CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The image of Luke Kuechly in tears as he was carted off the field late in a November prime time win against New Orleans was one of scariest and most memorable of 2016 for the Carolina Panthers.
That Kuechly didn’t play in the final six games, three while in the concussion protocol, sparked debate over the long-term future of the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Coach Ron Rivera insisted Kuechly was held out of the final three games as a precautionary measure with the playoffs a remote possibility. He insisted after the season that the team’s 2012 first-round pick would be ready for next season and there were no concerns.
This brings us to the eighth of an 11-part analysis of the Carolina roster.
Next up: Linebackers
2016 grade: B. For the first time since the 2012 season, Kuechly didn’t lead the Panthers in tackles, but it was close. Despite missing the last six games, he narrowly lost to outside linebacker Thomas Davis, 106 to 102. But in the true spirit of the next-man-up mentality, A.J. Klein and Shaq Thompson adequately replaced Kuechly, keeping linebacker the strength of the defense.
Key free agents: A.J. Klein, UFA; Ben Jacobs, UFA.
The good: You have to start with Kuechly. He could have played the final three games if the Panthers were in playoff contention and will be good to go once offseason workouts begin. He and two-time Pro Bowl selection Davis give Carolina arguably the best linebacker tandem in the NFL. That unit became stronger as Thompson showed late-season improvement with Kuechly out. Thompson even played middle linebacker in nickel situations, showing the versatility general manager Dave Gettleman talked about after making Thompson the team’s first-round pick in 2015. Second-year player David Mayo showed promise late in the season, as well. There’s no reason to expect this unit to decline in 2017.
The bad: You have to start with Kuechly. He’s suffered a concussion in each of the past two seasons, missing three games in 2015 while in the protocol. Once you’ve had a concussion, you’re more susceptible to another, and few if any positions make a defender more susceptible to helmet-to-helmet contact. Kuechly’s latest concussion conjured up bad memories of former Carolina linebacker Dan Morgan, whose career was cut short in part because of multiple concussions. Kuechly’s backup, A.J. Klein is a free agent, so the Panthers have to make sure they are prepared if Kuechly suffers another head injury. The good news there is Mayo showed in the finale that he has the potential to be that player if Klein signs somewhere else.
The draft: Alabama’s Reuben Foster has been called the most complete linebacker to come out of college since Kuechly in 2012. The Panther won’t be looking to use the eighth overall pick on Foster, but there are several potential Day 2 prospects in Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan, Northwestern’s Anthony Walker and Kansas State’s Elijah Lee if Klein doesn’t re-sign. Clemson’s Ben Boulware is among a group of players likely available between Rounds 3-5. Also in that group are LSU’s Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley. It’s not a great draft for linebackers, but it's a solid one for a team that relies heavily on linebackers.
Final thought: There has to be concern in case Kuechly suffers another concussion. But even if the Panthers don’t re-sign Klein, they appear in decent shape with Mayo filling in -- with emphasis on filling in. Nobody can truly replace all that Kuechly does. If for nothing else, re-signing Klein makes sense if the price is right. Thompson is a solid long-term replacement for Davis, who at 33 is entering the final year of what could be his final contract. While the Panthers are high on 2016 undrafted rookie Jeremy Cash out of Duke as another hybrid linebacker in the form of Davis and Thompson, there has to be consideration for adding another player there through either free agency or a middle-to-late-round draft pick to be groomed for 2018 if Davis retires.