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.
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.
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."