NFC South Q&A: Who's more valuable to Panthers, Cam Newton or Luke Kuechly?

Today's question: One was the NFL MVP last season and the other is a three-time Pro Bowler and former defensive player of the year. Who is more valuable to the Carolina Panthers, quarterback Cam Newton or linebacker Luke Kuechly? And why?

Jenna Laine, Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter: I'm a huge fan of Kuechly and I appreciate great defense, but I think Newton is the bigger asset. Kuechly missed three games last season and the Panthers still managed to win without him and go 15-1 en route to the Super Bowl. Granted, those three games came against teams that finished with a combined record of 22-26, but Carolina has a strong supporting cast on defense. There's no replacing Kuechly, but the Panthers still got the job done. With Newton, so much of what he does is improvisational. You can't replicate it. I was just talking to a former Bucs player about it. The defense gets itself into a third-and-long against him, players think they're getting off the field and then he scrambles for a first down. "It's defeating," he said. The thing that impressed me, though, is how he made it work last year without his top red zone target, Kelvin Benjamin. His No. 1 receiving target was tight end Greg Olsen, and he made guys like Ted Ginn Jr., Jerricho Cotchery, Devin Funchess and Corey Brown shine.

Vaughn McClure, Atlanta Falcons reporter: I'm going to stick with Newton, not to undervalue what Kuechly means to the team. I knew Newton had great ability when I watched him account for 409 yards and three touchdowns during his rookie season against a Chicago Bears defense led by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Now Newton has matured into a leader despite how folks want to analyze his demeanor. What I see is a 27-year-old signal-caller who is only going to keep ascending coming off a hard lesson learned in a Super Bowl loss. He's got a rare combination of size, strength and speed at the quarterback position, and I bet there are about 25 teams around the league that would love to have him running their offense instead of another quarterback. Again, that's not to diminish Kuechly's playmaking ability on defense. I just think you have to go with the offensive player, particularly one with Newton's unique talents.

Mike Triplett, New Orleans Saints reporter: An absolutely fair question, since Kuechly has arguably established himself as one of the three best defenders in the NFL over multiple seasons, while Newton didn't truly reach that echelon of quarterbacks until last year. But it's hard to pick against the quarterback in conversations like these -- especially one like Newton, since he can carry a team when he's playing great and the team seems to suffer when he isn't.

I decided to get an extra opinion and picked the brain of former Panthers safety Roman Harper. He went back and forth, first pointing out that backup A.J. Klein played so well in Kuechly's absence last year -- then pointing out that Newton's backup, Derek Anderson, did the same in 2014. I told Harper I was going with Newton but asked him to make the case for Kuechly, and he made a pretty convincing one: "He's the best linebacker in the league right now. The plays that he makes, he's so smart, he understands everything, he can read and diagnose. And he's a freakish athlete, too. And he's probably the nicest guy you'll ever meet in your life, which is kind of weird. Luke's just an animal. He's the best linebacker I've ever played with."

Harper also stressed that Thomas Davis shouldn't be left out of the conversation. He said Davis is the "heart and soul of that team" and his absence from the locker room would be more noticed than anyone else's.