With all of the talk about Cam Newton and his “Pounds of Blackness”, people tend to lump Carolina’s sixth-ranked defense into one faceless unit. If anybody on that unit stands out, it’s middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He’s not only the league’s supreme middleman on D, but he has a unique mixture of football smarts and superior athleticism with the perfect blast of tenacity to create the perfect player at his position.
Basically, he has the cognitive tools of a Mike Singletary and Harry Carson with defensive back-type wheels. Kuechly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds during the 2012 scouting combine, which was the second-fastest time at his position. He’s not your typical hard-hitting, cerebral and mud-footed white linebacker.
In fact, when Cam Newton first met Kuechly, he thought the fleet-footed route runner was a tight end.
“I was at IMG and he was running routes and I didn’t really know who he was at the time,” Cam told ESPN. "He had pretty good hands then, so I was thinking that he was like a tight end. So when we got him I was like, ‘Damn, he’s a linebacker?'"
One For The Struggle. Two for the C'hip
One year after the Carolina Panthers selected franchise-shifter Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft, the team drafted Kuechly with the ninth overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Kuechly's been a master of pursuing, wrapping and sticking since Boston College, where he was a three-time All-American. The Ohio kid wasted no time flexing his skills in the pros, leading the NFL in tackles as a rookie and winning the Associated Press 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
He has diversified his game each season, while rising above other players at his position. If Carolina defeats the Denver Broncos on Saturday in Super Bowl 50, Cam Newton will have company as far as players who will be elevating themselves into future Hall of Fame discussions.
Yes, Luke Kuechly is that kind of talent.
Go down the list. Sam Huff, Dick Butkus; none of these guys were covering No. 1 receivers 50 yards down the field on pass plays. Ray Lewis, Sam Mills, Jack Lambert and Junior Seau (RIP) didn’t do it either.
In the second half of the Divisional Round against Seattle, when Russell Wilson caught his groove and tossed three touchdown passes, he was forced to exploit every area of Carolina’s defense except the middle of the field.
According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson had a passer rating of just 20.8 on his five throws in Kuechly’s direction, including a crucial pass defense with the Seahawks steamrolling downfield and trailing by 10 points with just over 2:00 left in the fourth quarter.
Kuechly affords the Carolina defense a luxury that most teams don’t enjoy. They can drop him in coverage as they have against killer receivers such as Doug Baldwin and Julio Jones, and he can remarkably hold his own.
Kuechly is that dude. He finished 2015 with a league-leading passer rating allowed in coverage of 57.8. The second closest guy was Karlos Dansby (65.3). The league average among linebackers was 102.5, according to Pro Football Focus.
So actually, the Panthers are sporting a guy on offense and defense that are the best in the game at their respective positions and revolutionizing the position sort of speak.
The 24-year-old Kuechly’s talents are well-known and respected among his NFL peers. On Saturday, the 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year gets a chance to crash Cam's party and immortalize himself on the big stage.