With training camp less than a week away, CatCrave proudly presents an analysis on each position on the Carolina Panthers roster. In an effort to prepare you for the excitement of watching your favorite team prepare for the season, we will analyze the projected strengths and weaknesses at each position.
Moving up from the trench warfare where “A” and “B” gap techniques strategize to break through offensive lines, we shift our views to the “Sams” (strong-side linebacker) and “Mikes” (inside linebacker) of the football landscape. Similar to a strong defensive line, the Carolina Panthers have the pleasure of fielding one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL. Led by middle linebacker (and one of the premier defensive players in the league in) Luke Kuechly, the Panthers linebackers again will look to lead a suffocating attack against quarterbacks.
Strengths: Now in his third season, Luke Kuechly at the youthful age of 23 is getting close to the threshold of his full potential. Coming off of a Defensive Player of the Year award, Kuechly’s play has established himself as one of the best in the business. When you watch a Carolina game, it is easy to see why Luke was given the greatest defensive award a year ago. Scanning offenses, calling adjustments pre snap, and a non-stop motor after the ball carrier, the Panthers star linebacker has had back-to-back 150 tackle seasons. It is truly scary imagining the havoc Kuechly could and should lay out on offenses this season.
Along with Kuechly in the Panthers 4-3 defense, are capable veterans Thomas Davis and Chase Blackburn. Davis, a Panther for life has created for himself a pleasant niche in Carolina with his play and his attitude. The first player in NFL history to recover from three ACL tears, Davis was proficient in his second season from recovery. Piling up 123 tackles, four sacks, and two interceptions (all while starting in every game), Davis was far from a second banana to Kuechly and proved invaluable for the Panthers dominating defense.
The final starter of the Panthers linebacker unit, Chase Blackburn was signed in the off-season by Carolina a year ago. Though not the player of Kuechly or Davis, Blackburn provides deep playoff experience to a mostly youthful Panthers team looking to avenge last season’s disappointing end. A solid veteran on the field and in the lockeroom, Blackburn (with Davis) supplies a calming presence to a group which includes second year backer A.J. Klein. Klein looks to make an impact in his second season after a key role on special teams and to build on the experience he gained in 2013. Rounding out this group are journeymen Jason Williams and D.J. Smith.
Weaknesses: Luke Kuechly is arguably the best player on the Carolina Panthers and was considered by his NFL peers as the best inside linebacker in their yearly poll. The youngest recipient of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in its’ history, barring an unfortunate injury, there is no weakness when Kuechly is leading the Panthers defense. Agile and receptive in the pass while also a run stopper, Luke Kuechly is the Panthers ultimate playmaker on defense.
Thomas Davis and Chase Blackburn are two of the most interesting players on the Carolina roster. As stated, Davis has recovered tremendously from devastating knee injuries and Blackburn; before signing with the Panthers, he was formerly a substitute teacher in 2012. Both 31 years old, the performance of each player will most certainly reflect the play of the linebacker corps than superstar Kuechly.
Blackburn, a Super Bowl hero and a leader in the lockeroom had three games without a tackle and only one game with more than four tackles. When Davis is healthy, he is a solid outside backer and has skills in coverage and breaking through offensive lines to dominate a game as seen in match-ups against Buffalo, New England and New Orleans. Never wishing injury on any player, if Davis were to be injured, there is not much depth in the corps. A.J. Klein is a promising prospect and had a nice game in a week ten match-up against San Francisco. But besides Klein, if any of the starters were to be injured, there would be a severe drop-off in talent.
While the defensive line is more talented, I believe due to the lingering questions swirling behind their best player, the best positional group on the Carolina roster is at linebacker. Consistency is an important trait and in the last two seasons, the starting linebackers have been as consistent as any group in the league. With their leader about to enter the prime of his career, there is little doubt that the Panthers linebackers will continue swarming after opposing quarterbacks this season.