Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.
The selection: Luke Kuechley, Carolina Panthers Honorable mentions: Paul Worrilow, C.J. Mosley, Chris Borland, Curtis Lofton, Bobby Wagner
Hard to argue with probably the most productive linebacker over the last three years. Luke Kuechley since entering the NFL in 2012 has been a stalwart on a very good Carolina defense. He began his blossoming career with a Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and he continues to impress. Kuechley has set himself apart from his peers by simply dominating the position. The most talented middle linebacker the league has seen since Ray Lewis is rolling through his career. There are a number of young up and coming linebackers in the NFL but Kuechley is the cream of the crop.
For starters, the Panthers defensive mainstay has never missed a game in his three years; he also started every single one of them. He has youth, at the ripe age of 23, potential, as a former first round draft pick, and talent, based on his incredible production. Kuechley is also an all-around stud. He has the ability to play the run or the pass better than just about any linebacker does in the league. It all starts with his tackling. Kuechley has led the league in tackling in two of his three seasons; he finished fourth in 2013. He has registered at least 150 tackles in every season. He also demonstrates an ability to make both open field and gang tackles on the field. He is one of the best tacklers in the league and at middle linebacker, fundamental tackling is the backbone of success.
To his ability as a run stuffer, Kuechley has proven to be an asset over a liability. Kuechley has 29 run stuffs in his career, with some solid consistency in recording them. He has tallied at least eight in each of his three seasons. For a comparison, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner only has 16 in his three-year career. Kuechley’s totals have marginally declined each year, which is mildly concerning but assuming her continues to produces with consistency, he will be a piece of a great rush defense.
Kuechley is even more prolific as a cover man. His numbers in pass coverage are impressive in general. The former Boston College All-American has 26 pass deflections since 2012. Again, Kuechley has never tallied any fewer than 8 in a season. His 26 total disrupted throws is only one less than Curtis Lofton has in his entire 7-year career. Wagner only 14 pass deflections over the same span as Kuechley. The Panthers’ defensive quarterback was only one of three linebackers to record 10 or more pass deflections in 2014, and the only middle linebacker. That coupled with his tackling ability makes him ideal to drag down players down in open space as is usually required of coverage linebackers.
Linebackers often thrive on big plays and Kuechley has also been an elite source of turnovers and impact plays in career. In his 3 years, Kuechley has accounted for four forced fumbles, seven interceptions and a forced fumble as well. He has proven that he can force turnovers in multiple ways. He is a dynamic player that makes plays all over the field. Winning the turnover battle is the most crucial part a football game. Having a game changer like Kuechley makes a huge difference.
Kuechley is playing at a Pro Bowl level already as a 23-year old. If that is indication of how talented he is, he will likely be a Hall of Famer one day. He is the unparalleled best middle linebacker in the NFL, at any age. He is an elite tackler, top pass defender and excellent run defender. No one is capable of putting up the same numbers with any form of consistency. The one thing that would likely put Kuechley into the category as one of the best defensive players of all-time would be if he was a more prolific pass rusher. However, Kuechley is still an iconic player who will dominant the league for the next dozen years. He is easily the best to make as a cornerstone linebacker in the NFL.