When Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher retired, football lost two longtime standard-bearers at linebacker. While it would be somewhat simplistic to label someone "the next Urlacher/Lewis," I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a close look at one of the bright young stars at the position, someone under the age of 25 who has a chance to become one of the best of his era: Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers.
The reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year showed an incredible amount of promise in 2012, especially after he moved to the middle linebacker position in Week 5. He's received plenty of praise from his teammates, most notably from the man he replaced, veteran Jon Beason, who called Kuechly "the best in the league." With Kuechly on the field, the Panthers gave up 66 fewer points than they did in 2011. That might not seem like a significant difference -- until one considers that scoring was up across the league last season.
Here's a quick look at how Kuechly stacks up in five key areas:
This is the most important trait when it comes to having success at the linebacker position. Hall of Famers Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary rated as two of the most impressive competitors I've ever seen, and Kuechly is cut from the same mold. He's a very tough and physical presence, a "lay it on the line on every play" type of guy who will never give up.
Some players seem to be born with great instincts, and others simply don't have what it takes. Kuechly's instincts are exceptional; he moves before the ball is snapped, takes great angles and just has a sense of where the play is going. This gives the Panthers' defense a step on opponents.
The importance of instincts cannot be understated. When I was with the Dallas Cowboys, we drafted a defensive lineman out of Maryland named Randy White in the hopes of turning him into a middle linebacker. He seemed to have it all -- toughness, speed, competitiveness -- but as it turned out, he lacked the instincts to man the middle. After a year and a half, we sent him back to the line (where, of course, he proceeded to have a Hall of Fame career). But you can't blame us for trying. After all, when Cowboys coach Tom Landry was defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, he saw converted lineman Sam Huff's instincts turn him into a Hall of Fame linebacker.
A linebacker must, of course, produce on the field. One way to gauge that production is to look at tackles -- and by that measure, Kuechly definitely is a production machine.
Kuechly started a bit slowly -- notching just three solo tackles over his first two games in 2012 -- but he picked up steam in a big way, finishing the season with an impressive 103 solo tackles. This continued a trend from his days at Boston College, where he put together a 33-game streak in which he posted 10-plus solo tackles per contest.
And while I'm not a fan of counting "assisted tackles" -- if you hit somebody and I fall on top of him, that will net me an "assisted tackle" -- I do want to point out that, for what it's worth, Kuechly led the NFL with 164 combined (solo plus assisted) tackles in 2012.
4) Speed and athleticism
While competitiveness and instincts are obviously crucial elements of being a top-notch linebacker, speed and athletic ability are also important. Especially in the current iteration of the NFL, a middle linebacker must be able to cover receivers across much of the field.
To see why, simply look at the defensive stop that helped the San Francisco 49ers hold off the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game last season. With the game on the line, Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman made a key play in coverage, preventing Roddy White from catching a short pass on fourth down. Kuechly has the speed (he ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) and strength (he recorded 27 strength lifts) to have that kind of impact.
Incidentally, one might notice that I have yet to discuss Kuechly's height (6-foot-3). That's because I've come to learn that height is not the greatest indicator of linebacker talent. In 1981, the Cowboys passed up on a linebacker prospect who didn't quite meet our height standard at the position -- and to this very day, every time I see him, Mike Singletary will remind me that I missed out on him because he was a fraction of an inch too short. And if that's not enough to convince one that height can be irrelevant, consider the Seattle Seahawks' Bobby Wagner. The 6-foot linebacker finished second to Kuechly in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting and definitely belongs in the conversation about rising stars at the position.
5) Ability to shed blockers
Though Carolina does a very good job of protecting Kuechly and keeping him free to make plays, Kuechly needs work here; he has to get better at disengaging when blockers get their hands on him. However, I'm sure he'll improve on this over the offseason.
The bottom line is, Kuechly loves to play football, and it shows. He has outstanding character and great work habits, and he's very smart. I expect him to be a dominant linebacker who should make many Pro Bowls over the next 12 years or so.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.