The Carolina Panthers wasted no time selecting Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly with the ninth pick in the NFL draft.
The only question now is where to play him.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera wouldn’t say where he expects to start Kuechly, saying only that his versatility and ability to play all three linebacker positions is one of the main reasons they chose the two-time All-America selection.
“We’re going to look at it, we really are, and just see how it all meshes,” Rivera said. “This is one of those picks where it makes your group better and your unit better. The reason we drafted the kid is he has tremendous versatility.
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“Whether he’s playing the Sam, the Mike or the Will for us, this guy has an opportunity to make an impact for us. We’re going to put the best football players on the field and we’re going to play them.”
The Panthers signed all three starting linebackers to five-year contracts last summer, but middle linebacker Jon Beason ruptured his Achilles in the season opener and weak side linebacker Thomas Davis tore his ACL in Week 2 for the third time in three seasons. Meanwhile, strong side linebacker James Anderson emerged with a breakout season, leading the team in tackles.
Given Davis’ injury history and uncertain status heading into the season it would seem weak side linebacker would be the obvious spot.
But if the Panthers have a spot picked out for Kuechly they haven’t informed him.
“They said just be ready to pick it up the playbook and be ready to play all three positions,” Kuechly said.
Kuechly primarily played middle linebacker in college, but Beason has been to three Pro Bowls playing that spot for the Panthers and remains the team’s best defensive player.
The 6-foot-3, 242-pound Kuechly doesn’t particularly care where he plays — he’s just happy to be a Panther where he can learn under Rivera, a former NFL linebacker with the Chicago Bears.
“I’m jacked up,” said Kuechly, who took in the draft from his basement in Cincinnati with about 50 friends and family members. “I’m so pumped up that they were interested in me and wanted me on their team. It’s an honor.”
Honors are something Kuechly is familiar with.
He averaged 14 tackles per game during his three seasons at Boston College and this past year won the Bronko Nagurski Award, presented to the nation’s top defensive player. He also earned the Dick Butkus Award, present to the country’s top linebacker.
He also became only the third Eagles player to earn ACC defensive player of the year honors.
The Panthers talked last week about trading down from the ninth spot, but when Kuechly was still on the board at No. 9 they didn’t hesitate to pounce on him.
They turned in their card within minutes, leaving no doubt as to their pick.
“He was a guy that we knew if he was there he was the option,” general manager Marty Hurney said. “He’s a smart, instinctive, explosive football player. He’s a sideline-to-sideline tackler and very reliable and dependable. He just has great football intelligence and he gets to full speed very quickly.”
It’s no surprise the Panthers chose a defensive player in the first round.
The Panthers finished 6-10 last season largely because of the ineffectiveness of their defense, which finished 28th in the league a year ago. Their offense, meanwhile, made major improvements going from 32nd in the league in 2010 to seventh last year with rookie quarterback Cam Newton at the helm.