Published August 17, 2010
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Jon Beason has played in the Pro Bowl the past two seasons. He set a Carolina franchise record last year with 169 tackles, displaying the speed, aggressiveness and hard-hitting that have made him one of the NFL's top middle linebackers.
So why in the heck would the Panthers move him to another position?
Look in the middle of the field at training camp these days and you won't find Beason. Instead, he's been shuffled to weakside linebacker in a gamble coach John Fox believes will make up for a key injury — while not limiting the effectiveness of perhaps his top defensive player.
It's left Beason, a team leader and one of the few veterans left on the NFL's third-youngest team, scrambling around camp like he's a rookie again.
"I'm making strides every day," Beason said as sweat poured down his face following Tuesday's practice. "The beauty of it is we're still installing, so every day I get a new challenge. It allows me to be a rookie again. I have to be on my toes, have to be in my (play)book. This camp has been eventful."
Beason then chuckled as he pointed toward Thomas Davis, who walked off the field following another day of rehabilitation as he recovers from his second torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a year.
When the speedy Davis went down again in June, the Panthers decided to put reserve Dan Connor at middle linebacker and shift Beason to Davis' old spot. The weakside linebacker, who lines up on the side of the field away from the tight end, is a key position. Not having to deal with as many blockers, he's supposed to collect numerous tackles in defensive coordinator Ron Meeks' Cover-2 system.
"I feel comfortable with him at any linebacker spot," Fox said of Beason. "He's a guy we know the most about. He's got the most history with us. He's got the ability to play at any of those spots."
Beason played at weakside some in college and early in his rookie season with Carolina, but had reached a comfort level in the middle. While not thrilled with the change at first, he's accepted it.
It's just taken longer than he thought to figure everything out.
"I didn't think there would be that much of a (learning) curve," Beason said. "Not so much as it's new, just trying to get that comfort level where I can play free and not think as much, be more instinctive."
The key difference is responsibility on plays.
"I have to be a little more disciplined when I'm playing the weakside," Beason said. "When you're the (middle linebacker) you have to have the ability to go both ways based on the play. At (weakside) sometimes they run away from you and you have to sit back and contain. So some plays I can't be as aggressive."
Then there's the issue of the defensive playcalling. Beason has worn the helmet radio to get the defensive signals in the past. He said he plans to continue to wear the headset, but Connor will make the defensive checks just before the snap.
"I think the guys are familiar with my voice in the huddle," Beason said. "It's good that Dan gets to make the calls because it makes him feel more like a (middle linebacker). Getting people lined up, making checks is something he can handle. He's a quiet guy by nature, so getting him talking more is good."
Beason also stressed that he's not finished playing middle linebacker. He said four of five defensive packages have him in the middle, mostly when extra defensive backs are used on passing downs.
"It all depends on what kind of game it is," he said. "If we jump up seven to 10 points, they're probably going to go three or four wide receiver sets where I'm probably going to be the (middle linebacker) the whole game."
But at the start of games he'll be on the outside. He said he felt OK playing there in last week's exhibition opener at Baltimore, taking issue with ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who criticized him when he appeared to be out of position.
"I didn't have any mentals as far as my responsibility," Beason said. "It was a little slippery out there. I slipped on one play where Gruden referred to me as a fish out of water. I appreciate it. It's just a little added motivation, more fuel to the fire. When I see coach Gruden I'll let him know how I feel about it."
You can change Beason's position, but can't take away the intensity that's helped him collect 488 tackles in three NFL seasons.
"This is just a part of football," Beason said. "Somebody goes down and the No. 2 guy steps up and performs when it's his turn."