2014 Position Preview: Linebackers

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, the Panthers rode to the playoffs on a street littered with the sacked carcasses of opposing quarterbacks. The pass rush was furious, but it was middle-linebacker Luke Kuechly that brought home the Defensive Player of the Year Award, and with good reason. Lets take a look at what 2014 might hold for the Kuechly-led linebacking corps...

While there has been plenty of upheaval throughout the Panthers' roster this offseason, stability has been the word for the linebacking corps.  Jordan Senn and Dan Connor are gone, but neither of them played more than 22 defensive snaps last season.  Senn's special teams play will be missed, but hopefully one of the undrafted rookies will be able to step up and fill that role.  Without further ado, lets see how the position shakes out going into camp...

Luke Kuechly - MLB

100% chance to make roster; 100% chance to start

The reigning DPOY is already one of the smartest linebackers in the game going into his 3rd season.  He is the soul of this defense and will be in the blue and black for a long time to come.  He is a tackling machine and his pass-rush skills seem to be improving as well.  If he can stay healthy and continue to grow in pass coverage his game will be more complete than any other 'backer in the NFL, and we'll be looking at his bust in Canton someday.

Thomas Davis - OLB

100% chance to make roster; 100% chance to start

The bionic man held together for a 2nd straight season and is now looking to make it a 3rd on his thrice-repaired knee.  In 2013, TD was overlooked again for any yearly awards, but his play sure warranted at least a Pro-Bowl berth if not All-Pro status.  You can definitely tell he spent his years on the sideline studying the game.  In the early years of Davis' career, he was know for his athleticism, being a former safety, and his penchant for making bone-jarring hits.  His field awareness was suspect.  Now, though, TD's game has taken that next step.  He always seems to make the right reads, take the correct angles, and see through screens and play-action.  Barring injury, I think this may be TD's year to step into the spotlight.  The knee should be feeling good, the D-line is a known quantity, Kuechly doesn't need any babysitting, so Davis should be able to run a little wild this year and show just how good he can be.

Chase Blackburn - LB

95% chance to make the roster; 50% chance to start

The key thing to remember is that the Panthers play a 4-3 scheme in name only.  Like most teams in the new NFL, the Panthers spend the majority of their snaps running a nickel defense.  Also, A.J. Klein could easily supplant Chase in the starting lineup if he progresses well. Blackburn is a savvy veteran, but he is slow as molasses and has been prone to letting plays get behind him in his short stint with the Panthers.  He'll really need to step up in training camp and preseason if he wants to fend off the younger Klein.

A.J. Klein - LB

100% chance to make the roster; 45% chance to start

A.J. is the future, and shined in his first starting opportunity last season when he sacked Colin Kaepernick twice in the Panthers' win over San Francisco during the regular season.  He will be expected to play a heavier role on special teams this year with Jordan Senn moving on, and he will also need to begin to be a little vocal in the locker room, to show he can step up and be a leader.  A.J. seems to be a definite part of the team's plans going forward, so his roster spot should be safe, but if he wants to take that next step and win the starting spot, he'll need to exhibit more consistency.

Jason Williams - LB

85% chance to make the roster; 5% chance to start

Jason has been a bit of a journeyman throughout his career, but keeps seeming to find his way home to Carolina.  Since 2010, Jason has been a steady, reliable backup and special teamer.  As a 3rd round pick by Dallas in 2009, it is strange that the Cowboys gave up on him so early, as he was a Panther before his 2nd season even ended.

Ben Jacobs - LB

65% chance to make the roster; 0% chance to start

Ben was the only other linebacker to be a part of a Panthers' roster last year, so he goes into camp with the 5th spot his to lose.  A 2-year veteran out of Fresno State, I'm not going to lie and say I know much else about him.  I don't remember him ever sticking out in preseason or camp last year, and he didn't play a snap during the regular season or playoffs.

Denicos Allen - LB

35% chance to make the roster; 0% chance to start

Denicos is the most intriguing of the undrafted rookie/fringe veteran group this season.  He is an undersized pass-rush specialist coming from the most stingy defense in college football.  He is quick and explosive, but can be very inconsistent and gets lost in coverage sometimes.  His speed and athleticism would give him a great weapon for special teams if he chooses to embrace that role, which he should considering special teams may be his best opportunity to stand out and prove his usefulness to win the final LB spot.

D.J. Smith - LB

5% chance to make the roster; 0% chance to start

Here due to having NFL experience.  Played at Appalachian State.  Likely camp cut.

Adarius Glanton - LB

5% chance to make the roster; 0% chance to start

A hard-hitter out of Florida Atlantic University, the rookie UDFA will need to stand out on special teams to earn a spot.  Likely practice squad candidate.

Billy Boyko - LB

5% chance to make the roster; 0% chance to start

A blue-collar worker that made it to the final round of cuts in Oakland last season.  May end up on the practice squad if he catches someone's eye.

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