Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly Still Has Plenty of Work to Do as NFL Linebacker
If the first game action of Kuechly's NFL career is any indicator, the former Boston College linebacker is the same player he was as an Eagle—a very good linebacker who will fill up the tackles column in the stat sheet, but won't necessarily make the impact elite linebackers often do.
Bleacher Report's resident draft guru, Matt Miller, graded Kuechly back in January, and came away with the conclusion that Kuechly looked like a third-round pick:
Kuechly isn't a great athlete, nor is he a flashy personality. What he does is make plays between the numbers, racking up unheard of tackle numbers on his way to All-American honors in 2011.
Kuechly does nothing particularly well, other than rack up tackles credited to him by a university employee who has everything to gain by giving the tackles to the one marquee player on the defense...Take away the gaudy tackle numbers and what's left? Not much, honestly. Kuechly is an average athlete with good vision, but poor strength and no ability to work off blockers
Miller would double down on his opinion of Kuechly in his final "big board" of the 2012 NFL draft season, predicting Kuechly would be the "biggest bust." Around the same time, I wrote that Kuechly was "better than, but closer to a guy like [St. Louis Rams linebacker, James] Laurinaitis than an NFL elite LB."
The Panthers had other ideas and drafted Kuechly with the ninth overall pick—a pick one would normally reserve for an "NFL elite LB."
Playing to his strengths, the Panthers have put Kuechly at weak-side linebacker for now, allowing Jon Beason to stay in the middle. While exact responsibilities vary from scheme to scheme, normally the weak-side (or Will) linebacker is responsible for "chase-and-tackle" backside pursuit. Many schemes also put their Will into coverage more than the other linebackers.
Weak-side linebackers aren't necessarily better or worse than their strong-side or middle counterparts, but the expectations for Kuechly's draft slot would normally preclude him playing elsewhere. Lance Briggs, arguably the NFL's best weak-side linebacker, was drafted right where Miller thought Kuechly should go—in the third round.
So, how did Kuechly look in his first NFL preseason game? He looked exactly the same as he did in the numerous games Miller and I watched during his college career.
Kuechly only played a few drives in the Panthers' first-team defense, and finished with four tackles and a forced fumble. The tape shows a slightly different story from the stat sheet, however.
On the Texans' first running play, Kuechly was chopped down like a Douglas Pine in December.
It was a stretch left, and journeyman Wade Smith got the better of Kuechly with a cut block. Kuechly diagnosed the play, but couldn't get off the block in time to stop Ben Tate, who ran for six yards.
That's the bread and butter play for any zone-blocking team, and Kuechly had to know that the cut blocks would be coming early and often against the Texans.
On the very next play, the Texans went right back at Kuechly, this time through the air.
As Captain Munnerlyn followed Kevin Walter across the field, Kuechly got caught up in the "traffic." Owen Daniels ran right through the created seam for a nine-yard gain. Now, that's a well-designed play and one that would fool plenty of veterans, but it's clearly a mistake for the rookie linebacker—even if it's forgivable.
The fact that Kuechly was credited with a tackle on the play points to the disparity between stats and reality. A tackle is a good thing, but it's only as good as the situation in which it is made. The same is true for Kuechly's effort on the very next play.
The play was a lead stretch out of the offset-I formation. Again, Kuechly diagnosed the play correctly, but his job was to beat fullback James Casey and stop the play from developing. He could have pushed Casey back into the hole—essentially passing the play to the outside. Or, Kuechly could have beaten Casey to the outside, forcing Tate back in.
Honestly, looking at the blocks across the front, it's a "darned if you do, darned if you don't" scenario, because the Texans had the play well-blocked all along the front side. It's easy as the "eye in the sky" to say what a player should have done, but it's clear they Kuechly's job is not, on any play, to get blocked.
Again, Kuechly peeled off the block and got a tackle, but only after a seven-yard gain, setting up a goal-line stand.
At the goal line, Kuechly was at his best, stuffing Tate for no gain on a run up the middle and covering Daniels on a third-down pass attempt that would fall incomplete to Lestar Jean. The pass coverage was awfully physical, but replacement refs let it go and it is likely regular officials would have as well—especially since Matt Schaub didn't throw that way.
In one drive, it was the best and worse of Kuechly. His positives were very positive—identifying plays with lightning speed and flowing to the ball with his tremendous athleticism. His negatives, however, put the Texans in scoring position.
Kuechly's best play, and the reason most Panthers fans will probably never believe the rookie had anything but a great day, came on the next drive as he peeled away from a block and tracked Arian Foster down from behind, causing a fumble that was recovered by Panthers safety Sherrod Martin.
Fumbles are a highlight play and can swing the momentum of a game in a hurry, so it's completely normal and correct that this should be considered a positive play for Kuechly. However, it's also evidence of what I've been saying: tackles as a stat are only as good as the situation in which they happen.
If Foster had not fumbled and had simply run 11 yards for a first down before Kuechly tackled him, that tackle would've meant relatively little in the grand scheme of the game. Someone gets a tackle on almost every play; it's important to qualify tackles. Obviously, having also created a fumble, this was a very good tackle for the rookie.
Overall, it's hard to rain on the Panthers' parade because of one preseason game, but the evidence on the NFL field painted the same picture of Kuechly that was painted pre-draft. Kuechly will be a fantastic addition to the Panthers' defense and clean up a lot of tackles that might've otherwise gotten into the defensive backfield.
However, if Panthers fans are expecting him to be an immediate impact player and a complete package, they will be disappointed. Kuechly has a lot of work left to do before he becomes the player the Panthers wanted ninth overall.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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