Training camp once looked like a ship on the horizon, now it's almost palpable. In just over two weeks the Carolina Panthers begin their 2012 campaign in the sweltering heat of Spartanburg, a location that's perfect for rookies to cut their teeth and start learning the 'Panther way'.
Last year the hype surrounding training camp was at fever pitch. Between Cam Newton and the new coaching staff there were a lot of unknown quantities that had fans curious. This year there's decidedly less raw excitement, and far more optimism. This is the camp where the Panthers will take a step forward, and hope to develop their organization as a perennial contender. With Cam Newton in place, and the offense set it's now time for the lagging defense to lift their game.
To this end rookie Luke Kuechly is of vital importance to helping further shape the defense. His ability as not only an athletic, and versatile linebacker, but as a leader will make huge dividends in 2012 and beyond. This morning we look at the Panthers rookie, and see why there's a lot to look forward to from our 1st round pick.
More after the jump
There are scores of reasons why the Panthers defense was so mediocre in 2011, but the impact caused by a lack of leadership was pronounced. Both James Anderson and Charles Godfrey are well liked and respected by teammates, but neither fit the mold of vocal field general. Losing Jon Beason's ability as a leader was almost as important as the lack of his ability as a player, and as such the defense looked disorganized. Despite what Mel Kiper likes to say, Luke Kuechly will not supplant Beason as leader of the Panthers defense any time soon, however it doesn't hurt to have another vocal, cerebral player on that side of the ball.
What remains to be seen is how two leaders can work in tandem at the same position. In the past Carolina has had great success with a LB/S combination of leaders with Mark Fields and Mike Minter working together, then later with Jon Beason and Chris Harris, but we'll need to wait to see how Beason and Kuechly will pair up.
If you were a member of CSR prior to the draft you know that I heaped effusive praise on Luke Kuechly when looking at him as a prospect. I, like many, had questions about his usefulness to the Panthers given the return of Beason and Davis, but there was no doubt in my mind that Kuechly was the defensive player in the draft who would reach greatness the fastest. I've watched a lot of linebackers play while scouting prospects, and I've never seen one with the instincts and ability that Kuechly showed at Boston College. Every snap you saw a player who found a way to make an impact-- whether that was in big ways like a critical interception or TD saving tackle, or in little ways like throwing himself at a player to make that critical chip that resulted in an assisted tackle. Kuechly was everywhere for BC, and if you listen to his teammates and coaches sing his praises you quickly realize that he's a player who, like Cam Newton, will work his tail off to get better.
A lot of the time we enter camp with the notion of 'position battles' and we analyze the minutia of every competition for starting spots between two players. In the case of the linebackers there isn't really a question of who, but where? It seems like the plan will be to play Anderson, Beason and Kuechly as the starting linebackers, with Thomas Davis coming off the bench in special packages. Like Cam Newton, it seems that Rivera and Hurney selected Kuechly to come in immediately and start, which was shown by the number of first team snaps he took in mini-camps. Yes, Beason and Davis were limited as they recovered from injury, but at no time was Kuechly not working with the first team in some capacity.
What makes the decision of where to play Beason and Kuechly so difficult is in how similar they are as players. Both have excellent sideline to sideline speed, both a very intelligent players, and both have an innate ability to close on a play and make a tackle. There are pros and cons to both options: Beason has been a Pro Bowler at MLB multiple times, and when playing OLB he looked out of his element. Meanwhile, Kuechly made waves at BC playing middle linebacker, and there are concerns about throwing a rookie at the league's best tight ends out of the gate.
As it stands we should expect to see Anderson/Beason/Davis as the starters on day one of training camp, because that is Ron Rivera's style. Lest we forget that Jimmy Clausen was taking 1st team snaps early in camp last year before being supplanted by Newton. It may be a few days before we see Kuechly working with the starters in Spartanburg, but I'd be shocked if he doesn't end up there.
Immediately following the draft there were concerns from some fans that our 1st round selection was nice, but wouldn't really improve the Panthers out of the gate. While I'll concede there are probably picks the front office could have made that would have a greater impact day one (like a DT), ultimately they went for the player they thought was the best available. If that winds up netting the Panthers a second Jon Beason for their defense then they're fast on the way to having the best group of linebackers in the NFL. I'm excited to see what #59 brings to the table this fall, and judging from our poll results a few weeks ago, you are too.