7) Dan Connor
2013 Stats: 5 games with the Panthers, 1 tackle, 1 assist
Summary: Back with his second tour of duty with the Carolina Panthers, Connor provided depth at the linebacker position. The team signed him midseason as an insurance policy after Chase Blackburn’s injury and the trade of Jon Beason. As you can see by his stats, he hardly saw the field on defense, spending most of his time on special teams and making hardly a peep. It remains to be seen if the Panthers will bring him back next year.
6) Jason Williams
2013 Stats: 11 games, 3 tackles, 1 assist, 1 blocked punt
Summary: Similar to Connor, Williams was signed in-season to provide much needed depth to the position. Also like Connor, he spent the majority of his playing time on special teams. His 2013 season was most memorable for his blocked punt against the New York Jets in Week 15.
Highlight: In a tight, back-and-forth game against the Jets, the Panthers desperately needed a win in Week 15 to keep their NFC South division championship and playoff berth hopes alive. The Panthers offense was atrocious, scoring only one offensive touchdown all game. At the moment the team really needed a game-changing play, Williams provided it. After a defensive stop in Jets territory, their punt would end up being blocked by Williams, leading to a Mike Tolbert touchdown and two score lead. It would be too much for the Jets offense to overcome.
5) Jordan Senn
2013 Stats: 14 games, 4 tackles, 3 assist
Summary: If anything, Senn continued to provide the consistent, steady play needed by the Panthers on special teams. With his experience and leadership, the special teams unit did a heck of job this year, limiting the damage done by opposing kick and punt returners. He is hard to evaluate without any meaningful playing time, but we know he can be serviceable at linebacker, based on his body of work when he filled in during the 2011 season. Until then, he should be viewed as simply a special teams player.
4) A.J. Klein
2013 Stats: 16 games, 2 starts, 18 tackles, 3 assist, 2 sacks
Summary: With moderate fanfare as the Panthers 2013 fifth-round draft pick, Klein lived up to these expectations. He made a few plays, made a few "rookie mistakes," and overall, flashed the potential to become a quality starting linebacker for this franchise for years to come. While some were ready to call him "Luke 2.0" before playing a down, it seems "Optimus Klein" is more appropriate, especially after his breakout performance against San Francisco.
Lowlight: While a particular lowlight does not stand out, I do remember being disappointed by his play in the preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens. He was out of position a few times, and when he had an offensive player out in space, he outran and/or overplayed instead of making the simple tackle. In the regular season, he had an impressive debut against the 49ers, but had stretches where disappeared, such as the Monday Night Football game against the New England Patriots. He is an intriguing prospect, but he has a ways to go before reaching Luke Kuechly’s level.
Highlight: With an injury to Chase Blackburn, the Panthers counted on Klein for significant stretches during the San Francisco 49ers game. Despite the playoff atmosphere of the game, Klein shook off the nerves and made some eye-popping plays that led to the road victory. First, he stopped Frank Gore in the backfield on a 3rd-and-1 play that would force the 49ers to punt. And second, he flashed his speed and agility when he blitzed and sacked quarterback Colin Kaepernick for a huge loss.
3) Chase Blackburn
2013 Stats: 13 games, 7 starts, 19 tackles, 13 assist, 1 pass defensed
Summary: A cheap pick-up from the New York Giants, Blackburn was a huge presence for the Panthers defense. He brought a fiery leadership on the field, and Super Bowl experience/mentorship off of it. He was not a flashy player by any means, but he was nearly always in the right spot. He was such a productive and efficient linebacker that the Panthers felt comfortable trading an out-of-position, fan favorite in Jon Beason. Beason, in the few games he played for the Panthers this year, struggled at the outside linebacker position. He over-ran a few plays, was blocked out of plays frequently, and was burned by pass-catchers (see Seattle and Buffalo games). Blackburn’s play was so strong, that hardly a Panthers fan missed his on-field production when he left for the New York Giants.
Lowlight: Blackburn injured his right foot in the 49ers game, and would miss the next 3 games. Although Klein filled in admirably, Blackburn’s presence was missed. Whether it was from the injury, or from age, he did not "pop" on film when he returned.
Highlight: None come to mind. He was steady as a rock.
2) Luke Kuechly
2013 Stats: 16 games, 16 starts, 96 tackles, 70 assist, 4 INTs, 2 sacks, 8 pass defensed
Summary: Whoa, Kuechly is the "second best linebacker" on the Panthers? Hear me out.
Kuechly is a fan favorite and a dynamic tackling machine from the middle linebacker position. He rightfully belongs in the heart of the defense, following in the footsteps of former Panthers star middle linebackers Dan Morgan and Jon Beason. He also gets his teammates in the right position at the right time, playing "quarterback" on defense. By the end of the season, he earned a well-deserved Pro Bowl selection.
