Carolina Panthers

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly: ‘I’m close’ to returning to play

Carolina Panthers linebackers A.J. Klein, left, slaps hands with Luke Kuechly, right, as they prepare to begin stretching during practice on Wednesday, September 16, 2015. Kuechly suffered a concussion in the team's season opener on Sunday vs the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Carolina Panthers linebackers A.J. Klein, left, slaps hands with Luke Kuechly, right, as they prepare to begin stretching during practice on Wednesday, September 16, 2015. Kuechly suffered a concussion in the team's season opener on Sunday vs the Jacksonville Jaguars. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

By this time next week, the Carolina Panthers expect middle linebacker Luke Kuechly will be back on the practice field with a helmet.

Kuechly still has to meet the independent neurologist and pass his final concussion test, but those around the team are hopeful that the All-Pro linebacker will be back in time to play against Seattle.

“I’m close,” Kuechly told a reporter Wednesday after practice.

Kuechly, who suffered a concussion at the end of the first half of the Week 1 win in Jacksonville, was participating in some light individual drills with the linebackers for the portion of practice open to the media. Kuechly had spent the previous week inside the team facilities rather than out on the field with his teammates.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera wasn’t sure when Kuechly was set to meet with the doctor, but it will happen before the team returns from its bye week on Tuesday.

“It’ll happen with the whole intention of getting him on the practice field Tuesday,” Rivera said. “And if he’s not then he’ll continue in the protocol.”

The independent doctor did not pass Kuechly more than a week ago when they met after optimism had been previously voiced by Rivera.

The Panthers have played 14 of their 16 quarters this season without their middle linebacker.

Filling in for Kuechly has been A.J. Klein, who missed practice Wednesday because of illness. The Panthers have gotten good play out of their linebacker group without Kuechly, and they’ll want to ease him back into the fold rather than throwing him out there next week against the Seahawks.

Kuechly likely wouldn’t play his usual 100-percent of snaps against Seattle because his conditioning would be down, as well as the Panthers wanting to get playing time for the likes of Klein and Shaq Thompson.

“He’s only done so much,” Rivera said of Kuechly. “And I think also, in all fairness to the rest of the group of guys, you don’t want to put him out there right away and go 100 percent of the snaps when you can avoid it. That’s one of the things we want to do. We don’t want the guy to get hurt again or get winded and get himself in a bad position.”

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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