Luke Kuechly has a lot more idle time this offseason -- not that he’s sitting on his couch eating tortilla chips and playing video games.
The Panthers’ Pro Bowl middle linebacker still spends most of his days at Bank of America Stadium. The only difference is he’s camping out in the training room instead of the weight room following the first surgery of his life.
Kuechly is progressing well following February surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He’s out of his sling and is working on range-of-motion exercises with the shoulder.
But this has been a different type of offseason for Kuechly, who played much of last season with the injury before sustaining what he called the “final straw” in Week 17 against Tampa Bay.
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Kuechly usually identifies a part of his game he wants to improve and works on it during his down time. Last year Kuechly decided he wanted to become better in pass coverage, and checked that box with four regular-season interceptions (including one for a touchdown) and two more pick-6s in the playoffs.
But this offseason is all about rehabbing the shoulder so he’ll be ready at or near the start of training camp in late July. Any upper-body strength Kuechly might lose in the process he hopes will be offset by brain gains.
“Obviously the physical part you might not be able to do as much as maybe you want to. But the mental part is also the other side you have to add into it,” Kuechly said Wednesday during an appearance at the USO of North Carolina’s airport center.
“Watching routes and studying routes, you can learn stuff that way or you can learn blocking schemes on blitzes,” Kuechly added. “You never know what you can learn just sitting back from behind and watching.”
Other than conditioning work and walkthroughs, Kuechly figures to be a spectator throughout the Panthers’ organized team activities and four-day minicamp. The goal is to be back for camp in Spartanburg, although the Panthers’ training staff isn’t going to rush him.
“I haven’t really asked (the team) how training camp’s going to work. But hopefully I’m good to go. I want to practice. I want to be out there,” Kuechly said. “But we’ll see what happens and I’m sure it’s not going to be an issue.”
Kuechly, who turns 25 this month, has talked with other players who had labrum surgeries to get tips on the recovery process. (Panthers defensive ends Mario Addison and Ryan Delaire underwent labrum repairs this offseason, too.)
“I’ve never had this done. But you’ve got to be smart with it,” Kuechly said. “That’s what (the training staff) told me and guys that have had it done said just be smart with it. And you’re going to know yourself.”
Last offseason Kuechly reached out to Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to pick his brain about receivers’ route concepts in an effort to improve his coverage skills. Kuechly, who led the NFL in tackles in two of his first three seasons, thought he could get better as a pass defender.
Despite missing three and a half games due to a Week 1 concussion, Kuechly tied his career high with four interceptions.
And while he gave up a touchdown to Atlanta’s Julio Jones in the Panthers’ only regular-season loss, Kuechly was named the league’s best coverage defender by Pro Football Focus, a website that focuses on statistical analysis.
According to PFF, quarterbacks had a passer rating of 57.8 when throwing into Kuechly’s coverage area, compared to an average rating of 102.5 surrendered by linebackers last season.
Kuechly won that honor before the playoffs, when he became the first linebacker in the Super Bowl era with multiple interception returns for touchdowns in the same playoffs. Kuechly achieved the feat (and was the NFL’s leading tackler in the postseason) despite playing with a harness that limited his mobility in his left arm and shoulder.
Kuechly credited cornerback Bene’ Benwikere for springing him with a nice block on his pick-six against Dallas on Thanksgiving, and said the two playoff touchdowns didn’t require much maneuvering.
“The rest of them were just walk-ins. So I didn’t really have to work that hard to do it,” he said. “As long as I caught it, it was pretty much clear sailing.”
Kuechly attributed part of his improvement in coverage to his experience and recognition of routes, but he also credited the pass rush supplied by the defensive line. To that end, Kuechly sounded like he was ready to throw down the welcome mat for Paul Soliai, the recently acquired nose tackle who measures 6-foot-4 and 345 pounds.
“We got another big guy,” Kuechly said, smiling. “Any time you get another big guy, it’s awesome.”
Getting a healthy Kuechly back in time for the Panthers to defend their NFC championship will be big, too.