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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Ron Rivera said the Carolina Panthers wanted to get more creative on defense.
The fifth-year coach believes Shaq Thompson gives them that ability.
The Panthers selected the versatile outside linebacker from Washington with the No. 25 overall pick in the NFL draft, bolstering a defense that has finished in the top 10 in the league in each of the last three seasons under coordinator Sean McDermott.
General manager Dave Gettleman called Thompson a "top shelf kid" with all of the qualities the Panthers were looking for heading into the draft including speed and playmaking ability.
"He's going to allow us to put three very fast linebackers on the field," Gettleman said.
Rivera said that with Thompson playing alongside Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers will be able to keep three linebackers on the field more often, thus preventing offenses from dictating what defense Carolina must play. Last year, the Panthers were forced to sub out their third linebacker, A.J. Klein, for an extra defensive back to give them more speed on the field on passing downs.
The coach believes Thompson will help when defending teams that use two tight end sets. Rivera mentioned the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks, which acquired Jimmy Graham in the offseason, as a prime example.
The 6-foot, 228-pound Thompson was the winner of the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation's most versatile player.
He scored six touchdowns in 2014 — four on defense and two as a running back. He even started at tailback against Colorado last year and ran for 174 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries and caught two passes for 41 yards.
Thompson had 3.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and five fumble recoveries in 40 games at Washington.
He feels like he can become one of the best linebackers in the NFL playing alongside Kuechly, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and Davis. Thompson said he's looking forward to picking their brains.
"They are two of the best linebackers in the game," Thompson said.
Thompson, known for his athletic ability, said the Panthers have talked to him about playing the weak side linebacker position.
He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 18th round of the 2012 MLB Draft, but wound up playing football. He said playing minor league baseball for one season was a great experience and helped him "learn how to become a professional."
"He's a heck of a fit for us," Gettleman said. "There isn't anything he can't do for us. ... He's a tough kid. He will (hit you). He prevents touchdowns and scores touchdowns. Call me crazy, I kind of like that."
Ironically, Thompson could wind up being the long-term replacement for the man who announced Carolina's selection in Chicago — Davis, this year's Walter Payton Man of the Year.
Thompson said the Panthers have talked to him about playing weak side linebacker — the same position Davis played last season, but said those discussions were only preliminary. Rivera said nothing will be given to Thompson and he'll have to come in and earn a starting spot, even though he's a first-round pick.
"He's a unique football player, a lot like Thomas Davis," Rivera said.
Rivera said the Panthers plan to use Thompson in a variety of ways.
"He fits a lot of the needs, and some of the things we wanted to do." Rivera said.
The Panthers are hoping to follow their recent string of success in the first round.
Over the past four seasons, the Panthers have selected wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton in round one. Davis was also a former first-round draft pick.
Thompson will be able to participate in the team's rookie minicamp next weekend, but will miss some time in OTAs because Washington works on the quarter system.
The Panthers had been in the market for an offensive lineman, but six had gone off the board before their pick.
Gettleman said the Panthers were deciding between Thompson and offensive tackle D.J. Humphries at No. 25. When the Cardinals took Humphries one pick ahead of them, the Panthers settled in on Thompson and wasted no time submitting the pick.
The Panthers have nine picks overall in the draft, including two compensatory selections in the fifth round.
The GM said the team has no plans to trade its second or third round picks on Friday night.
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