But he still has some work to do.
The elephant in the room is Kuechly’s average cover skills. In his defense, he had assignments such as Tony Gonzalez (twice), Jimmy Graham (twice), Vernon Davis (twice), Rob Gronkowski, Charles Clay, and Jared Cook. Not easy by any means. But far too often, he looked out-of-place or lagging in coverage against top tight ends. "Shutdown" cover corner he is not. More alarming is that his failure to cover showed up far too often in crucial situations.
In Buffalo, he was flagged for pass interference on the final drive, putting the Bills deep in Panthers territory and leading to a last-second score that led to a loss. Against New England, Kuechly was torched by Gronkowski twice on the last drive of the game, nearly leading to another loss. Although not entirely his fault, Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham gashed the defense for numerous yards and combined for 3 touchdowns in 4 games against the Panthers.
And in the playoff loss, he had Vernon Davis alone in the end zone on the final drive of the first half. But his poor coverage of Davis (he lagged, then slipped and fell) on a Kaepernick roll out led to a highlight reel catch. That score would put the 49ers ahead for good.
Don’t get me wrong. He is still a stud MLB, and I am happy he wears black and blue. But he still has plenty to improve upon next year. If he takes a huge leap like Cam Newton did in his third season, watch out.
Lowlight: With the game on the line, and a large crowd watching on a Monday Night Football game, Luke Kuechly struggled on the final drive of the game. On a 4th down the Patriots had to convert, quarterback Tom Brady attacked a trailing Kuechly to hit a wide open Gronkowski for the conversion. But the last play of the game was the most memorable. With seconds remaining in the game, Brady again looked for Gronkowski, this time in the end zone. Safety Robert Lester would intercept the ball, but not without controversy. As seen numerous times on film, Kuechly was draped all over Gronkowski, which affected his ability to catch the ball. Kuechly was not flagged on the play, and the Panthers would go on to win the game. But the "no-call" would go on to tarnish the controversial win.
Highlight: Kuechly made a HUGE impact, along with Thomas Davis, in the rain-filled, divisional rivalry game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16. He was practically everywhere, swarming to the ball on nearly every play. Stop after stop, his motor and tackle were relentless. By the end of the game, he had a stat-line to remember: 24 tackles, 1 interception, 1 tackle for loss, and 1 pass defensed.
1) Thomas Davis
2013 Stats: 16 games, 16 starts, 89 tackles, 42 assist, 2 INTs, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 8 pass defensed
Summary: While his return from 3 ACL surgeries on the same knee is well publicized, his contributions to a dominant defense could be talked about a little more. Davis had an incredible 2013 campaign, with dizzying array of tackles (131), sacks (4), and turnovers (5). When Thomas Davis has been healthy and in the lineup for the Panthers during his career, the defense has always been strong and dominant. This year was no exception.
I watched Davis play every game this year, and he "showed up" in all of them. Whether it was a vicious tackle in the open field, or a missile-like pursuit of a QB or RB in the backfield, Davis always finds a way to make his presence known in every game. He never "disappears," and his steady contributions are a huge reason why the Panthers defense was so strong.
To me, he was the best linebacker for the Carolina Panthers in 2013. At the very least, he and Kuechly can be 1A and 1B. If we had to split hairs, Davis did not appear to make as many mistakes as Kuechly, nor disappear like Kuechly did for stretches at times. Maybe it is Davis’ years of experience. Maybe it is his drive after sitting out three seasons. Or maybe he benefits from not having the large amount of responsibilities that Kuechly has. But to me, Davis appeared to be the most valuable and the better linebacker.
Let’s be honest though. Having Kuechly and Davis (or as I like to call them, Beauty and the Beast) playing side by side is something we Panthers fans have to enjoy while we still can. Instead of debating the merits of who is better, let us applaud this dynamic duo, the leaders of the intimidating Panthers defense.
Lowlight: Can’t think of any.
Highlight: Just like Kuechly, Davis’ best game happened to be against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16. Although it seemed Kuechly was everywhere, Davis was everywhere he was not. His stat-line was ridiculous also: 14 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception, and 1 pass defensed. He was absolutely dominant, sniffing out every screen pass and stuffing every play in front of him.
Other Highlights: I cannot help but also include his games at MInnesota and at home against Atlanta. Against Minnesota, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott sent him on well-time blitzes, and Davis went untouched to the quarterback for a sack. Twice. His speed was just too much for the Vikings to overcome. Against the Falcons, his circus-style, front-flipping interception was a breath-taking highlight, and again, especially for someone his age and coming off 3 ACL surgeries. It would also change the momentum of the game and give the Panthers the win.