Carolina position analysis: Linebackers

Part 3 of my position-by-position analysis of the Carolina Panthers' roster focuses on the strength of the defense.

Need a hint? Luuu-uuuuuke.

Next up: Linebackers

2013 grade: A-plus. This group was the heart of the league's second-ranked defense with Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis leading the team in tackles.

Under contract (2014 salary cap number): Thomas Davis ($5,816,666), Luke Kuechly ($3,430,528), Chase Blackburn ($1,050,000), A.J. Klein ($542,825). Total: $10,840,019.

Key free agents: Jordan Senn, Jason Williams, Dan Connor.

Good news: It's all good. Kuechly -- the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year -- as well as starters Davis and Blackburn are back. Key backup A.J. Klein also returns. This group has a chance to be the best in the league if it wasn't already this past season. Even better news -- because Kuechly is entering the third year of his rookie deal and general manager Dave Gettleman got Blackburn for a steal -- is that this group doesn't blow up the salary cap.

Bad news: Not much, other than Davis will be entering his ninth season and Blackburn his 10th. And Blackburn did have issues with his foot that kept him out of three games last season. But each arguably had the best season of their career and there is no real problem there should be a drop-off. Davis, who deserved to be a Pro Bowl selection, still has something to prove.

The draft: This would be an area where the Panthers likely will look to add a backup and strengthen special teams. Free agent Jordan Senn, a key member of the special teams, is entering his eighth season. There really hasn't been an every-down player ready to step in at middle linebacker if Kuechly were to get hurt since Jon Beason was traded to the New York Giants last season.