Combine Linebackers Review: Kuechly Rising

"Kuechly Fever" threatens to become an epidemic after Boston College standout Luke Kuechly outperformed his competition at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine.D via cdn2.sbnation.com

There's a place for squared-shoulder, plodding linebackers who get downfield and not much else. Yet, if it's a linebacker who can shut down Jimmy Graham twice, fit into an exotic blitz package and bring run support behind a young defensive line - a unique athlete is in order.

The size and speed of this year's linebacker group at the NFL Scouting Combine promises multiple options for the Panthers to hit on a young player at that position who can fly around, and perhaps even become the heir-apparent to Thomas Davis on the weakside of the defense.

Similar to this year's wide receivers at the Combine - who were throwing up sub-4.4 40's all afternoon - this year's group of linebackers features a bunch of big guys with getty-up. As a matter of fact, Tar Heel prospect Zach Brown (6'1", 244) did much to support his case as a first-round prospect by putting an unofficial 4.44 40 (official time bumped up to 4.5) while pulling up at the end. In fact, Brown's and the 4.47-official time of California's Mychal Kendricks (5'11", 240) would have fit right in with that impressive class of wide receivers Sunday.

The 40-yard dash may not have helped any linebacker prospect in Indy more than Luke Kuechly (6'3", 240), however, who posted a 4.58 after being called back out for an unusual third attempt at the 40 after a three-tenths of a second difference between his first two attempts. Kuechly put up ridiculous stats playing middle linebacker at Boston College over the last three years, and had already cemented himself as a first-round prospect despite the questions many possessed about his overall athleticism.

With that 40 time, 27 bench press reps, vertical and broad jumps near the head of the class and outstanding times in the shuttle drills, Kuechly may have finally hustled his way onto our first round draft board - even if it'd still be as a "Rudy"-esque underdog. (More after the jump...)

A full list of NFL Combine results by position can be found at this link..

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NFL prospect Zach Brown honed his track athlete speed at UNC at Chapel Hill. - via media.scout.com

For what it's worth, at worst Keuchly appears to be an athletic upgrade over Panthers LB Dan Connor, who is believed to be departing to find a starting job through free agency. At best, Thomas Davis will become a player/coach during training camp because something tells me if you let this kid smell the field he's not going to go out for a down for about the next decade.

We're talking about a guy who was in the conversation purely on intangibles, and turns out to be a freaking decathlete sprinter. Maybe "Rudy" isn't a good analogy.

Oklahoma LB Ronnell Lewis (6'2", 250) is a player who reminds some of Thomas Davis for his ferocious tackling technique, and it turns out he truly does have comparable upper-body strength to TD after putting 225 up 36 times. This 250-pound beast could be on our second- to fourth-round radar come Draft Day. He isn't the only one, either.

Lewis's Oklahoma teammate Travis Lewis (6'2", 245), LSU's Ryan Baker (5'11", 235), Arkansas State's Demario Davis (6'2", 235), Kansas's Steve Johnson (6' 240) and many others are certain to get looks from the Panthers come April. NC State LB prospects Audie Cole (6'4", 250) and Terrell Manning (6'2'. 230) were neither spectacular runners, but put together solid events and should get drafted. Miami's Sean Spence (5'11", 230), Wake Forest's Kyle Wilber (6'4", 250) and Nevada's Brandon Marshall (6', 240) all looked promising as well.

Coming out of the Combine, one prospect the Panthers could give a look in the fourth or fifth round is Florida State's Nigel Bradham (6'2", 240), whose long frame seems ideal to defend tall tight ends in the passing game. Another eye-catcher with our scheme in mind came in the form of Texas's Keenan Robinson (6'3",240), whose college teammate Emmanuel Acho (6', 240) was also having a good workout until injuring a quad during the 40-yarder.

Another trio of intriguing prospects coming out of the workouts that resemble the most likely candidates if we were going linebacker in the second round; along R. Lewis, Brown and Kendricks) were probably West Virginia's Bruce Irvin, Alabama's Dont'a Hightower (6'2", 260) and Nebraska's Lavonte David (6'1", 230).

Alsbama prospect Courtney Upshaw (6'2". 270) chose not to put his speed on the record at the Combine or participate in several other drills, after arriving more resembling a defensive end than a linebacker physically.

A few other guys pulled up lame after slow first attempts, including the controversial Arizona State LB prospect Vontaze Burfict. He didn't exactly drag his feet at 5-flat, but then reported injured with no apparent malady. Burfict appeared to not show up quite as lean as may be desired in a professional athlete when pictured with other NFL prospects. He could remain available when the Panthers pick in the second round, as he did nothing to vault himself into the first round.

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Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict had a lot of questions to answer at this week's NFL Scouting Combine. - via www.bostonherald.com

Several players looked unimpressive during their 40's, but came back to shine in positional drills. These include Iowa's Tyler Nielsen - who tied Kuechly for the fastest 60-yard shuttle at 11.43 - and TCU's Tank Carder - who came close to this shuttle time at 11.53.
Spence, the somewhat undersized Miami prospect who has been linked to the Panthers, raised a red flag when he could only muster 12 reps on the bench press, the lowest among the class of prospects. N.C. State prospect Cole was also hurt by only putting up 15, but his 4.7 40.was moving for a big man.
About 30 athletes were on display in this pageant of linebacker prospects.

Draft Outlook

The linebacker position remains a major area of need for the Panthers, whose starting WLB and top reserve MLB Dan Connors' futures are both up in the air with the team. The question is how to go about restocking the shelves of the unit and what scheme to bring them along in.

There is an expectation among many Rivera is developing a - if not a full-on transition to the 3-4 - situational, "hybrid" look to free up rush linebackers off the edge. The mere contemplation of running anything near a 3-4 demands more personnel than the team could likely muster in one salary-cap hamstrung offseason, but these looks can be achieved by shifting the defensive line and standing an end up outside the offensive tackle - like a 3-4 linebacker.

Regardless of scheme, the Panthers didn't have enough starting linebackers to play a base nickel defense early on last year, exposing a glaring need for dynamic young players to bring along at backer.

The team also drafted UConn LB prospect Lawrence Wilson last year in the Draft, even when linebacker wasn't a perceived position of need. He was eventually cut from the team after an arrest during the bye-week. I think the coaching staff is still seeking another linebacker to really get after it on special teams with Jordan Senn, in addition to the serviceable depth just referred to.

What they plan to do with TD and the weakside linebacker - I can only speculate an insurance policy is appropriate at this time.

As I see it, linebacker will push defensive back in the second or fourth, but must be addressed in the later rounds if not at that point. An "X Factor" is Panthers GM Marty Hurney's famous double-dip maneuver, which could come at this position late in the draft.

Rivera also ran a 3-4 in San Diego and loves bringing in guys he's coached in the past, maybe another one of those will shake free during the offseason. The salary cap likely forbids the team from truly shaking the unit up, but the role LB Omar Gaither was to play in 2011 - a veteran reserve/when called upon starter - may be needful to pursue in addition to any Draft strategy for the Panthers.

This could also be the future role for TD - at a drastically reduced salary - if talent were splashed on top of the unit, and probably makes the most sense for a veteran coming off three knee surgeries.

Kuechly has done enough to come in for a private interview in Charlotte before April, and with his great instincts and NFL-vetted elite athletic ability: it'll be tough for Rivera not to be able to easily identify with this gutsy gamer.

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