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Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly stakes claim as NFL’s next great middle linebacker

With Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher gone, some pointing to Panthers’ Kuechly as next great one in long hallowed line

    Jeff Siner -
    Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly followed his Rookie of the Year season with quite a performance in an exhibition against the Baltimore Ravens. His consistent improvement have led many to begin pointing to the former Boston College standout as the league’s next great player at his position.
    Jeff Siner -
    Carolina’s Luke Kuechly had a monster game against Baltimore with

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  • Analysis: Round 2 of Panthers' projected roster
  • Kugbila practices, giving Panthers much-needed depth on offensive line
  • It wasn’t Star level, but Panthers rookie Lotulelei wasn’t bad
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  • Inside the Panthers: More updates
  • NFL wire: More news
  • NFL Scoreboard
  • Full Panthers coverage
  • Top Inside linebackers

    With Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis retiring, there’s a void among the league’s top middle linebackers. The Observer looks at the players most qualified to assume the mantle of the premiere interior linebacker.

    • NaVorro Bowman, 49ers: Overshadowed by Patrick Willis; has averaged 103 tackles the past two seasons.

    • Brian Cushing, Texans: Back to lead Texan’s 3-4 scheme after missing most of last season with a knee injury.

    • London Fletcher, Redskins: Sixteen-year vet is still productive at 38.

    • Derrick Johnson, Chiefs: First-round pick from 2005 has come into his own the last two years.

    • Luke Kuechly, Panthers: Was the first rookie to lead the league in tackles since Willis in 2007.

    • James Laurinaitis, Rams: Former Ohio State star consistently ranked among the league’s top tacklers.

    • Sean Lee, Cowboys: Signed six-year contract extension last week, but has never made it through a 16-game season healthy.

    • Jerod Mayo, Patriots: AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008; has never finished a season with fewer than 95 tackles.

    • Bobby Wagner, Seahawks: Second-round pick from Utah State was second behind Kuechly for Defensive RoY.

    • Daryl Washington, Cardinals: Selected to first Pro Bowl in 2012 after leading Cardinals with 134 tackles, nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

    • Patrick Willis, 49ers: Has made the Pro Bowl in each of his six seasons.

During halftime of the Panthers-Ravens game Thursday night, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden stepped out of the broadcast booth to take a break and, like everyone watching at home, to process what he’d just seen from Luke Kuechly.

In the span of three series in the second quarter, the Panthers’ second-year linebacker helped create four turnovers – one that was overturned by the officials – and staked his claim as the game’s next great middle linebacker.

“Kuechly’s a (beast), isn’t he?” Gruden said. “You lose (Brian) Urlacher. You lose Ray Lewis. Someone’s got to take the torch. He’s got the torch.”

Kuechly took the torch from an injured Jon Beason last season, moving from outside to middle linebacker and becoming the heart of a Panthers’ defense that improved dramatically after the switch.

Following the retirements of Urlacher and Lewis, several well-respected NFL figures are pointing to Kuechly as the player most likely to replace Urlacher and Lewis as the premiere middle linebacker.

Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel from 1960-89, was one of the first observers to suggest Kuechly as a possible heir to the Urlacher/Lewis throne in an column in May.

When Gruden was studying video while preparing for the Panthers’ game at Baltimore, the former Tampa Bay and Oakland coach couldn’t take his eyes of Kuechly.

“I saw him on film. He made every tackle the (first) two preseason games. He’s really something,” Gruden said. “You loved him coming out of Boston College. You can’t put the projector down and take three or four steps without saying, ‘Who the heck is that guy?’”

There are a handful of players who can make a strong case as the league’s best inside linebacker. Kuechly cites the San Francisco tandem of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, as well as two other players from the 2012 draft – Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David, who is an outside linebacker.

Derrick Johnson and Jerod Mayo have been perennial Pro Bowlers, while James Laurinaitis and Brian Cushing have become defensive pillars for St. Louis and Houston, respectively.

But coaches and personnel experts rave about Kuechly’s combination of youth, speed, size, toughness and instincts – even if Kuechly is mostly mum on the topic of his place among the best linebackers.

