One simple question:
Best Linebacking corps in the NFL ?
Personally, my response is a resounding yes. But the NFL is a place driven by competition and there are a lot of good linebacker groups out there. Just how does the Panthers group stack up? Are they really the best in the NFL?
We all know that the NFC South is a stacked division. Last season, the Falcons ran away with the division title, but behind them all 3 teams finished 7-9, with the Carolina Panthers coming in second place, sweeping the Saints last season and maintaining a better division record than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As tight as this division is, the Panthers really stand above the rest of the division in terms of their LB corp.
Though they might have been the division's best team last season, the linebacker corps was not a strength. They return their starting lineup from last season that was horrendously abused by the San Fransisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in the play offs last year. Stepping in for Curtis Lofton, who joined the Saints, Akeem Dent simply wasn't able to match the talent he was replacing while Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon simply weren't effective last season.
For the New Orleans Saints, they have a slightly different problem: coping with a switch from 4-3 to 3-4, which simply put is never easy, especially on a veteran such as 32 year old Will Smith who has been playing the 4-3 for his entire career. Likewise, the addition of Lofton was something of a mixed bag for the Saints. According the 2013 Football Almanac by the guys over at Football Outsiders, Lofton had the most blown tackles of any 4-3 MLB, but some what made up for it by being 3rd in their "Defeats" stat and was one of the top Clean-Up Tacklers in the NFL.
Tampa Bay probably has the stiffest competition for the Panthers' Linebackers within the division. Second year man Lavonte David was one of the best OLBs in the NFL last season. Coupled with Mason Foster in the middle, they form a very fearsome duo. Unfortunately though, a career-threatening injury caused them to release Quincy Black, which makes his back up a real question mark for the team.
Some Competition In the NFC
Around the NFC, there are a lot of very talented stars. Guys like Patrick Willis out of San Fransisco stand out immediately as superstars. But do they have the players around them to push their group to the top?
Seattle, for starters, may give some people pause. Bobby Wagner is a young star at MLB who had a great rookie season, not unlike Kuechly, racking up 140 tackles and adding in 2 sacks with 3 interceptions. Fun fact: he had a tackle or assist on 27.5% of running plays; best in the league. Expect him to be a fixture in the Seahawks defense for a long time to come. K. J. Wright is another good LB, adding in 98 tackes of his own to go with an INT and FF on the strong side. However, the next one up after is something of a mystery.
Division rival 49ers have an even more stacked collection. No discussion about top LBs in the NFL could be complete without Patrick Willis. But Patrick Willis is not a one man show. NaVorro Bowman combines with Willis to be perhaps the best ILB duo in the league. When you add in Aldon Smith's incredible ability to pressure the quarterback with the strong, steady, and somewhat underrated support from Ahmad Brooks, and you have a scary group.
A Little Introspection
With all the talent brimming at the position, picking one single group out as the best really is difficult. The Panthers are lucky in the fact that they have three Pro-Bowl calibre players to round out their corp. In one article I read, it was said that if J.J. Watt was not leading a particular defensive statistic, it was Luke Kuechly. And truly, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year had a truly fantastic season last year. Likewise, Thomas Davis was equally effective, coming up big with a number of key stops in several wins. And while he is transitioning to a new position, that must be like a walk in the park for a man who has come back from three ACL tears on the same knee.
The real question, surprisingly enough, is going to surrounding former Pro Bowl MLB, Jon Beason. Beason is not necessarily moving to a new position, per se, but he definitely preferred to play in the middle and he was always more effecitve there than at WLB. Also, missing time in training camp due to injuries on top of coming back from back-to-back seasons after being placed on IR makes it an uphill battle for the Beast.
The Rest of the NFL
I could probably talk all day about the NFL Linebacker corps. Heck, I'm creep up to just under 1000 words in this article alone, and I've only managed to cover our division and two teams out of the NFC West. I didn't even get to crack the AFC yet!
With that being said though, what to you guys think? Do the Panthers have the best Linebackers in the NFL? Or is it the San Francisco 49ers who are looking down on the rest of the competition. And... what about the teams in the AFC? Sound off and let us know where you think we stand.