Since entering the league and becoming a member of the Carolina Panthers, Luke Kuechly has been surprising everyone. Carolina selected Kuechly with its first pick in last April's draft at ninth overall, shocking many fans who felt the Panthers' greatest need was at defensive tackle. As it turned out, Carolina not only made the right choice with its first pick, it struck gold.
When the preseason began, Kuechly was slotted at the Will linebacker position despite him playing middle linebacker at Boston College. When defensive captain Jon Beason was held out during the preseason games, many speculated he would move to the middle, but he remained on the weak side with Jason Phillips starting at middle linebacker.
When Beason went down for the year, Kuechly assumed his position and not only produced he asserted himself as one of the best defensive players in the league. Kuechly leads the league in tackles with 151 and has placed himself in the Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion.
Ron Rivera has named him the team's middle linebacker of the future with Beason most likely switching to the outside. After completing such a great season, he has established himself as Carolina's best option to appear in the Pro Bowl.
Looking ahead, what does his presence do for the Panthers defense?
When you consider where Carolina ranked defensively prior to Kuechly's transition from Will to Mike linebacker, the unit has moved from the bottom of the league to eighth in total defense. The Panthers need to make some moves to shore up the interior of the defensive line and the secondary, but already they have the opportunity to be one of the best units in 2013.
Kuechly's ability to get to the ball-carrier and make plays is a part of the defense's success. With that in mind, imagine how much stronger they will be with an improved line making a difference in the trenches.
It's still too early to project next year's starting linebackers, but a unit consisting of Beason, Kuechly and James Anderson seems very likely with Thomas Davis providing a solid role as a rotational player. Regardless of who starts next season, the Panthers find themselves with an embarrassment of riches at linebacker.
Kuechly could find himself joining either Beason or Charles Johnson as a defensive captain next season. However, if he isn't selected as one, he has presented himself as a leader on the field and in the locker room.
His rookie season may have been disappointing given Carolina's record, but the future seems bright not only for him but for the Panthers as well.