Carolina Panthers

Celebrate $62 million deal? Panthers LB Luke Kuechly would rather watch film

Panthers Luke Kuechly speaks after signing his contract extension

Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly on how he fits in with this team and what he will do to celebrate.
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Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly on how he fits in with this team and what he will do to celebrate.

Luke Kuechly, you just became the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history, what are you going to do next?

I’m going to the film room!

Kuechly, the Carolina Panthers’ All-Pro linebacker, was all smiles Thursday evening after signing a five-year extension that will keep him under contract through the 2021 season.

The only downside to wrapping up the new deal – worth $62million, according to a league source – was that it cut into the time Kuechly could spend preparing for the season opener at Jacksonville.

He planned to rectify that shortly after his news conference.

“I haven’t been able to watch as much (film) today as I normally do,” Kuechly said. “But luckily I’ve got some time left that I can grab something to eat, go sit in there and see what’s going on with Jacksonville.”

Kuechly didn’t say whether he planned to go crazy with a glass of whole milk at day’s end.

Kuechly becomes the latest Panthers player to receive a big raise since the 2014 season ended, joining tight end Greg Olsen, outside linebacker Thomas Davis and quarterback Cam Newton, whose $103.8 million extension is the most lucrative in team history. Kuechly didn’t get Newton money, or even the money Marcell Dareus got from Buffalo on Thursday.

But his $12.4 million per year average blew past Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, who set the bar for inside linebackers in August with a four-year extension worth $10.75 million a year.

When he started playing football as a fourth-grader in Cincinnati, Kuechly never dreamed the sport would make him rich. He enjoyed the weeknight practices and loved waking up on Sunday mornings in the fall knowing the Bengals were playing.

He found inspiration from some of the visiting linebackers who faced the Bengals.

“I think when you’re a kid you don’t think about money or dollar signs. You think about when you wake up on Sunday mornings, it’s NFL,” Kuechly said. “Some of those guys you grew up watching and you wanted to be like those guys. I watched Brian Urlacher when I was a kid a lot. I watched Ray Lewis a lot with how it worked out with division games and how the schedules worked. That’s what you wanted to be.”

Kuechly wound up in Carolina, where he’s played alongside Davis the past three seasons. Davis said Kuechly’s deal was a bargain.

“He deserves every cent of it, if not more,” Davis said. “To me he deserves to be the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL for what he’s capable of doing and what he has done.”

“It’s like one of those things where you look at what Tom Brady does for the Patriots. That’s Luke to us. That’s how I view him.”

All Kuechly has done since the Panthers drafted him ninth overall in 2012 is win Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons, go to two Pro Bowls, lead the league in tackles in two of the past three years and turn the Panthers into a top-10 defense.

His body of work speaks for itself. I don’t think there’s been a better linebacker period since he’s come into the league.

Thomas Davis on fellow Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly

Carolina had a middling defense before Kuechly arrived as a brawny do-gooder from Boston College.

In the three seasons pre-Kuechly, a span that covers John Fox’s final two years as coach, the Panthers ranked 16th in total defense, 22nd in rushing defense and 10th in passing defense.

With Kuechly planted in the middle of the 4-3 scheme, the Panthers have ranked fifth, seventh and seventh in the same three categories during his first three seasons.

“It ain’t no coincidence,” Davis said. “His body of work speaks for itself. I don’t think there’s been a better linebacker period since he’s come into the league.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera will forever be linked with Newton, who came to the Panthers as the No. 1 overall pick in 2011only a few months after Rivera arrived in Charlotte for his first head-coaching job.

But Rivera, a Chicago Bears linebacker for nine seasons, got pretty excited the following year when he studied tape of Kuechly before the draft.

“I just remember watching him, seeing the things that he did and I’d just think, ‘The guy would be the perfect fit for us,’” Rivera said. “Why? Because he’s got a great first step. He plays downhill. He’s got some feel in pass drops and pass coverages. He reads things and diagnoses things very quickly.

“The one thing he’s done that has surprised me is his complete command of what we do. When you find a guy like that, that’s pretty special, you want to try to keep him around.”

On top of all those good football qualities, Kuechly gets high marks for being nice.

That might not help Sunday when the Jaguars are in third-and-short. But Kuechly’s professionalism and humility help set a team-first tone in the locker room.

If the best player in the defensive huddle shares his crib notes on the Panthers’ defensive schemes with rookies, stays late studying opponents and doesn’t refer to himself in the third person, it goes a long way with his teammates.

The one thing he’s done that has surprised me is his complete command of what we do.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera, on linebacker Luke Kuechly

No wonder so many were pumped Thursday after hearing about Kuechly’s new contract.

“It couldn’t have happened to a better guy,” safety Colin Jones said. “The ultimate team player, great guy on and off the field. He deserves everything that comes his way.”

Rookie linebacker David Mayo was on a pre-draft visit to Carolina when he bumped into Kuechly in defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s office.

Mayo couldn’t believe how nice Kuechly, a two-time All-Pro, was to a low-round prospect from Texas State.

“Before I left he made sure to come up to me and shake my hand and say, ‘It was really good to meet you. Take care.’ I thought that was cool,” Mayo said. “And I’m just on my visit. It’s not like the Panthers had committed to me or anything. He showed me a lot of respect and welcomed me in right from the get-go.”

McDermott agreed that if there’s a player whose work ethic and drive won’t be affected by a fat new contract, it’s Kuechly.

Good thing, too. Because if Kuechly, 24, stays healthy, Davis predicts it won’t be his last big payday.

“He’s one of the nicest guys that you’ll ever meet, and he’s been that way since Day 1,” Davis said. “I don’t expect him to change now that he’s $62 million richer. He’s going to make a lot more than that during his time in the NFL.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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