Linebacker has been something of a strength for the Panthers in recent years, and with a future Hall of Famer, an All-Pro and one of the NFL’s elite multipositional athletic defenders combining to form arguably the NFL’s best linebacker corps, 2018 shouldn’t be much different. However, there is a spanner in the works, for as almost all Panthers fans will be aware of, Thomas Davis will miss the first four games of next season due to a PED suspension; what’s more, looking beyond 2018, Davis is a free agent to be, and while this week has suggested that he doesn’t plan to retire, the Panthers would be foolish to not be thinking about life post-TD.
With this in mind, the use of a fifth and seventh-round draft picks this year on a pair of young, athletic linebackers did make an awful lot of sense – while these two are hopefully going to be able to develop into useful pieces down the road, for the first four games of this season, the favorite to see snaps in Davis’s place is the oft-forgotten David Mayo. Mayo was himself a fifth-round draft pick back in 2015 out of Texas State, and having spent most of his first three seasons as a special teams ace, he is now looking to follow in the footsteps of former Panthers-backup-turned-Saints-starter AJ Klein, who managed to turn an expanded role in the final year of his rookie deal into a bumper payday and a starting role with the 2017 NFC South Champs. But does Mayo have what it takes to make the most of his opportunity in the same way that Klein did back in 2016?
The Run Game
The Panthers linebackers managed to remain largely injury and suspension-free in 2017, one result of which is that there isn’t a lot of tape on Mayo against starting offenses. However, with Kuechly missing the game against the Bears and Davis the second game against the Bucs, there is some tape on Mayo that gives an indication of what he is like as a player. Listed at 6’2 and 245 pounds, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Mayo does his best work against the run. While the NFL has changed, and linebackers are asked to do more than simply stone offensive linemen against the run – Mayo’s ability to take on blockers, such as on the following play, is still valuable:
What is important to note is that not only does he have the strength to avoid getting knocked backwards, but that he also uses his arms well to keep the blocker away from his frame and so is able to disengage effectively to make the tackle. While this is a valuable skill to have, what’s even more important is the ability to maintain gap discipline, as a failure to do so is the easiest way for offenses to gain significant chunk of yardage on the ground. The following play is a simplistic example of that, with Mayo’s responsibility being the gap outside of the center, which he maintains effectively:
This gets a lot more complicated, however, when teams look to pull linemen across the formation, as this leaves defenders outside of the pulling defenders largely obsolete, and forcing second level defenders to shift in kind with the pulling blockers. On both of the following plays Mayo does just that, spotting the pulling blockers coming from the far side of the play and shifting out to allow for the backside defenders to take away the inside running lanes:
That is not to say that Mayo is perfect, as even on the limited snaps he saw last season, there were still a couple of plays where he got greedy and tried to jump a gap, and on the following play, a long gain was only avoided by a good bit of play from Thompson:
There should also be some very slight concerns with Mayo’s tackling based on his 2017 tape, as in an admittedly small sample size there were a couple of instances where he failed to bring his man down:
With so few plays on tape, it’s hard to judge the size of any imperfections, and only over a larger sample size will it be possible to get a more balanced picture of Mayo’s ability. What is definitely true, however, is that as can be seen on the following play, he has the ability to do everything one might want in a linebacker in run defense, even if the consistency is still to be determined: