Is the Carolina Panthers LB Corps the Best in the NFL?

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Is the Carolina Panthers LB Corps the Best in the NFL?

Linebacker Jon Beason practiced for the first time this preseason on Sunday, according to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer. And that’s a huge deal.

Beason, once considered one of the best linebackers in the NFL, had microfracture surgery on his right knee in October 2012 after playing in just four games. In 2011, he missed all but one game of that season with a torn left Achilles.

That means after playing in all 64 games of his first four seasons, Beason’s played in just five out of his most recent 32. But those first 64 games were mouthwatering to Panthers fans.

Beason averaged 135 tackles, one sack and two interceptions over the course of his first four seasons. That’s when health wasn’t an issue. But the injury bug has slapped Beason hard over the past two seasons. Sunday was the first step toward reversing that trend.

If Beason can turn the corner and regain the glory from the beginning of his career (he’s only 28 years old), there’s a chance the Carolina Panthers might have the best linebacker corps in the NFL.

But that’s a big if for a unit that’s been plagued by injuries as of late.

Alongside Beason at linebacker are second-year phenom Luke Kuechly and former first-round pick Thomas Davis. In fact, all three Panthers linebackers are former first-rounders. And they all play like it too.

Kuechly won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after posting 165 tackles in 2012 with a sack and two interceptions. Davis notched 105 tackles last season and added a pick. But Davis has an injury history too.

Between 2009 and 2011, Davis tore the ACL in his right knee three times. Most NFLers retire after a string of luck like that. Davis returned to be one of 35 players to post 105 or more tackles in 2012.

Panthers Linebackers
Thomas Davis Luke Kuechly Jon Beason (4 games)
Tackles 105 165 27
Sacks 0 1 0
Int's 1 2 1
Coverage 7.0 snaps/rec. 9.5 snaps/rec. 8.1 snaps/rec.

Stats - Yahoo! | Advanced Stats - Pro Football Focus

Beason, if healthy, could do the same thing in 2013—maybe more. If so, who would have a better linebacker corps than Carolina? Would anyone?

The conversation has to start in Seattle with the Seahawks.

Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner had 140 tackles last season, his rookie campaign. His career trajectory is a steep upward line. Outside linebacker K.J. Wright came in just shy of a century with 98 tackles and added a sack and an interception. Bruce Irvin posted eight sacks as a rush end in 2012 but had just 17 tackles. Irvin will move to linebacker this season.

Seahawks Linebackers
K.J. Wright Bobby Wagner Bruce Irvin (as DE)
Tackles 98 140 17
Sacks 1 2 8
Int's 1 3 0
Coverage 8.5 snaps/rec. 11.6 snaps/rec. N/A

Stats - Yahoo! | Advanced Stats - Pro Football Focus

Factor in that Irvin brings an element of a pass rush that no Carolina linebacker can provide and look at how Wagner is a top-10 cover linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), of middle linebackers who played at least 75 percent of his team’s snaps in 2012, and Seattle gives a great argument as a unit.

But if Beason comes back strong, both he and Kuechly can provide quality coverage, and the Seahawks can’t locate and attack the ball carrier like Carolina can. The Panthers have a slight edge.

The conversation has to end, however, with the San Francisco 49ers.

The 49ers’ 3-4 scheme gives them four linebackers, and they blend together like yin and yang. The two linebackers in the middle—NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis—attack the football with the best of them, and both rank in the top 11 of middle linebackers in coverage who played 60 percent of his team’s snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

49ers Linebackers
Ahmad Brooks NaVorro Bowman Patrick Willis Aldon Smith
Tackles 47 149 120 66
Sacks 6.5 2 .5 19.5
Int's 1 1 2 1
Coverage 12.7 snaps/rec. 12.9 snaps/rec. 11.4 snaps/rec. 10.6 snaps/rec.

Stats - Yahoo! | Advanced Stats - Pro Football Focus

On the outside, Aldon Smith was second in the league with 19.5 sacks, and Ahmad Brooks brought down 6.5 quarterbacks. Neither is asked to play in coverage as much as some 3-4 outside linebackers, but when called upon, they both play well.

There’s not a linebacker corps in the NFL that can do as much, and do it as well, as the 49ers. But the Panthers could come in at No. 2. For that to happen, Beason has to stay healthy and return to form and Kuechly has to build upon his award-winning rookie season.

If both happen, it’ll be a fun year in Carolina for the middle of the defense.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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