CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- So how good is Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly? Consider Jon Beason, a three-time Pro Bowler, didn't get any consideration to return to the position he lost to the rookie last season when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4.
The good news for Carolina is now that Beason is back, the Panthers have two of the best linebackers in the NFL on the field at the same time.
Beason started at weakside linebacker on Thursday against the Baltimore Ravens, his first live game since being hurt. He didn't stand out like Kuechly, who had seven tackles, a forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown, an interception and two pass breakups that had some comparing him to the NFL's all-time greats.
But Beason made the defense better, and the more he gets into playing shape, the better he'll be.
"We all wear the same colors, man," Beason told a fan who touted the defense that scored three touchdowns against the Ravens.
That's another of Beason's qualities that'll make the defense better. He's not a selfish player who needs to have the spotlight on him. It just naturally goes there.
"His energy level is way up there," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "He's very phonetic when he's moving around and he's physical. He really is. Not that we didn't have that out there, but you add another guy with his athleticism and physicality it just becomes more exciting."
Beason isn't 100 percent yet. The right knee that underwent microfracture surgery in October will get stronger. But he's close enough that he didn't want to come off the field after 13 or 14 snaps against Baltimore, and hungry enough that he wants to play in Thursday's preseason finale in which many of the starters will be held out.
"I missed several hundred reps during camp," said Beason, who had two tackles against the Ravens. "Those guys got in football shape, they got their reads down. You can't really practice that stuff when you're not on the field. It's not like basketball when you can go out and shoot hoops. I need that live action."
He also needs to be healthy once the season starts, so it makes little sense to use Beason against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's going to be used enough during the regular season and in a variety of ways between weakside and strongside linebacker.
Rivera says he wants to be "creative" with the 25th overall pick of the 2007 draft. That was evident against the Ravens as Beason played in both the 4-3 and 3-4 scheme.
"Whatever it takes, wherever coach thinks I'm going to be valuable, that's what I'm going to do," Beason said. "When I'm healthy I think I'm as good as anybody. I can do a lot of different things."
It's not like Beason hasn't played weakside linebacker before. That's where he starred coming out of the University of Miami.
"It's whatever's best for our D," Beason reiterated.
Having Beason and Kuechly on the field at the same time, along with Thomas Davis at strongside linebacker, is what's best for Carolina. The three give the Panthers one of the best, if not the best, linebacker corps in the league.
Kuechly is getting most of the headlines now. His production after moving from outside to middle linebacker to replace Beason improved dramatically, and so did the Carolina defense.
"When it comes to linebackers, I'm a hard critic," Beason said. "You have to be able to do everything. A lot of guys are more stout against the run, but more suspect in the passing game. [Luke's] complete. He can run, he's great in the passing game, stout against the run and he's very instinctive. He has all the intangibles to be as good as anybody."
Beason's just glad to be playing beside Kuechly after playing only five games the past two seasons due to injuries.
"I can't wait [for the regular season]," he said. "But you know what? I'm going to enjoy these next couple of weeks because I actually need it."