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Luke Kuechly Carolina Panthers' new defensive leader

With the retirements of bone-crushing hitters Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, Carolina Panthers leading tackler Luke Kuechly is becoming the new model for the middle linebacker who can chase running backs, tight ends and even read-option quarterbacks out of the backfield. As NFL Network analyst Brian Billick recently pointed out, the position is evolving into one emphasizing athleticism and fluidity.

Just as swiftly as Jon Beason took the Panthers' defensive leadership torch from Dan Morgan a half-decade ago, Kuechly is grabbing the reins from Beason this offseason.

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"(Kuechly) is a student of the game," wide receiver Steve Smith said, via WFNZ-AM. "He is taking over that defense, he is composing that defense, which is neat to see. ... He really is becoming the quarterback of the defense."

It's high praise from a veteran who typically likes young players to be seen and not heard. Smith is hardly alone in his high regard for Kuechly.

"He has a lot of natural ability," coach Ron Rivera said of Kuechly. "Whoever coached him before he got here did a (heck) of a job."

Beason willingly has ceded his leadership role because he believes the 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year already is "the best in the league" at middle linebacker. "You look at Luke and you say this kid is exceptional -- this kid can play," Beason said last month. "So I'm like, well let's get out there and be great together."

Kuechly ranked No. 79 in NFL Network's "The Top 100 Players of 2013." By this time next year, he should be battling Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys and Bobby Wagner of the Seattle Seahawks for a spot in the top 30.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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