course, any sensible Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan will hope that the Panthers are not sensible and cut Thomas Davis without extending him a new offer. The Bucs would love to get their hands on a veteran leader and give him an opportunity, because, again, the rewards far outweigh the risks. The New Orleans Saints are also a team within the division who could make a play for Davis, because their situation at linebacker is far from enviable. Davis will probably play for the Panthers or somewhere out of the division next season, but the Bucs should take a look at Davis if he does hit free agency.
It’s always good to take a look around at what’s going on with the other teams in the NFC South and analyze their problems from their point of view. It gives us a better idea of what the other teams are going to do, their strengths on their roster, and a better look at what a future competitor is up to.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.