Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has had the good fortune of working with some pretty talented linebackers in his career.
As a player, he was a member of the vaunted ’85 Chicago Bears defense led by Hall of Famer Mike Singletary. As a position coach in Philadelphia he was credited for helping develop Jeremiah Trotter into a Pro Bowler.
As a coordinator in Chicago, he helped develop Lance Briggs into the perennial All-Pro he’s become and in San Diego he spent a year with Shawne Merriman in his prime and a handful of years with Shaun Phillips coming off the edge. However, there’s two prized pupils that have to stand out over the course of his career.
Coming out of New Mexico where he played safety and even returned kicks, Brian Urlacher was a physical freakshow the likes of which we’ve never seen in the NFL. With an imposing 6-4, 258 lb. stature (official combine measurement) and a 4.57 40-yard dash, he was an athlete whom former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo assumed could be molded into the middle linebacker of the future in the Windy City.
Nearly 12 years later, Luke Kuechly came out of Boston College as one of the most prolific linebackers in the history of college football, racking up season tackle totals of 158, 183 and 191 in three seasons at BC. However, when Kuechly’s draft stock really took off was when he tipped the scales at 242 lbs. and paired a 4.58 second 40-yard dash with a 38.1″ vertical leap.
Urlacher would wind up being the ninth pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Almost 12 years later, Luke Kuechly would be the ninth pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
By the time Ron Rivera took over as the defensive coordinator in Chicago (mostly in name as Lovie Smith ran the Chicago defense), Brian Urlacher was already an established star. However, paired together in Chicago, the Bears defense flourished.
In 2005, Urlacher won the AP Defensive Player of the Year award. In 2006 they won an NFC championship.
Rivera left the following year after a tumultuous round of contract negotiations where Rivera interviewed for several other jobs, but, by then, Brian Urlacher’s legacy had been cemented and Rivera had found his new prototype.
A dozen years later, he finally found the player that fit that prototype, and two years into his career, with Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher now retired, Luke Kuechly is carrying the torch as the game’s next great middle linebacker.
After an injury to Jon Beason in his rookie season, Kuechly slid comfortably into the starting middle linebacker’s role (a position he’d become more than familiar with in college) and never looked back. He finished the season with 165 tackles and won AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, an award Urlacher had won 12 years prior.
This year, he’s taken the next step. His Panthers are 9-4 and they’re driven by a defense that Kuechly is emerging as the unquestioned leader of.
He’s been instinctive and violent in his run fits and athletic and dynamic in coverage. He’s got 113 tackles through 13 games and three interceptions, and you can make a very strong case that Kuechly is the front-runner for this year’s DPOY award.
In an age where offense is dominant, Kuechly is simultaneously an ode to the gritty, instinctual linebacker of yesteryear and a prime example of the athletic evolution of the NFL as a whole. He brings a primitive aggression to the A-gap and turns and runs in coverage like a safety.
Luke Kuechly is that hot new next-gen console. If Brian Urlacher was an Xbox (which, I guess would make Ray Lewis the PS2?), Kuechly is an Xbox One.
And you can expect to see the next Luke Kuechly on NFL wish lists everywhere soon.