The Carolina Panthers's draft board is beginning to take shape as we edge closer to April 26th. And by evidence of their recent prospect visits, it's pretty obvious Marty Hurney and Ron Rivera will be investing the team's first-round selection on the defensive side of the ball.
So, of course, you'll hear the usual set of names you've been fed for the past two months. Some first-round possibilities include Michael Brockers, Dontari Poe, Fletcher Cox and even Quinton Coples. Each is regarded as a top-15 talent in this draft class and is certainly on the Carolina radar.
To make things a bit more interesting, however, let's throw another name into the fray—Boston College's Luke Kuechly.
For what it's worth, Kuechly visited with the Panthers on Thursday. This may or may not be a tipping of the hand by the front office, but their little get together shouldn't be looked at too lightly.
With so much hot-and-cold talk regarding the abilities of Brockers and Poe, perhaps Kuechly may be the best bet with the ninth overall selection. Maybe the Panthers will opt for a safe prospect in Kuechly instead of rolling the dice on a defensive tackle.
Here are three reasons why this dark-horse candidate could be the pick for Carolina in round one.
1. Collegiate Success
If there's an NCAA Football award for anything concerning linebackers, Kuechly has probably won it. In his three seasons as a Golden Eagle, Kuechly hauled in quite a list of hardware and honors:
2009 CFN All-American, 2009 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, 2009 Emerald Bowl Defensive MVP, 2010 unanimous All-American, 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Defensive MVP, 2011 consensus All-American, 2011 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, 2011 Butkus Award winner, 2011 Lombardi Award winner, 2011 Lott IMPACT Award winner, 2011 Bronco Nagurski Award winner
Wonder how he ranked in all of those honors? Well, then take a look at his gaudy numbers over each of his three seasons in college:
2009—158 total tackles, 13.0 tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception
2010—183 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions
2011—191 total tackles, 12.0 tackles for a loss, three interceptions
The numbers really speak for themselves. Kuechly's 191 tackles in 2011 and 183 tackles in 2010 are the two highest totals of all time. And despite playing just three seasons at Boston College, Kuechly holds the record for most tackles in a collegiate career with 532.
It's considerably difficult to argue that Kuechly isn't the most efficient linebacker in college football history.
2. Carolina's Linebacking Corps
Even though the Panthers have a relatively talented group of linebackers, they have been forced to scramble for players at the position over the past few years due to devastating injuries.
In Carolina's second-week matchup with Green Bay last season, Thomas Davis suffered his 3rd ACL tear in as many years. And just a week before that, the Panthers lost their defensive leader Jon Beason to an injured Achilles tendon. Both Beason and Davis were forced to sit out the entire 2011 campaign.
So with two of their best defenders coming off very disappointing injuries, perhaps the defense can use another linebacker.
Can they really trust Davis to stay healthy?
Will Jon Beason be at 100% come Week 1?
The unfortunate answer to those questions is a resounding "no."
If Carolina can throw Kuechly into the mix, they'd arguably have the best linebacking corp in the NFL. Along with the very underrated James Anderson, Kuechly would be an incredible addition and a high-end insurance policy to either Davis or Beason.
Ron Rivera runs a 4-3 scheme, which would leave one of the four out. But I'm sure with Rivera's cunning defensive mind, he'll find a way to mix and match different sets that would keep Kuechly on the field and highly effective.
3. Value of the Ninth Overall Pick
Generally when a team has a top pick, they take the best overall player over a player that will reinforce a weak position. With that being said, Kuechly would easily be the best available prospect when the No. 9 pick rolls around.
Again, there's no doubting the team's need for a daunting presence on the interior of the defensive line. But with the numerous bust questions surrounding both Dontari Poe and Michael Brockers, Kuechly could be the way to go.
Brockers, 6'5", 306 pounds, was a key member of the 2011 LSU defense. He looks great on tape and shows the ability to be a top-notch run-stuffer in the NFL.
Brockers, however, did not perform that well at the combine. He ran 5.36 in his 40-yard dash and racked up just 19 reps in his visit to the bench.
Poe, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. The Memphis product turned in an eye-popping combine as he ran a surprising 4.98 and lifted a ridiculous 44 reps. Poe, however, did not produce well in his 2011 campaign. Twenty-two tackles, one sack and zero forced fumbles aren't too sexy for a guy who is regarded as a top-10 talent. It's even more alarming when the guy couldn't put up good numbers in an underwhelming conference.
So wouldn't picking Kuechly be a much safer bet? Absolutely.
The linebacker spot isn't the greatest of needs for the team right now. But given the numerous injuries at the position, as well as the defense's inability to contain the opposition's ground game, Kuechly should turn out as a very valuable pick.
If the Panthers do indeed go with Kuechly, they will still have a solid group of defensive lineman to pick from in the second round. Names such as Brandon Thompson, Chandler Jones, Jerel Worthy and Devon Still may still be sitting pretty in round two.
After all, the defensive tackle spot does have the highest amount of busts.
Would you rather risk a top-10 selection on a tackle or pick a seemingly surefire Pro Bowler in Kuechly?