The Carolina Panthers didn't need a linebacker when they selected Luke Kuechly with their first pick in 2012, but he turned out to be just what they craved. A season-ending injury to Jon Beason thrust him into the lineup, and while some doubted he could be an impact player, he showed preternatural instincts, and an uncanny understanding of football concepts. As we wait to see Kuechly back on the gridiron, Gil Brandt of NFL.com is ready to anoint him as the next 'great one'.
With Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher hanging up their cleats, Brandt looked at Kuechly -- who he believes is the top linebacker in the NFL under 25-years-old. He broke this evaluation into five key areas: Competitiveness, instincts, production, speed/athleticism, rounding out the group with block shedding. We know what he looked like on Sundays, but it's hard not to get excited when national analysts are seeing the same thing with an unbiased eye.
He's a very tough and physical presence, a "lay it on the line on every play" type of guy who will never give up.
The influence on the Panthers' defense last year was uncanny. As great as Jon Beason is at middle linebacker (and make no mistake, he's great) he didn't have the same infectious competitiveness. It's no coincidence that the entire defense became better with Kuechly in the middle, and suddenly over-matched players began making plays where they normally wouldn't. He's already being called the leader of the Panthers' defense, and that's starting to show.
Some players seem to be born with great instincts, and others simply don't have what it takes. Kuechly's instincts are exceptional; he moves before the ball is snapped, takes great angles and just has a sense of where the play is going. This gives the Panthers' defense a step on their opponents.
This was the easiest pre-draft scouting report I've ever done. Players either get it, or they don't. On film you could see that Kuechly understood football on a level few are able to. Forget stat padding, and other unnecessary criticisms -- a linebacker doesn't amass 200 tackle seasons in college without having an innate understanding of the game.
Rarely do we see players like this forget how to play when they hit the NFL. Kuechly didn't have classic pass rushing skills, but it didn't matter. Cam Newton didn't have traditional passing skills when he arrived from Auburn, but the same premise was there -- they were natural, and instinctive.
A linebacker must, of course, produce on the field. One way to gauge that production is to look at tackles -- and by that measure, Kuechly definitely is a production machine.
Brandt's take (and a good one) is to exclude assisted tackle from analysis. This allows to measure plays where the linebacker was asked to make a stop himself. Kuechly's 103 solo tackles puts him above Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher's rookie years.
It's here where Kuechly separates from someone like Bobby Wagner. The Seattle rookie was similarly hailed as a rookie of the year prospect, but he didn't have the same individual production that Kuechly did.
The bottom line is, Kuechly loves to play football, and it shows. He's got outstanding character and great work habits, and he's very smart. I expect him to be a dominant linebacker who should make many Pro Bowls over the next 12 years or so.
Cam had Steve Smith his rookie season, but Luke was asked to paint a masterpiece with mashed potatoes. Without adequate help at defensive tackle, he was forced to stay home too often and play it safe. This put him in a position where it was difficult to make plays, yet he was still able to. Now he'll be free to roam up at the line of scrimmage more often with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short paving the way. The threat of needing to be 'the guy' is gone, and now he can settle down into a more natural middle linebacker role. Last year he was too often asked to be the playmaker, and the last line of defense.
The sky is the limit for Kuechly, and he's humble throughout. Forget Brandt's look at linebackers under 25, Kuechly is still the second-youngest player on the roster at 22 -- and still has so much more to achieve. There's no telling how effective he can be with this current defensive line grouping.