CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers lost perhaps their most productive defensive player Monday when tests showed weakside linebacker Thomas Davis has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Davis' season-ending injury came without getting hit in Sunday's loss to New Orleans. He was backpedaling, stopped to plant and his knee buckled. He crumpled to the turf as Drew Brees threw a 17-yard pass to Pierre Thomas in the fourth quarter.
A serious injury was immediately feared, and it derails the speedy Davis' most successful season in another blow for injury-plagued Carolina (3-5).
"He's played very well. I feel bad for the young man because he's put a lot into it," coach John Fox said before the team revealed the extent of the injury. "He was playing at a high level. It's unfortunate, and I feel bad for him and his family."
Davis, a 2005 first-round pick from Georgia in his fourth season with the Panthers, ranks second on the team behind fellow linebacker Jon Beason with 69 tackles. He also had two sacks and an interception and his teammates had begun talking about him as a Pro Bowl selection.
"This defense is pretty much made for the Will linebacker to be a playmaker," safety Chris Harris said. "Thomas, with his physical skill and ability was making plays left and right. He was having an excellent year, possibly a Pro Bowl-type year."
Davis is the second defensive starter to be lost for the season, joining Maake Kemoeatu (torn Achilles tendon), who went down on the first day of training camp.
Davis missed much of training camp with a sprained medial collateral ligament in the same knee, then sat out the Buffalo game last month with a strained hamstring. The latest injury comes at an inopportune time for Davis, who will be a restricted free agent after the season.
"I feel like that if the Panthers want to bring him back they're not going to hold that against him," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "He's really done a great job this year. This has been his best season since he's been in the league."
Landon Johnson, who led Cincinnati in tackles three times over four seasons but has been much less productive in two seasons with Carolina, will likely move into the starting lineup. Johnson had 10 tackles filling in for Davis against the Bills.
"If I end up going in to replace TD it's obviously big shoes to fill," Johnson said. "I just got to go out there and practice as hard as I can."
The Panthers did not immediately place Davis on injured reserve, which would open a roster spot for another linebacker. Reserve James Anderson can also play that position, but linebacker Na'il Diggs said it's impossible to replace Davis.
"I haven't seen another one like him on any team I've played on," Diggs said. "Just flat out crazy talent, crazy athleticism."