We often laugh at analysts for their mistakes. Like how Mel Kiper said he’d retire in 2018 if Jimmy Clausen wasn’t a successful NFL QB. Or when Skip Bayless said that Johnny Manziel would surpass LeBron James’ legacy in Cleveland. In the case of Kuechly, however, all the pre-draft analysis about him proved to be spot-on.
He was viewed as unique for his ability to be a three-down inside linebacker. Many linebackers are subbed out of the game on obvious passing downs because of their deficiencies in coverage. Not Kuechly. It was a major factor for his stock as a top-10 prospect. The Panthers drafted him with the ninth overall pick, making him the first linebacker selected in the 2012 NFL Draft. In hindsight, he should have been picked earlier.
After winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012, Kuechly elevated his play even further. In 2013, he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the first inside linebacker to win the prestigious award in eight years. Since his rookie year, hasn’t missed an All-Pro team. He’s been the leader of numerous elite Panthers defenses, like the 2013 and 2015 teams. Kuechly’s legacy grew in 2015 as he had two interceptions returned for a touchdown in the postseason while playing through a torn labrum. His efforts led the Panthers’ defense to an appearance in Super Bowl 50.
Today, Kuechly is 27 years old and is continuing to tear it up for the Panthers. Last Monday, he played in his 100th game and logged another amazing performance. At this point, he has already cemented his legacy as a future Hall of Famer. Now, Kuechly is racing up the rankings for the greatest inside linebackers of all time.
The most important position in football is the quarterback. They run the show and call the shots for their team.
On the other side of the ball, the middle linebacker is the most important player — they serve as the quarterback for the defense. Luke Kuechly thrives in this role and he continued to show why he’s the best inside linebacker in the league last Monday.
Kuechly led a defense that held the prolific Saints offense to just 12 points. He put up a season-high 13 combined tackles. According to Next Gen Stats, Luke Kuechly did not miss a single defensive play (69 snaps), finishing with 6 tackles when traveling 20+ yards (known as hustle tackles). It was his 4th game of the season with 6+ hustle tackles. Only four others have more than one such game this season.
Nobody could stop Kuechly from reaching the ball-carrier, no matter how far away he was. Not even his 310-pound teammate.
Kuechly runs over defensive tackle Kyle Love to reach Alvin Kamara on an outside run. It was Kuechly’s 37th run stop of the year, the most for any linebacker this season. With 124 total tackles, Kuechly currently has the 2nd most in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, he has the second highest overall grade among linebackers (behind Bobby Wagner).
Kuechly has been equally effective in pass coverage. He has allowed 0.69 yards per coverage snap over the last two seasons combined, the second-lowest total among linebackers. He’s been targeted just 39 times in pass coverage this year and only 13 of those targets resulted in first downs. He’s missed just two tackles on receivers all season — his 17 coverage stops are the 5th most for a linebacker this season, which is made more impressive by the fact that he’s rarely targeted.
In addition, Kuechly regularly makes plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. His instincts are unmatched and he has an intellectual grasp on the game that makes everybody around him better.
On this third down, Mike Evans is lined up in the backfield on Winston’s left side. Evans runs an out route towards the left sideline and quickly gains separation. Winston spots him and is ready to make the pass. Kuechly anticipates this and jumps between Winston and Evans with his hands up. Winston is unable to adjust, panics, and takes a sack. You won’t see that in the stats, but this play by Kuechly ended the drive and forced a punt.
Kuechly did this once again on Monday night versus the Saints. In another third down situation, Kuechly reads Brees’ eyes and jumps up to bat the pass down. The ball would have gone to Michael Thomas (#13) who was open and likely would have been able to stretch for the first down. Instead, the incompletion forces a field goal attempt.
The Panthers are on a six-game losing streak, but that has absolutely no connection with Kuechly’s performance. He’s as good as ever.
Kuechly’s path to the top of the all-time rankings won’t be easy. There is a long list of legends at the inside linebacker position. Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Junior Seau, Ray Nitschke, Bill George, and Brian Urlacher come to mind. However, Kuechly has a very realistic shot at being at the top of this elite class of players. There are not many players who have accomplished what he has in their first seven years.
|First-Team All-Pro Appearances||AP Defensive Player of the Year Awards|
Kuechly is up there with the modern greats at the position in terms of statistics through their first 100 games as well (older players could not be used in this comparison due to the deficiencies of defensive stat-keeping in the 20th century). TFLs and PDs are represented by a “per game” metric because it wasn’t until 1999 that they were tracked, which was during Lewis’ career. 53 of his first 100 games were after this change. Note that my adjusted metric is imperfect because it disregards the initial games of Lewis’ career where he was obviously a lesser player considering he didn’t reach his prime yet.
|Solo Tackles||Tackles For Loss Per Game||Sacks||Interceptions||Passes Defended Per Game|
There’s no player who clearly stands above the rest. Brian Urlacher is in a league of his own in terms of tackles for a loss and sacks, while Kuechly’s coverage numbers are superior to others.
The takeaway to be made here is that Kuechly’s numbers are as good, if not better, than any inside linebacker in NFL history. Certainly, it’s impossible to foresee the rest of his career. However, if he maintains his current pace, there’s no limit to what he can accomplish. Luke Kuechly is already destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he could go down as the greatest inside linebacker the game has ever seen.
Image Source: Clayton Hansen