Over the past decade, we've seen Brian Urlacher, Ray Lewis and most recently Patrick Willis become the middle linebackers that are idealized, promoted and revered for the way they play the position. Carolina Panthers second-year middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is making his case for joining the likes of these future Hall of Famers as the NFL's next great middle linebacker.
Kuechly was impressive Thursday night in the Panthers' 34-27 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Despite it being just a preseason game, it's easy to see that the player that led the NFL with 164 tackles last season is ready to go again in 2013.
He finished the game with seven tackles, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and an interception.
Kuechly has the perfect combination of speed, anticipation and physicality to play at the middle linebacker position.
Kuechly and the Panthers defense have forced a whopping 10 turnovers through three preseason games.
After the game on Thursday night, Kuechly talked with ESPN's Lisa Salters about the identity of the Panthers defense this season.
"We gotta play hard, and I think we're forcing a lot of turnovers so far in the preseason. We gotta play aggressive, play fast from the start and keep it going," Kuechly said.
As displayed in the video clip above, Kuechly's development as a coverage linebacker will only add to his resume, which is highlighted by his ability to diagnose the run and get sideline to sideline to make plays. There's a reason he led the NFL in tackles.
But in that video you can see his ability to read the quarterback as he sits in zone coverage, anticipate the throw coming into his area and break on the ball.
It's very rare for a linebacker to have the athletic ability to get outside the numbers and make plays in the run game but also have the physicality to play the run between the tackles.
This ability to play the run inside the box was one of the discussions surrounding Kuechly before the 2012 draft. During his career at Boston College, Kuechly spent a good majority of the time lined up five-to-seven yards off the line of scrimmage. This didn't stop him from racking up impressive numbers and making tackles all over the place.
But it did beg the question as to whether or not he'd fit into certain NFL defensive schemes that might require him to line up closer to the line of scrimmage. In these certain schemes, he would spend more time taking on blockers and playing a more physical style of football.
It's not that he lacked the ability to do it; it was just something he wasn't asked to do on a regular basis and therefore became a question mark for some.
When the Panthers took Kuechly with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 draft, it was obvious they had a very clear plan for how he'd fit into their defense.
It's fair to say they got that one right.
Kuechly has been a perfect fit for the Panthers defense and has become the likely successor to a wave of revered middle linebackers who have just recently stepped away from the game.
He's the NFL's future at the middle linebacker position.
As shown in this clip above, Kuechly can make plays anywhere on the football field. He shows his quickness and anticipation skills to get into the backfield and strip the ball from the running back.
If Kuechly can make impact plays like he did in this game, while continuing to be an efficient tackler for the Panthers defense, that's where we'll see him take that next step. It's got to be more than just racking up a stat sheet with tackles. It must be about momentum-turning plays that ultimately lead to wins for the Panthers.
If he can do those things, there's no question that we'll see the maturation of the NFL's next elite defensive player.
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