Miami Dolphins at Carolina Panthers
Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET
The biggest shift in value at any position has been running back. NFL teams don’t invest in backs at anywhere near the rate they used to. Inside linebacker isn’t too far behind running back, though.
Yet, even in an age in which teams aren’t placing as much stock in the inside linebacker position, Luke Kuechly might be as valuable as any defensive player in the NFL. He’s a big reason the Panthers enter a “Monday Night Football” matchup against the Dolphins with a 6-3 record, right in the middle of the NFC playoff race.
The Panthers are 6-1 in games Kuechly has started and finished this season. They’re 0-2 without him. After Kuechly suffered a concussion against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Panthers went on to lose 28-23. The Eagles had three points late in the second quarter when Kuechly got hurt; they scored 25 over the final two-plus quarters with Kuechly out. The Panthers lost 17-3 to the Chicago Bears without Kuechly the next week in their most disappointing performance of the season. The stark contrast in how good the Panthers are with Kuechly and how big of a drop there is without him isn’t a coincidence.
The Panthers are 48-30-1 in games Kuechly has played. They’re 5-5 in games he has missed. Teams are trending toward specialists at linebacker to match up against certain personnel groups, but Kuechly can do everything for the Panthers from the middle linebacker position, and it shows when he’s out. He’s a tackling machine against the run, can diagnose any offense and is lightning quick in coverage. He impacts almost every play and is a throwback to a bygone era in which Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary and Ray Lewis were among the NFL’s biggest stars.
Kuechly’s problem the past few years has been concussions. He suffered a couple of scary ones the past couple seasons, and there was a lot of concern about him when he suffered another one this season. He missed only one game, however, and has looked like his normal self upon his return. There will always be concern about further concussions with Kuechly, who is just 26 years old, but when he’s healthy he’s as impactful as any non-quarterback in the NFL.
Of the past 11 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winners, Kuechly is the only inside linebacker.
Cam Newton gets more headlines and he is the Panthers’ most valuable player, but Kuechly isn’t far behind. The Panthers are a much better team when he’s on the field, and hopefully the Panthers don’t have to worry about him missing more games anytime soon.
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