I have to admit, from an opinion standpoint, lately not wanting the Panthers to pick the guy they've picked in the first round the last two years has worked out.
It took until January to completely come clean about Cam Newton, though by camp last year he'd already shown some leadership, and a lot of hard work. That guy beat all odds - low snaps on a major college level, controversy, a very simple offense - and made it happen.
So this year, let me get right to it - I see nothing less from Luke Kuechly.
I made it clear. I didn't want a LB this high. Many trusted compatriots told me this was a good pick. Many friends wondered how great it'd be to make this happen. Meanwhile, I kinda brushed it off. I looked at a lack of elite LBs on many great Eagles teams, and honestly, Chargers teams under Rivera. And Carolina had already stocked up a bit, keeping their unit intact. It wasn't what Rivera was given in Chicago, but it was pretty nice. I saw the Beason achilles not hindering him, and felt like what we needed was depth, not a starter. It's insane to take a LB in the top 15, isn't it? Make no mistake, the third corner plays as much as the strongside LB nowadays. Having three good linebackers, much less four, is a unique and rare luxury. Honest 3-4 teams (discount our 3-4s, we use at least one end) don't have four good LBs.
But, so here's this new kid. The one that cost us, potentially, a very good corner. Or a defensive tackle, or a rush guy - I do still feel like Melvin Ingram could've helped our multiple front a good deal. The thing about it? Luke is a much better football player than just about anyone in this draft. They could've gone with the bigger need, but right now, I can't be more impressed with the actual football player.
Let's break down what I see.
*instinct - our LBs are instinctive. But Kuechly has the potential to be Thomas Davis in coverage, and in a bigger package. He could be an ideal Tampa-2 ILB, if he was asked - not unlike Brian Urlacher in coverage, he has range, and he gets into his drops well. He has speed. That's not to call him Urlacher, though there can be similarities.
*playmaking - And, then, the most important thing is he plays the ball when he gets there. He had a fantastic pick at fanfest that underlies that. Check this out at the point I've stopped it, and watch from there:
he attacks the bang-8 play to Ajirotutu, a well thrown ball by Newton. The Bang-8 is a deep slant thrown off the QB's fifth step, and without a second to spare. Kuechly notes the route, and gets there. Corners have long struggled to get it, much less a zone LB. Count me as impressed, as the rookie goes up and plucks the ball from behind him, a skill that even WR have problems picking up.
*attack - Luke tracks the ball like a linebacker. One thing that I see that separates him from most LBs? Not unlike how our DL is told to attack, Kuechly joins them at the line, keeps his outside hand free, and attacks. He does it with the force of a 3-technique, and the range of a LB. He rides his block deeper into the play, and disengages to make the tackle. In a one-gap scheme, the linebackers have to be able to beat a block sometimes, too. Attacking the line of scrimmage isn't just for the DL. Kuechly fits that, and I look forward to that. Hopefully, that translates as a blitzer, as well.
*tackling - I don't think anyone thinks it's a shock this kid can tackle. What it means, however, is that a team that was awful at tackling last year has a guy who can teach, not needs to be taught.
Put simply, he finishes. All of the above deal with not only making it to the right place on time, but doing the right thing while there.
So, if you look at the 2011 defense from a sabermetric type standpoint - what they needed to improve statistically, not where - it was within the above three things. You don't improve a defense by just pouring on more rush, or more coverage. Last year, with so much missing, it needed everything. It's impossible to add "everything" in one guy.
But in Luke Kuechly, they're coming close.