Thomas Davis still believes he has a shot at Super Bowl in final year

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It wasn’t a surprise on Friday when Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said he would hang up his cleats after the 2018 season. That’s been his intent since he signed a one-year extension prior to this past season.

“It’s funny to me. So many people are acting like it’s huge news, like it’s big news," Davis said while serving as a guest analyst on the NFL Network. "I went to the team and we tried to get a two-year contract extension last year when my deal was up this year. They only wanted to do a one-year deal. That was fine with me.

“Everybody knew I had only one year left after signing a one-year extension. It’s a great time for me, another shot at winning the Super Bowl. That’s why we play this game."

The surprise for Davis came when he said following the team’s playoff loss at New Orleans that he expected to return in a reduced role in 2018.

While that may happen, it’s hard to imagine the two-time Pro Bowl selection backing off, even at the age of 35, which he'll be in March.

Davis played 79.4 percent of the defensive snaps this past season. Only cornerback James Bradberry (99 percent), safety Mike Adams (96.7 percent) and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (91.9 percent) played more on the defensive side for the Panthers.

That was a reduced role for Davis, considering he played 94.3 percent of the snaps in 2016 and 91.8 percent in 2015.

Remember, this is somebody who played every snap of Super Bowl 50 13 days after having surgery to repair a broken arm in the NFC Championship.

Nobody on the Carolina roster has more passion for the game than Davis, who is often referred to as the “heart and soul" of the defense. Even coach Ron Rivera had to chuckle when he heard Davis mention a reduced role with Shaq Thompson starting to emerge as a star at outside linebacker.

What’s clear after watching the NFC divisional playoff games this past weekend, particularly on Sunday, is that defense remains the key for the Panthers if Davis hopes to fulfill his dream of winning a Super Bowl.

The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, Carolina’s chief rivals in the NFC South, couldn’t make the big defensive stop needed at the end to advance.

The Panthers still have a chance to be one of the best defenses in the NFL with players like Davis and Kuechly. They certainly could have the best defense in the division again after ranking No. 7 this past season and at one point holding the top spot.

It would help if 37-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers decides to return for another season. His play (tied for team lead with 11 sacks) and leadership were key this past season.

Re-signing free agent defensive Star Lotulelei also would help, although it’s not essential. Former general manager Dave Gettleman selected tackle Vernon Butler in the first round of the 2016 draft knowing it would be hard to keep Lotulelei and 2015 Pro Bowl selection Kawann Short, who this past offseason signed a five-year, $80.5 million extension.

A starting pair of Short and Butler still would be strong, although Lotulelei in the mix would keep the four-man rotation among the best -- if not the best -- in the league.

The biggest question in the secondary will be how much Adams, who will turn 37 in March, has left at strong safety. If anybody is in line for a reduced role, it could be him.

But the rest of the defense remains in place for a title run if new offensive coordinator Norv Turner can elevate the game of quarterback Cam Newton and others on that side of the football.

It’s also looking like defensive coordinator Steve Wilks will remain in place with head coaching jobs that he interviewed for filling with other candidates. That’s another plus for Davis and company.

The window has not closed on the Panthers, even though it’s close to closing on Davis. The team’s all-time leading tackler realized that when current general manager Marty Hurney refused to extend his deal beyond the 2018 season.

“For me the decision [to retire] was made when I signed the extension," Davis said. “This is how much time I have to dedicate to this organization to win the Super Bowl."