“He’s a very humble young man, so I’ll do it for him and tell you he has an opportunity to ascend,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, a linebacker for nine NFL seasons. “And if he continues to grow, we’ll most certainly be talking about him in the same way as those great linebackers.”

A dominant performance

Kuechly was being talked about everywhere in the hours after his transcendent performance against the Ravens. If fans outside of Charlotte didn’t know much about Kuechly after he won the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2012, they should now.

Kuechly was involved in seemingly every play in the second quarter. He fired into the backfield on a blitz to hurry Joe Flacco on a throw Drayton Florence intercepted and returned 71 yards for a touchdown.

On the next series, Kuechly made a beeline for running back Bernard Pierce, whose fumble was recovered by the Panthers’ Thomas Davis for a 2-yard touchdown.

With the Ravens driving on their next possession, Kuechly clocked receiver Aaron Mellette, popping the ball into the hands of safety Charles Godfrey for an apparent interception. It was nullified when officials called Kuechly for unnecessary roughness.

Two plays later, Kuechly read Flacco and broke in front of tight end Visanthe Shiancoe for an interception he returned 29 yards. Kuechly then channeled his inner-Steve Smith, spinning the ball to punctuate the play.

Kuechly’s final line: seven tackles, a forced fumble, an interception and two pass breakups.

The interception and pass defenses were noteworthy: Kuechly said recently his coverage skills were what he wants most to improve in his second season.

“You don’t have to be around him long to know that he’s going to be a great one. He’s already working toward that,” Panthers rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. “You could just tell (Thursday) with the plays he was making over and over, that’s why they call him Clark Kent, I guess. He’s a beast.”

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton added: “I’ve always been a big fan of Luke. He made an unbelievable play on that interception. I know what a competitor he is and how hard he works. He’s only reached the tip of the iceberg.”

Back in the middle

Kuechly said everything changed last season when Beason went down and he moved to the middle, his position during a record-breaking career at Boston College. Kuechly averaged eight tackles a game through the first four weeks, but finished with 16 against Seattle in Week 5 in his first start at middle linebacker.

“When I got bumped to the (middle) in that Seattle game, it started to come to me a little bit. Everything started looking like it used to at school. As the games progressed, I got a little more comfortable,” Kuechly said.

“The Dallas game (an 18-tackle performance in Week 7), I think I got to the point where, ‘All right, I’m good. Just got to keep working.’ As the year progressed, you just get more and more comfortable. It just felt a little bit more natural.”

After Kuechly’s switch, the Panthers jumped from 24th to 10th in total defense, allowing 60 fewer yards a game.

“For a defense to improve that much with one move is unheard of,” said Brandt, who built the Cowboys’ dynasty of the 1970s. “This is a heck of a football player.”

Kuechly ended up leading the league in tackles, becoming the first rookie to do so since Willis in 2007.

He credits the guidance he received from the team’s veteran linebackers, including Beason, with his rapid development.

“When Beas went down and I moved to the middle, I talked to him all the time. He sat next to me in the meeting room. I would talk to him about plays and how he plays things, and how they want us to do it,” Kuechly said. “Especially in the divisional games, (Beason would say), ‘Drew Brees does this. Matt Ryan does this. Josh Freeman’s like this. Tony Gonzalez runs his routes this way.’ Just little things he was able to help me out with.”

Panthers linebacker Jordan Senn said Kuechly was a sponge, willing to listen to anyone if he thought it could give him an edge on Sundays.

“He’s not the type of guy that thinks he’s already got it all. He’s willing to take advice from anyone. Last year he had no problem with me coaching him. And it’s not like I’ve been out there a ton,” said Senn, a backup for most of his career. “But he was willing to take any knowledge I was going to give him.”

Kuechly is flattered by the comparisons to Lewis and Urlacher, but is quick to defer to some of the older linebackers. Kuechly puts Beason, a three-time Pro Bowler before injuries wiped out most of the past two seasons, in that elite group.

Where does he rank himself?

“The goal is to be the best you can be. That’s everyone’s goal – to be the best player you can be,” Kuechly said. “It’d be good to keep moving forward and getting to that level of Brian Urlacher. But he’s been around for so long and accomplished so much, you can’t really compare yourself to him right now. But moving forward, if I can get to that point, that’d be great.”

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