Kuechly could be what Dan Morgan wasn't

As I drove down to Bradenton, Fla., back in February to interview some draft prospects at IMG Football Academy, I thought a lot about Carolina’s 2001 draft class. That’s because I was about to see a member of that class -- Chris Weinke, who now is IMG’s director of football operations.

I also was about to meet Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was preparing for the scouting combine under Weinke’s guidance. The Panthers used their first-round pick on Kuechly on Thursday night, but we’ll get back to Kuechly in just a minute. Let’s stick to the 2001 class for now.

As I drove, I thought about how that class might have been the best in franchise history (although the 2007 class that included Jon Beason, Ryan Kalil and Charles Johnson certainly is in the argument). But the 2001 draft is different in one regard. If not for a few twists of fate, it could have gone down as one of the greatest draft classes in NFL history.

Let’s start with the Panthers' third-round choice of Steve Smith, a wide receiver who is still with the Panthers and is still going strong. He at least has a shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Weinke was the fourth-round choice. He got thrown into a bad situation as a rookie starter and never was “the guy’’ once John Fox took over the next year.

Safety Jarrod Cooper (a fifth-round choice) and running back Dee Brown (sixth round) also contributed as special-teams players and offensive lineman Louis Williams (seventh round) hung around for a bit, even though his claim to fame was his willingness to pick up a couple hundred bucks from teammates for practicing in shorts and a t-shirt on one of the coldest and snowiest days in Charlotte history.

Then, there was second-round choice Kris Jenkins. For a brief period, he was the best defensive tackle in the game. He was a major reason the Panthers went to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season. Jenkins’ career got sidetracked by two major knee injuries and he grew unhappy in Charlotte. He later went to the New York Jets and, for a short time, looked like the best defensive tackle in the game again. Then, he got hit with more injuries.

Had Jenkins been able to stay healthy and happy, he might be in Hall of Fame discussions with Smith. Then, there’s the star-crossed case of Dan Morgan, the linebacker Carolina took in the first round of that draft.

“The best football player I’ve ever played with,’’ Jenkins told me last summer, soon after he announced his retirement.

People tend to forget how great Morgan was. That’s because his career was overshadowed by injuries, mostly concussions. Morgan spent seven seasons with Carolina, but never was able to play in more than 13 games in a season. In his last two years, he played in only four games.

But, in the few moments he was healthy, Morgan might have been the best player in this class. Remember Super Bowl XXXVIII? Morgan officially was in on 18 tackles in that game, but Carolina coaches put the number at 25. When Morgan was healthy, he was spectacular. Without all the injuries, Morgan might still be playing and he easily could be ahead of Smith and Jenkins in that hypothetical Hall of Fame conversation.

Through the years, I’ve discussed Morgan many times with Carolina general manager Marty Hurney. Coach George Seifert had the general-manager powers in that draft, but Hurney was part of the Carolina brain trust and moved into his current role the next year. When Hurney talks about Morgan, you hear bittersweet tones. Like everyone else in Carolina’s building that spent time around Morgan, Hurney talks glowingly about Morgan’s talent and how he was a true pro’s pro. Then, the injuries come up and that’s when the tone becomes sad. Hurney saw Morgan as a player that could have been truly special.

That’s why I have to wonder if Hurney was thinking about Morgan (and what he could have been) as he went through the draft process with Kuechly. I sure was. When Carolina’s pick was announced, my first thought was “Hurney just drafted a healthy Dan Morgan."

Kuechly is like Morgan in so many ways – a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who lives for football. Like Morgan, Kuechly had a highly-productive career from a strong college program.

Kuechly is coming in young, fresh and healthy. If he can stay that way, he could end up being the player Morgan never quite was able to become. That would make Hurney and a lot of Carolina fans very happy.

Keep Kuechly on the field for a decade and he could become a Pro Bowl regular. Maybe even, someday, a Hall of Famer.