NEW ORLEANS The Carolina Panthers are developing a stranglehold on the rookie of the year awards.
A year after Panthers quarterback Cam Newton won the Associated Press Offensive Rookie Award, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was named the top defensive rookie at the NFL Honors awards program Saturday night at the Jackson Theater.
Kuechly received 28 of a possible 50 first-place votes to easily outdistance Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who garnered 11 first-place votes. Green Bay cornerback Casey Hayward collected six.
Kuechly finished with an NFL-high 164 tackles, becoming the first rookie to lead the league in tackles since San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis in 2007. The Panthers credited Kuechly with 205 tackles based on coaches film review, which broke the team record set by James Anderson in 2011.
Kuechly, the No. 9 overall pick from Boston College, said his season took off when he moved from weakside linebacker to the middle after veteran Jon Beason went down with season-ending knee and shoulder injuries.
I was like, All right, this feels better. This feels more comfortable, said Kuechly, a middle linebacker at BC. I knew that I had to learn, learn, learn. I didnt take a whole lot of reps at the Mike. So that (bye) week after the Seattle game, I could relax, sit down and be like, All right, look, its middle linebacker like Ive always done. I just went from there.
The Panthers defense improved as a whole after Kuechly moved to the middle. Through the first four games the Panthers were 24th in total defense, allowing 393.8 yards a game. They finished 10th, giving up 333.1 yards.
The 14-spot improvement was the largest jump in the league over the final 13 weeks.
But as he did when he arrived in Charlotte, Kuechly was careful Saturday not to step on Beasons toes when asked whether his spot in the middle was permanent.
I havent heard anything. Thats the thing, Jons a great linebacker. Hes been one of the guys thats been very helpful to me, Kuechly said. I want him to get healthy. He wants to get healthy. We all want him to get healthy. I want a chance to play with him on the field, and wherever we line up I think well be excited to be there.
After averaging an NCAA-record 14 tackles a game at BC, Kuechly had an NFL-high 10 games with 10 stops or more including a 19-tackle performance against Atlanta in December the second-best, single-game total in team history.
Kuechly also had a sack, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries and eight pass breakups.
Like Newton, Kuechly has returned to college this offseason to work on finishing his degree. Hes taking five classes at BC this semester, and will return to Charlotte in April for off-season training activities.
Former Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, who was fired in October, often was criticized for his later round draft picks. But he nailed his last two first-rounders.
In Newton and Kuechly, the Panthers have cornerstones on each side of the ball to build around.
Weve just got to keep learning. Thats the biggest thing, Kuechly said. You can come in and have a great rookie season. . . . Ive just got to keep learning, keep improving and talk to the older guys because theyve been around.