Can Luke Kuechly win defensive rookie of the year?

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

As the 2012 season draws near to a close, the Panthers' first-round pick is in the race for a rookie honor.

Luke Kuechly was going to be great -- it was almost assured. Anyone looking to call themselves a 'scout' prior to the draft acknowledged that he was made to succeed as an NFL linebacker. While opinions varied on how high a team should take a LB who couldn't pass rush, the consensus was that he would succeed. Twelve weeks later he leads all rookies in tackles, is forth in the NFL, and it may not be enough.

With four games in hand, Kuechly is on pace for 152 tackles, which would set a franchise record for a rookie, exceeding Jon Beason's total of 140 set in 2007. A 100 tackle season is good, a 100 tackle for a rookie is better, a 150 tackle season for a rookie is a rare occurrence. However, three talented rookies are in the hunt too, and could keep the Panthers from garnering the award.

Casey Hayward

The cornerback out of Vanderbilt was a player many of us at CSR pined for, and were happy to cement as the Panthers 4th round selection in our mock drafts. The Green Bay Packers obviously saw that talent too, and valued him higher than we did. Their second-round pick, Hayward has been sensational, and a case of the rich getting richer.

Credited with 41 tackles, five interceptions, and 21 passes defended (second only to Tim Jennings), Hayward is out-playing every rookie cornerback from the 2012 class. While he may have played less snaps than Kuechly, he's made a huge impact, and that counts.

Bobby Wagner

Fellow middle-linebacker Bobby Wagner gives credence to the idea that good linebackers can be found throughout the draft. Selected at the 47th pick, Seattle have their long-term man in the middle, and the rookie out of Utah State is playing great football.

With 101 tackles it's unlikely Wagner can catch Luke Kuechly, however he has three sacks to his name -- a statistic that will get him noticed among voters.

Lavonte David

Another second-round linebacker, this is who Jaxon would have taken at #40, meanwhile I thought the Panthers would take Amini Silatolu -- so blame me if you don't like him, I guess.

In the NFL, David is exactly the player he was at Nebraska, helping to assuage the size-obsessed. Despite being just 233-lbs, he leads all rookies with an astounding 87 solo tackles. While he doesn't have a sack to his name, 108 total tackles from a 4-3 outside linebacker is a big number, and being part of Tampa Bay's early success will get him noticed.

~

The chance Luke Kuechly will get rewarded for being an amazing player on a bad team is a possibility, but it's hard to imagine anyone but Casey Hayward walking away with the title as it stands. Five interceptions and 21 passes defended are pro-bowl numbers, and when paired with him being on a playoff team, it's hard to imagine voters will overlook that performance.

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