Faceoff - LB Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers
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Upside - by Jene Bramel
Davis was expected to be one of the impact rookies last season in a stellar class of IDPs. Things did not work out as his owners had hoped. After getting reps as the starting strong safety in mini-camp, Davis was moved to strong side linebacker in training camp, only to be moved back to safety before the first game of the regular season. After opposing offenses exploited his inexperience and deficiencies in coverage, Davis was used only in a situational role for the rest of the year.
Despite those struggles, Davis still has the football skills many NFL execs and fantasy owners drooled over last season. He is aggressive and physical, has the strength to shed blocks, and the range to make plays in pursuit. The Panthers decided early in the off-season to move Davis to linebacker permanently and have him at the top of the depth chart on the strong side. Early reports from Carolina are encouraging; Davis has already bulked up to 235 pounds and is reportedly more focused than last season.
Fantasy owners have learned over time to avoid most strong side linebackers as fantasy options. Few have the ability to free themselves from the extra blocking they see to make plays or stay on the field on all three downs. Davis, however, may well have the skill set to be an Anthony Simmons or Derrick Johnson type fantasy performer from the strong side. He’ll be used in much the same way Mark Fields was used by Carolina in past seasons. Fields, when healthy in 2002, put up 103 total tackles and 6.5 sacks in a top twenty fantasy season. Davis should be able to do the same in a three down role when he learns the position. With his aggressiveness, hand strength to get off blocks, and pass rush skills, Davis has the potential to be a top 25 fantasy option despite being “stuck” on the strong side.
Downside - by Aaron Rudnicki
Davis didn’t have a clear position when he entered the league last year, but wound up as the starting SS when the season began. He struggled in coverage, however, and was quickly replaced by journeyman Marlon McCree. As a result, he spent the rest of the season playing primarily on special teams and didn’t make much of an impact. Davis is a physical and athletic run defender, but he lacks the cover instincts and skills required to play in the secondary so the team will move him up to linebacker full time this year. There was hope among fantasy owners that he would take over the WLB spot vacated by Will Witherspoon, but early reports this offseason indicate that he’ll be used on the strong side instead. Very few SLBs around the league are productive enough to become consistent fantasy starters so Davis will have his work cut out for him if he wants to live up to the high expectations many fantasy owners have for him. Playing on the strong side means that he’ll not only have to get around a TE when trying to rush the passer or tackle a runner, but he’ll also be asked to drop into coverage much more frequently. Although Davis could become a 3-down linebacker who plays in all downs and situations, Dan Morgan will continue to get most of the tackles in this system. Davis is still somewhat of a work in progress and will probably need at least a full season at linebacker before he begins to reach his full potential.