Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly has been so consistent year over year that when he spoke to media after Sunday’s training camp practice, a reporter began by asking him, “So, is anything new with you?”
There isn’t much. Kuechly appears to be fully recovered from his offseason labrum repair surgery and hasn’t missed a step as he prepares for his seventh NFL season.
But Kuechly actually dropped a stone-cold stunner on the crowd a few moments later, when he said that the current Panthers linebackers room is the best he’s ever been a part of.
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“I think schematics and football intelligence-wise, this might be the best group we’ve had so far,” he said.
The talent of the two starters alongside Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, is no secret. And while they don’t get much attention, David Mayo, Ben Jacobs and Jared Norris are well-loved by the team and crucial on special teams.
But Kuechly was actually referring to the newest members of the linebackers room: Rookies Jermaine Carter Jr., Andre Smith and Chris Frey.
“They’re smart. And that’s something you look for in a young guy, all three of those guys,” he said. “Those guys are smart, they understand football.
“They just know what they’re doing. You don’t have to tell them a whole lot. They pick stuff up quickly, they’ve got good feel, and they just understand the game. You can get a young guy and he comes in and he’s athletic, he can hit and he can run, but if they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re a step behind.”
The three young players, all either late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents, have already made an impression on head coach Ron Rivera as well.
“All three guys came in during (organized team activities) and minicamp and got our attention,” said Rivera. “They’re bright, smart young football players. Got some good athleticism to them. And they all have potential.”
Then, Rivera doubled down on Kuechly’s statement.
“That may be one of the best rooms we’ve had in a long time in terms of our linebackers,” he said. “Obviously we know who our top five are. But we’ve got a couple more spots we will have to fill. ... I really do think it’s one of the best we’ve had. I think these young guys have added to it.”
The smarts have led to big plays on the field, which is notable this early into camp.
Frey intercepted a tipped pass and took it to the house. Earlier in the week, Smith popped a ball loose and then fell on it. And Carter even saw some time with an adjusted first-team defense Sunday when the team went to its “Buffalo” package.
Thompson will have to start four games at traditional linebacker as Davis serves his suspension, so it appeared that the team is trying to find different subpackage combinations to counter his absence.
Kuechly, Davis and Thompson were their usual selves, verbally sparring with quarterback Cam Newton and flying around the field.
While all of that is normal, Kuechly does have one big change in mind for his own game this year.
“Ah, man, (my) pass rush,” he said. “I need to improve on that leaps and bounds. ... Thomas (Davis) beats me in that every year. I have to try to get him back.”