Thomas Davis has high hopes for the 2009 season. Recently on the Frank and Buck Show on Charlotte's WFNZ-AM, he stated that anything less than being named an All-Pro this season would be a disappointment.
That's a bold statement from a player that many fans called a bust after he struggled in his first two years in the NFL.
At the University of Georgia, Davis was feared throughout the SEC for his closing speed and ferocious tackles. The 6'1", 227 pound safety turned in a 4.43 at the combine after notching 173 tackles in three years with the Bulldogs.
The scouting report on Davis was ideal for the Panthers. It said he made "a tremendous impact against the run ... finds the ball ... he’s an intimidating hitter who can blitz." For a run defense that needed help, he was just what the doctor ordered.
When he was drafted by the Panthers in the first round of the 2005 draft, he became an instant hit with fans for his attitude, which was summed up in his famous quote, "Get to the ball with bad intentions."
But things quickly went south for him in his first year. Davis was shuffled between Linebacker and Safety and never seemed to really catch on to either position. He only earned one start and managed just over two tackles a game for a defense that was disappointing in general.
Rather than providing a lift, Davis was used an example of things that went wrong for the Panthers on that side of the ball. Angry fans said he was a poor pick, pointing out that Davis' scouting report also said that he could get beat in coverage and fell for the play-action too easily.
To make matters worse, Derrick Johnson was lighting things up in Kansas City. Johnson was a popular choice as an alternative to Davis, and he was picked by the Chiefs immediately after Davis was taken by the Panthers.
In the 2006 season the Panthers moved Thomas Davis to linebacker full time, and he responded with a decent, if not great year. Playing on the strong side, Davis notched 71 tackles and 19 assists in 14 games. He followed that up with a similar effort in 2007, making 72 tackles and 13 assists. He looked good, but not great.
Then in 2008 he was moved to the weak side. Playing without coverage responsibilities, he was able to fly to the ball and use his speed to greater advantage. Davis increased his tackle total to 92, with 21 assists.
In doing so, he became a favorite of many fans, who were both relieved and excited to see him begin living up to his draft billing. Davis attained a status of that guy who's the well-kept secret—unknown by fans in other divisions but respected and feared by coaching staffs around the league.
And 2009 should be the year where Thomas Davis becomes known on a national level. Not only will he have a year of playing on the weak side under his belt, he also has a new defensive coordinator who schemes to his strengths and who has a reputation of developing great players at that position.
Ron Meeks preaches "swarming to the ball" and builds defenses that are more reactive. Players who succeed in them are fast and instinctive, and race across the field to make plays.
To any Panthers fan the very concept of "swarming to the ball" seems to be designed with a player like Davis in mind. But it's not just the swarming concept that should have Davis fans excited.
In Meeks' system, outside linebackers have always shone. In Indianapolis his rosters included some impressive names, like Mike Peterson, David Thornton, Cato June and Freddy Keiaho. Even more impressive is how all of them made their names playing in Meeks' system.
This system comes with a scheme and alignments which should help Davis shine.
The 2009 Panthers will be without Ma'ake Kemoeatu, and look to be replacing him with a more traditional one-gap defensive linemen. In doing so, the defensive line will be setting up in a traditional under-front scheme that relies on speed to close off gaps and herds opposing running backs to areas where support can be found.
How does that help the weakside linebacker? Instead of a run-stuffing tackle closing two gaps and preventing runs up the middle, both defensive tackles will be shutting down a single gap and forcing the run to specific areas of the field.
In this scheme, the weakside linebacker is in a position to make a lot of plays. He lines up behind the defensive tackle assigned to the "under" tackle position (Damione Lewis on the Panthers), and is well-protected from both the guard and tackle by the under tackle and defensive end on his side of the field.
The strong side linebacker has to deal with the tight end, while the middle linebacker must contend with either the right guard or the center.
If the Carolina nose tackle engages the center at all, Davis will be free to flow to the ball after ensuring that his own gap isn’t threatened. Beason and Diggs will be dealing with potential blocks from tight ends, offensive linemen, and the fullback.
Simply put, Davis should be in position to make a lot of plays.
Another area of Meeks' system that will come into play is the philosophy of the "turn back" or "spill" in run support. In Indianapolis, a defender taking on a block knew exactly where the help was and worked to turn or spill the running back in that direction.
Since the weakside linebacker is often unblocked in an under front, he's frequently the help his teammates are looking for. Again, Davis will be the beneficiary.
Davis has grown into his linebacker role well, and continues to mature not only as a player but as an athlete. Earlier this year he ran a 4.2 in the 40, beating his combine time despite carrying 15 more pounds of muscle on his frame.
He's bigger, he's faster, he still hits hard and with a sense of finality, and he's still got that "get to the ball with bad intentions" attitude.
During training camp Davis has watched most of the action from the sidelines. This has been a precautionary measure taken after a minor sprain to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his knee was suffered early in camp.
But that injury won't keep him out of action for long. He'll be suiting up on opening day for sure, ready to step up as a leader of the Panthers defense.
And he won't just be making tackles as usual. If past performance is any indicator of future results, between he and Meeks you can just see him taking that step from being very good to being outstanding.
This year, Thomas Davis will be getting to the Pro Bowl. With bad intentions, of course.