Unsung Panthers are a key to Carolina’s success

Supporting cast as critical as the team’s stars

Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson has been one of Carolina’s unsung heroes during the team’s 5-2 start. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers have plenty of star power. Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly get the commercials. Christian McCaffrey, Devin Funchess Thomas Davis and even kicker Graham Gano have gotten headlines this season.

But, while the likely Pro Bowlers are garnering much-earned attention, the success of this year’s team will also depend on the contributions from several unheralded members of the team.

Here’s a look at some of the underrated Panthers.

Shaq Thompson

The third man in Carolina’s linebacking corps, Thompson filled in for Davis at weak-side linebacker during the veteran’s four-game season-opening suspension. Now back in his traditional strong-side spot, Thompson ranks behind Kuechly with 31 tackles.

“He did a lot of good things,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s really developing into, even more so, the player we believe he can be for us. The young man has a very bright future for this football team. He’s a guy that’s quietly just playing very steady. You can say he’s a guy that’s underrated on our defense, because of the guys we have. When you put him next to Luke and TD, he’s easy to overlook. He just continues to play hard, continues to play well and make statement plays for us.”

Kyle Love

The defensive tackle shares time with Kawann Short, Dontari Poe and Vernon Butler, but he had a moment in the sun on Sunday, coming through the line unblocked and forcing a Joe Flacco fumble.

“I think he’s one of the most underrated players on our defense,” Rivera said. “His contributions have always been steady, since he’s been with us. He’s a guy that quietly goes about his business, works at it and does a great job. He was able to create a spark for us (Sunday). He takes care of himself, works at staying in shape and being ready to play.

The offensive line

Center Ryan Kalil is a longtime starter, and guard Trai Turner earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last year. Other than that, the line is a collection of kids and castoffs that has allowed Newton to get sacked just 10 times all year. Newton’s previous low sack total for a season was 33. He was sacked eight times in the team’s 2015 playoffs.

“I think right now, we’re protecting him as well as we’ve ever protected him,” Rivera said.

“Our offensive line is playing as confident as they’ve ever been,” Newton said. “For guys labeled as undesirables or misfits, they sure are doing a great job. C.C. (Chris Clark, an undrafted free agent in 2008 who has been released once and opened the season without a spot on any NFL roster) with his leadership, he understands what it takes to win. … It’s a correlation of guys putting great work in throughout the week and showing up on Sunday.”

In addition to Clark, Kalil and Turner, the line’s starters are Greg Van Roten, an undrafted free agent in 2012 who sandwiched three releases around a stint in the CFL, and Taylor Moton, a 2017 draft pick who spent most of last year playing on extra points and as a tackle eligible on short-yardage plays.

The Turners

Like the offensive line, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator is a veteran castoff who raised eyebrows when the team brought him in this offseason.

“I think it’s been a very big plus for us,” Rivera said. “There are a lot of things we still have to work out as a team, but again, what he has brought, what Scott Turner has brought, has been really good for our offensive team.”

Turner came as a package deal, bringing son Scott back to the team as quarterbacks coach. The younger Turner had previously worked on Rivera’s staff in 2011 and 2012 as offensive quality control coordinator.

“Bringing Scott along was brilliant,” Rivera said. “His background with us — he helped design part of this offense when we got started with Chud (then-offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski).”

Norv has contributed more than good bloodlines, though. He’s been able to blend the wide variety of playmakers that the Panthers’ offense possesses, giving the team a solution for whatever opposing defenses present.

“Really what a lot of playcallers try to do is find out what the matchups are, how they look,” Rivera said. “Look at how (New Orleans coach) Sean Payton is using his talent down there, what they’re doing with the Rams, what they do in New England. Really good playcallers try to find those mismatches, create those personnel groupings that can create those types of problems.”

Like most of the other unsung players, the Turners are combining their talents with the Panthers who have the big Q scores, to create a successful blend.