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Panthers' Luke Kuechly is Defensive Player of the Year

NEW YORK -- Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly has spent just two years in the NFL, and he already has reached the pinnacle of individual achievement for a defensive player.

Kuechly was announced as the 2013 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year on Saturday at "NFL Honors." The voters chose Kuechly for his his all-around play at middle linebacker. He's excellent in pass coverage and a terrific run defender. Kuechly is the type of rangy linebacker who practically didn't exist a decade ago.

We suspect that Kuechly won the award based on his ridiculous Week 16 performanceagainst the New Orleans Saints. He showed off his skills in pursuit (24 tackles) and in coverage with a terrific interception of Drew Brees. In a season with a ton of DPOY candidates, voters were waiting for a transcendent performance by a player on a contending team. They got it in Week 16.

Kuechly is one of the best young players in the league, but we don't think he had the best season in 2013. He wasn't even the best middle linebacker. The 49ers' NaVorro Bowman, in many ways, had the season that people thought Kuechly had. Bowman would have been my choice for the award. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas and his teammate, cornerback Richard Sherman, both made good cases for the award.

Rams defensive end Robert Quinn had the most consistently dominant performances of the season, but he was penalized for not playing on a winning team. The Texans' J.J. Watt had a better overall 2013 than Kuechly, and Colts pass rusher Robert Mathis also was a strong candidate in a season without any easy choices.

Ultimately, Kuechly was rewarded for being the best defender on a Panthers defense that dramatically improved under Ron Rivera in 2013. Teammates like Greg Hardy, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson all deserve an assist.

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