Bruce Irvin signing integral to Ron Rivera's plans for Panthers' D

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was more than halfway through his one-hour session with reporters at the NFL owners meetings on Tuesday before getting a question about quarterback Cam Newton’s surgically repaired shoulder.

“Trick question?" Rivera replied jokingly from a ballroom at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix.

That it took so long for the 2015 NFL MVP to get a mention was somewhat of a shocker because Newton is the team’s headline player, regardless of his health.

Not wanting to put an unfair deadline on Newton’s rehab in terms of when he would become an active participant in offseason workouts -- i.e., throwing -- Rivera simply said reports continue to be positive and “things are trending in the right direction."

He could have said the same thing about his defense, which is transitioning into a mix of a 3-4 scheme with the traditional 4-3 the Panthers have used predominantly under Rivera since 2011.

While Newton’s health is key to offensive success, this transition is equally important to the defensive goals.

That’s why Rivera spent more time talking about the addition of free agent Bruce Irvin, 31, than he did his quarterback.

Signing Irvin to a one-year, $4 million deal checked off several boxes for Rivera, who will continue calling defensive plays in 2019, as he began doing late last season. Irvin, the 15th pick of the 2012 draft, will replace some of the leadership lost when the Panthers opted not to re-sign all-time leading tackler Thomas Davis, who last week turned 36.

Irvin can be a sack threat as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and outside linebacker in a 3-4, something Davis wasn’t.

And should the Panthers take an edge rusher with the 16th pick, as many have projected, Irvin can take the pressure off that player to immediately thrive in addition to being a teacher.

“We’re losing the heart and soul of our team in a guy like Thomas Davis," Rivera said. “You have to bring in a guy that has that reputation. Bruce is one of those leadership type of guys that will come in and will help these guys in what it takes.

“His position flexibility, it’s going to play into some of the things I’d like to see us do in terms of even fronts versus odd fronts, different packages of rush-type players."

Asked if he sees Irvin more as a linebacker or end, Rivera said, “That’s the point."

In other words, the less the opponent knows about where Irvin and other defenders line up, the better.

“That’s exactly the point," said Rivera, referring to his days as the linebackers coach at Philadelphia (1999-2003) under defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who used a similar philosophy. “What it does is put stresses on the offense you’re about to play."

The Panthers began experimenting with different fronts late last season when Rivera took over the defensive playcalling in an attempt to stop a four-game losing streak that eventually reached seven after a 6-2 start.

The best results came in a 12-9 loss to eventual NFC South champion New Orleans. That also was the last game for linebacker Shaq Thompson, who like Newton was shut down in the final two games because of a shoulder injury that had been lingering.

Thompson’s position flexibility was integral to a lot of things Rivera wanted to do out of the 3-4 scheme.

“Unfortunately, with losing Shaq, we couldn’t do it," said Rivera, who ran a 3-4 scheme as the defensive coordinator with the Chargers from 2008 to '10.

Rivera won’t ask Thompson to be the emotional leader that Davis was.

“When we didn’t have Thomas for the first four games [because of a suspension], I thought Shaq was very dynamic for us," Rivera said. “When we missed Luke [Kuechly], Shaq stepped in and played middle linebacker in our nickel package.

“So really, it’s going to be about featuring him and using his playmaking ability."

Rivera likes the way the secondary is taking shape with cornerbacks James Bradberry and Donte Jackson, along with veteran safety Eric Reid.

Second-year player Rashaan Gaulden is among a handful of players who will get a shot at the second safety spot. Gaulden also is going to get a long look as the nickelback.

Up front, Pro Bowl tackle Kawann Short has shown the ability to play end in a 3-4 scheme with Dontari Poe anchoring the tackle spot in a 3-4. Vernon Butler, like Short, can move inside or out.

Rivera made it clear he’d like to re-sign free agent tackle Kyle Love, who like Poe is a space-eater inside.

The biggest hole is at end, where Mario Addison is the only proven player since the retirement of Julius Peppers. That’s why a rush end who also can play outside linebacker or tackle appears to be the target in the first round.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper consistently has made Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell (6-foot-4, 264 pounds) Carolina’s pick at o. 16 in his mock drafts.

“I feel very comfortable and confident in our potential to grow as a defense," Rivera said.