Carolina Panthers

Luke Kuechly still runs Panthers defense, but what about the linebackers around him?

With “Madden 20” ratings out this week, there’s plenty for NFL players to gripe about: Their speed is too slow, their strength is too weak, their overall rating is too low.

And then, there’s Luke Kuechly.

Kuechly earned a 98 overall rating, tied for second-best in the game. Only four players — Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins and Chicago’s Khalil Mack — make up the 99 club... which, yeah, Kuechly was part of last season.

But those ratings, as fun as they are to joke about, are based in reality. And Kuechly, by virtue of his play in 2018 and every year before that, certainly deserves his lofty standing. Carolina’s star linebacker led the Panthers in tackles last season with 130. He also had two forced fumbles, two sacks and an interception. Those numbers earned him a sixth-straight Pro Bowl nod and his fifth All-Pro recognition in six years.

Heading into 2019, though, Kuechly faces a new challenge as the focal point of Carolina’s defense. In moving from primarily a 4-3 front to more 3-4 concepts, Kuechly’s role and responsibilities will shift somewhat. He’ll still be the team’s traffic cop on defense, calling audibles and organizing his teammates. But his specific run-versus-pass obligations will become more fluid.

Given Kuechly’s football IQ, that shouldn’t be a challenge. But how the rest of the linebackers, including Shaq Thompson, Jared Norris, Jermaine Carter Jr., Andre Smith and others, adjust will say a lot about the success of the defensive-scheme switch.

There’s no Thomas Davis walking through the door, either, so at least one member of the group will need to handle an expanded role.

Breakout candidate

Panthersfootball (1).JPG
With Thomas Davis gone, Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson (54) will have the opportunity to play more and prove he’s deserving of a long-term contract. NELL REDMOND AP

Thompson started the first four games of last season while Davis was suspended, but his snaps and impact dwindled over the rest of the season. He’s in a contract year, too, so he’ll have to prove that he’s capable of replacing Davis’ production. Working in Thompson’s favor: Coach Ron Rivera said the team’s switch to more 3-4 looks should give Thompson a real shot to show off his athleticism and versatility.

To be decided in camp

With David Mayo leaving for San Francisco in free agency, the third linebacker spot is up for grabs. Other than Kuechly and Thompson, no returning linebacker played even 10 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last year. Even with more nickel and 3-4 plays, there’s a need for someone capable in case Kuechly or Thompson go down.

Underdog to watch

Undrafted rookie Jordan Kunaszyk might not be on many people’s radars, but he impressed coaches during spring workouts and has a chance to be this year’s surprise roster spot. As a senior at Cal in 2018, he racked up 148 tackles. But he’ll also need to contribute on special teams if the Panthers are to keep him around.

Also keep an eye on...

Panthers Bills Football.JPG
Jermaine Carter Jr. (56) only played about 8 percent of Carolina’s defensive snaps in 2018, but he should be in the mix for the third linebacker spot. Adrian Kraus AP

Jermaine Carter Jr. was absent from most of spring workouts, so how he performs at training camp will be worth watching. He only played about 8 percent of Carolina’s defensive snaps last year. But as a sound tackler and asset on special teams, he should be in the mix for the team’s No. 3 linebacker.

Three bold predictions

Kuechly doesn’t struggle adjusting to the 3-4, and he leads the team in tackles for the third-straight season. It’s probably safe to tap him for the Pro Bowl now, too.

Thompson’s athleticism means he improves his coverage skills in the 3-4 — and there’s no better example of his versatility than in Week 6 against Tampa in London, when he records a sack and an interception in the same game.

Kunaszyk does enough on special teams in the preseason to earn one of the final roster spots.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
Support my work with a digital subscription