Panthers have back-to-back top rookies

NEW ORLEANS -- Somewhere, Marty Hurney should be smiling.

He was fired as general manager of the Carolina Panthers in October. But Hurney’s legacy got a lot stronger Saturday night.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the last first-round pick by Hurney, was named by the Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press.

That comes one year after quarterback Cam Newton won the Offensive Rookie of the Year. There is little doubt Hurney’s tenure had to end when it did.

Amid extremely high hopes, the Panthers got off to a horrid start. Someone had to take the fall because the Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 2008. Hurney left, coach Ron Rivera stayed and, with Newton and Kuechly stepping up in the second half of the season, the Panthers rallied to finish 7-9.

Kuechly finished with a league-high 164 tackles and firmly established himself as the middle linebacker, after opening the season on the outside. Veteran Jon Beason had been Carolina’s middle linebacker, but he suffered a season-ending injury.

It’s pretty obvious the Panthers will keep Kuechly in the middle. Beason either will move to the outside or become a salary-cap casualty.

Hurney’s tenure began in 2002. He did some good things. But he also made plenty of mistakes and things didn’t end well.

Still, Hurney did some positive things that are going to stay with the Panthers in the future.

Hurney gave the Panthers a franchise quarterback in Newton.

He also left them with a quarterback for their defense in Kuechly.