The NFL season began with the stunning early retirement of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck at age 29. It winds down with the stunning retirement of Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly just a few months shy of his 29th birthday.
Now he adds his name to the growing list of elite NFL players to hang up their cleats young, joining the likes of Chris Borland (24), Rob Gronkowski (29) and Doug Baldwin (30).
Like with Luck, there's simply no replacing Kuechly outright on the roster. The seven-time Pro Bowler has recorded the most tackles since he entered the NFL eight years ago (1,092) and the most interceptions by a linebacker since 2012 (18).
His retirement gives a Carolina team undergoing a regime change from Ron Rivera to Matt Rhule a massive need to address this offseason—and that's not considering the uncertainty surrounding quarterback Cam Newton's return next season. Fortunately, the college pipeline is loaded with linebackers who are worth the Panthers' first-round pick at No. 7 overall.
Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
Simmons hasn't declared for the draft yet. It hasn't even been 24 hours since his team lost the national title game, after all. But the Tigers' junior linebacker will be tops in his position group if he decides to forgo his final year of college eligibility.
In 2019, he was far and away the best linebacker in the country. After tallying an eye-popping 88 tackles as a sophomore, he (6'4", 230-pounds) reached new heights this season with 104 tackles (67 solo), eight sacks, one forced fumble and three interceptions. Despite Clemson's title-game loss to LSU, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller raved about Simmons' performance.
"Rarely does a player come along who can rush, tackle and cover at the level Simmons does," Miller wrote after the game. "There is no NFL comparison for a player of his size, speed and traits. Because of his unique gifts and athleticism, Simmons should be among the first 10 picks in 2020."
The latter half of that statement may prove troublesome for Carolina. Simmons may be long off the board by the time the Panthers are on the clock.
Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma
The first-team All-Big 12 linebacker is quite the consolation prize if Carolina can't draft Simmons. Murray has been a difference-maker for the Sooners since stepping foot on campus. As the anchor of a defense that allowed just 357.1 yards per game, he recorded 102 tackles (back-to-back seasons of at least 69 solo stops), four pass deflections and four sacks.
Murray excels on all three downs and can be lethal in nickel packages on defense. That might not mesh with the 3-4 defense Carolina installed last season, but with Rhule bringing his college defensive coordinator, Phil Snow, into the fold, it's likely the Panthers switch to his 3-3-5 scheme.
That would give Murray all the opening he needs to succeed in the NFL. Miller previously reported that scouts were impressed with his sideline-to-sideline speed. Considering the athleticism of the opponents he'll be going up against in the NFL, he is going to need it.
In any case, the 6'2", 234-pound linebacker will help improve whichever team takes him. Carolina will be watching closely.
If both Simmons and Murray are taken before Carolina can nab one—or if they decide to go in a different direction with the seventh pick—Baun will be worth a look in Rounds 2-4.
The first-team All-Big Ten linebacker finished up his senior year at Wisconsin with a Rose Bowl loss to Oregon, but that wasn't because of Baun (five tackles). The 6'3", 235-pounder excels at reaching the quarterback, and he recorded 12.5 sacks this season, to say nothing of 75 total tackles, two forced fumbles and one interception.
If the Panthers attempt to replace Kuechly by committee—and considering how rare players like Kuechly are, that seems likely—Baun would provide a solid base. Miller pegged him as one of his sleeper prospects back in October.
Now that the season is over, Baun has scouts wide awake leading up to the draft.