The curse of being regarded as the most 'NFL ready' rookie at your position is that analysts are ready to immediately tack huge expectations on players. This is the case for Luke Kuechly, whom pundits are already tagging to win the illustrious 'Defensive Rookie of the Year' award. Last year Von Miller was seen as 'NFL ready' and he came in and won the DROY handily.
There's more to selecting Kuechly than blind punditry, the fact is we've see a huge trend of linebackers transitioning easily to the NFL, and making a big impact in year one. Since 2000 we've had twelve DROY, ten of them have been linebackers... yes, ten; the only two other players to win the award who didn't play LB were Julius Peppers in 2002, and Ndamukong Suh in 2010. If a player was a good linebacker in college, they are normally a good linebacker at the next level-- it's not too hard to project them. So, for someone like Kuechly who demolished the NCAA level he shouldn't have too hard of a time being an impact player in year one.
After the jump we'll look at the linebackers who most closely resembled Kuechly, and get a sense for their 1st year stats.
'Linebacker' is fairy ubiquitous, and doesn't take into account the huge variance from a 3-4 OLB, to a 4-3 MLB. Out of those initial ten former DROY linebackers we have four who played middle linebacker in a 4-3, and one who played OLB.
Should Luke Kuechly move inside, and Jon Beason moves to OLB it would probably allow the rookie to make the biggest impact in year one. His role would be similar to that at Boston College, and that alone would lead to a comfort level. Here is how fellow 4-3 MLB's who won the rookie of the year stacked up:
Brian Urlacher (2000): 101 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 INT
Could Kuechly do this? He's not as gifted a pass rusher from the MLB spot that Urlacher was, and it's important to note that Urlacher couldn't reach this 8 sack total again. The tackles and INTs are completely attainable though.
Jonathan Vilma (2004): 107 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT
Could Kuechly do this? Absolutely. There's nothing about Vilma's stats that jump off the page (other than the fact he was a rookie). Luke's ability as a pass defender from MLB, coupled with a gift for tackling means this is completely attainable.
DeMeco Ryans (2006): 126 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF
Could Kuechly do this? The main problem here is the tackles. Not that Luke Kuechly is unable to get 120+ by himself, but it's important to remember that he'll be flanked by James Anderson and Jon Beason, both of whom play heads-up football, and will fly to the ball. It's possible, but getting the lion's share of tackles will be difficult.
Brian Cushing (2009): 133 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 INT, 2 FF
Could Kuechly do this? Probably not. Cushing can deny it until the cows come home, but his rookie campaign was fortified by chemicals. He was suspended for testing positive for HGH, yet the AP still gave him this honor. The tackle total is problematic itself, but couple this with the sacks, INTs and FFs- all of a sudden it looks very unlikely Luke could hit these numbers.
Position average: 117 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 3 INT, 1 FF
- Chance Luke Kuechly could hit these totals at MLB: 65%
It will take a lot of work, but for such a gifted read-and-react player it's completely possible that Luke Kuechly could hit these goals.
The other option for the Panthers is to keep Beason in the middle, and use Kuechly's athleticism on the outside. It will be a lot harder for him to make plays from this position, and his gifts are more as a sideline to sideline OLB, than a pass rushing one. In order to make waves he'd need to put up mammoth INT numbers, which is possible but improbable.
Von Miller (2011): 64 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 2 FF
Could Kuechly do this? No. Unless he has skills that we haven't seen he doesn't have the knack as a pass rusher to touch Von Miller's numbers which were some of the most dominant pass rushing stats from a 4-3 OLB in twenty years. Miller was always pegged to be a 3-4 rush linebacker, yet John Fox believed he could have him rush the passer from a 4-3 base. Kuechly is far better in run support, and he plays the ball better in the air, but he isn't in the same class as a rusher.
Sure, it's insanely early to talk about DROY honors before training camp, but sometimes it's fun to make ludicrously early predictions. What do you think Panthers fans? Could Kuechly put up the stats needed to win defensive rookie of the year in 2012?