Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly shrugs at his ranking among NFL’s top players

06/17/2014 5:14 PM

06/17/2014 10:08 PM

Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly doesn’t get too wrapped up in what people say or write about him – good or bad.

Kuechly was 2013 The Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year, but he couldn’t crack the top 75 in Pro Football Focus’ recent list of the league’s best 101 players.

Kuechly wasn’t even the Panthers’ top-rated linebacker by PFF, a football analytics site that ranked Kuechly No. 80 and had outside linebacker Thomas Davis at No. 52 for last season.

Kuechly reacted to the perceived slight with little more than a shrug Tuesday after the first practice of the three-day minicamp.

“I don’t really care at the end of the day,” he said. “I’m going to do my job and as long as the coaches and the players in our building are happy, let everybody else talk about whatever.”

Kuechly’s teammates and coaches are not unhappy with his play.

Outside linebacker Chase Blackburn revealed how he feels about Kuechly – and PFF’s ranking system – by laughing when told Kuechly came in at 80.

“Is that what they had him at this year?” Blackburn said. “Hey, keep letting him slip under the radar. We’ll see what happens.”

According to PFF, much of Kuechly’s publicity last season was the product of his role as the leader of the league’s second-ranked defense. The site also questioned whether tackles – Kuechly finished fourth in the league with 156 stops – are a worthy measuring stick for a defensive player’s success.

In an apparent reference to PFF, Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians last week was critical of websites that try to compare players without knowing the players’ responsibilities within a scheme. But Panthers coach Ron Rivera wasn’t interested in discussing PFF’s rating system or Kuechly’s low ranking.

“That’s fine,” Rivera said. “That’s why you analyze the numbers, I guess.”

Regardless of his ranking, Kuechly has two areas he wants to improve this offseason – pass rush and pass coverage. While he tied for the team lead with four interceptions last season, he had a couple of key coverage breakdowns and/or pass interference flags in crucial situations.

Kuechly said he has spent time with Panthers tight end Greg Olsen this spring, picking up tips on how receivers attack coverage.

“I’ve been working with Greg and talking with Greg, asking about how they run routes and where he sees coverages are weak and seeing where I can improve on that,” Kuechly said.

“A lot of it’s just repetition,” he added. “You’ve got to get repetition at playing coverage. You can draw it up on the board as much as you want, but until you get out there and actually do it, it’s a little different.”

Jon Beason, Kuechly’s predecessor, came out of the game in most passing situations when the Panthers went to their nickel package. But Rivera said he has never considered using Kuechly as a two-down linebacker, calling him a “different kind of player” than Beason.

“I think the thing that Luke brings to the table more so than anything else is his command of what we’re doing and his command of our group,” Rivera said. “Then I think his individual skills is the next thing that he’s got to continue to improve on.”

Blackburn believes Kuechly’s coverage issues last season were overblown.

“Defensive player of the year, you can’t say he was a bad cover guy. He’s just looking for areas to improve,” Blackburn said. “That’s what great players do. They look for a weakness and they improve upon it.”

Kuechly’s visibility has grown this offseason. He participated in a media tour in New York with Old Spice, and he has made appearances on behalf of Pepsi.

But the Cincinnati native and former Boston College star keeps a fairly low profile.

Asked what he planned to do during the month between minicamp and training camp, Kuechly said: “Work out, get in shape.”

When pressed, he said he’s going to Naples, Fla., for a family vacation.

Blackburn said Kuechly does a good job of flying under the radar – maybe too good.

“He’s recognizable in this area. But around the league, guys watch him play and they see who it is and they think he’s a good player,” Blackburn said. “But if you just saw him on the street, a lot of guys might not even recognize him.”

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