I really don't want to get too far ahead of myself here after what amounts to a half of excellent "real" (read: Week 3) preseason action, but I think there's a reasonable chance Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly wins the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2013. He's actually my preseason pick for the award, so money, mouth, etc.
Why am I venturing out on that limb with that prognostication? Well, there's a nice little confluence of events. For starters, Kuechly is a very good player. That seems obvious and dumb but it helps to have quality talent if you're going to make a leap like this.
Kuechly's also a stud who puts up huge numbers from a premium NFL defensive position, having led the NFL with tackles as a rookie with 164. Two responses to the counter-arguments you're already forming: no, middle linebackers aren't as important now as they were 10 years ago. And yes, tackles can be a bit overrated as a statistic. But the other thing about Kuechly that stands out when you watch both live games and film? He is everywhere.
Just throwing a rough percentage on Panthers defensive plays from the first half against the Ravens, I'd say that on literally at least 75 percent of Carolina's defensive plays Kuechly was near the ball when the carrier was brought down. It's incredibly impressive to see. He shows up everywhere.
If Kuechly plays a full season again, his numbers should dwarf last season too. Remember, he didn't switch to middle linebacker in the Panthers scheme until Week 7 after their bye. His tackle totals before Jon Beason went down with injury in Week 5 were 4, 5, 12, 5 and 11. After moving to the middle, Kuechly 15, 11, 15, 10, 10, 8, 9, 16, 8, 13, 13. That's 7.4 tackles a game before the switch against 11.6 tackles per game following his move to the middle.
Assisting Kuechly in 2013 will be the presence of rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short at defensive tackle. They'll occupy blockers and let Kuechly do what he does best: tackle whoever's got the ball. They should also make the defense better as a whole and that would be critical to Kuechly getting DPOY consideration; typically the winner of the award plays for a top defense. Projecting the Panthers as a top-10 unit is a stretch but they did see their points per game allowed drop nearly four points after Kuechly's move (25 points per game before, 21.6 afterwards).
Factor in J.J. Watt potentially disappointing voters if he doesn't have an equal season to 2013 and Von Miller almost putting himself out of the running before the season begins thanks to a six-game suspension and, well, look it's possible. I'm not guaranteeing it, but just remember this once you're staring at unholy tackle numbers from Kuechly in December.
As you might guess, the stock watch arrow is pointing straight up for the Panthers second-year linebacker. Not that he needs my help getting attention -- Jon Gruden was fawning over the linebacker during halftime of the Panthers' Monday Night Football game this past Thursday.
"Kuechly's a [beast], isn't he?" Gruden said via Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer. "You lose (Brian) Urlacher. You lose Ray Lewis. Someone's got to take the torch. He's got the torch."
That guy's 100 percent right: Kuechly put on a show worth drooling over Thursday, flashing all over the place. Two plays particularly stood out to me after re-watching the game in that they show just how complete Kuechly's game can be.
First was the fumble he forced on Ravens running back Bernard Pierce. Kuechly spied the handoff in the early going and plotted his pursuit perfectly with the flow of the defensive line to snuff out the run:
Kuechly read the play perfectly from the start and you can see his instincts to follow the ball and not over-pursue in the event of play action (it was second down with eight yards to go).
Look at his head here, right after Pierce has received the handoff from Joe Flacco. Kuechly's lasered in on the ballcarrier and is essentially computing the most efficient angle to attack.
He picked a pretty good angle. The patience Kuechly shows to find a hole and absolutely blow up Pierce's spot -- the fumble eventually led to a Thomas Davis touchdown -- is impressive. So too is the burst he shows through the line of scrimmage and into Pierce's grill:
The other play that really stood out was the interception Kuechly had on Joe Flacco with about 2:43 remaining in the first half and the Ravens looking to tack six points on near the break. Baltimore was only in this position because of a questionable 15-yard penalty on Kuechly after he smashed Ravens rookie wideout Aaron Mellette and created an interception for Charles Godfrey.
The linebacker more than made up for it on the next play. Flacco was eying Visanthe Shiancoe as the tight end was supposed to set up in a soft spot of the Panthers zone defense. Kuechly was just a few yards off the line of scrimmage. Because Carolina generated no pass rush, Flacco had all day to look left and draw coverage away as Shiancoe worked inside.
Kuechly never bit on Flacco's attempt to manipulate coverage but sat poised to move either direction depending on where Flacco ended up going.
Once Shiancoe finished his inside cut and rounded it back out to set up shop, Flacco had ample room to fire what would've been a short pass for a first down (it was second and six from the Panthers 10-yard line). Kuechly appears to spot Flacco's head rotating over to Shiancoe but it looks like it might be too late anyway:
Not the case at all -- Kuechly times his move perfectly (maybe he was even baiting Flacco?) as the Ravens quarterback goes to fire, breaking towards of Shiancoe as Flacco's in the middle of his throwing motion.
The pass never stood a chance thanks to Kuechly's athleticism, as the linebacker easily gets in front of Shiancoe to snare the pass and quash the Ravens scoring drive.
These two plays in the first half of a preseason game don't guarantee Kuechly a bust in the Hall of Fame or anything. I'm not naive enough to assume that we can simply project his play over this half for the course of a season. (But if you wanted to, Kuechly would finish 2013 with 224 tackles, 32 forced fumbles and 32 interceptions. That would probably net him some hardware.)
But we have a baseline performance for the budding Panthers star. Again, he led the NFL in tackles. As a rookie. He has improved talent around him. He's a year older and he's learning underneath Ron Rivera, who played on some pretty good defenses in his day. He's going to be better in coverage, better at attacking the backfield and better at diagnosing what offenses are throwing his way.
If the Panthers stink this year and fail to make the playoffs, it's a much longer shot for Kuechly to win the award, especially if a playoff-bound team has a defensive player who explodes for big sack numbers (looking your way Aldon Smith).
Clearly though, Carolina's got a gem on their hand, a player who might already easily be a top-five middle linebacker in the NFL. Even if it's not 2013, Kuechly will compete for big-time hardware in the next few years.
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