CHARLOTTE, NC The Carolina Panthers just got a little smarter and nastier with the selection of Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft on Thursday night.
In Kuechly, picked ninth overall, the Panthers get a certified tackling machine that combines big-time football intellect with big-time football athletic ability. Keuchly averaged 14 tackles per game over his college career and nearly 16 this past season.
The only-two-time, first-team All-American in BC history, Kuechly combines outstanding vision, instincts, lateral fluidity, the strength of a defensive lineman, hands of a wide receiver, a knack for always knowing where the ball is, and he has a ferocious streak that reminds some observers of some of the game's great linebackers.
"He was a guy that we knew if he was there he was the option there," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina's brass mentioned last week they would seriously consider trading down, citing the quality depth of players that would be available further down the draft order. One general thought tossed around in the Queen City was that the team would jump at taking Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon if he was still around for the ninth pick, but he was taken by Jacksonville with the fifth overall selection.
When that happened, it almost seemed certain Carolina would trade down. But Hurney's and head coach Ron Rivera's love for Kuechly as a prospect made it an easy decision when he was still available.
"You sit there and talk about the different aspects of his game physically," Rivera said. "But when you really put it down on paper and you watch him up on the board, you get excited about who he is as a football player."
What kind of football player is Kuechly exactly?
The previously mentioned numbers tell only part of the tale. He's more than a guy who racks up tackles.
This past season, Kuechly was responsible for 59 of BC's 115 third-down stops. He re-routed and jammed receivers on 45 (38.5 percent) of 118 plays versus the pass, had six pass breakups, three interceptions, forced a fumble and had six quarterback hurries.
He's the complete package, and was maybe the third best prospect in the draft after Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, who went first and second, respectively, overall in the draft.
"He's solid, smart, instinctive, explosive from sideline to sideline, tackler, just very reliable, dependable and he has great football intelligence," Hurney said. "He's a great communicator at linebacker; he's just a very good football player."
A native of Cincinnati, Kuechly stayed home to watch the draft instead of being in New York City. He was tired of the travel and wanted to be with family. He said around 45-50 people were at his house Thursday night.
"I was just kind of ready to just sit back," Kuechly said. "And I think the biggest thing was to just stay home with my family and really just go from there."
A three-star recruit, according to Scout.com, Kuechly went to BC as a 220-pound safety, but will arrive Friday in Charlotte for a press conference standing 6-foot-3 and weighing in at a chiseled 242 pounds.
Kuechly admits to being more comfortable playing the MIKE (middle) spot, but he was told to prepare to play any of the three linebacker positions. He's also excited to play for a head coach who played the same position in the NFL for nine seasons.
"When you get someone like that, they know what you're going through, they've been through a lot of the same stuff," Kuechly said. "They can connect with you."
And he's going to connect with Charlotte and the greater region.
Kuechly is exactly the kind of personality and player this organization needed. They got a difference-maker on offense last year in selecting quarterback Cam Newton with the top overall pick.
This isn't suggesting Kuechly will have the same immediate impact, but he could be the anchor of the franchise's defense down the road, one in which the brass believes may have a Super Bowl or two in its future.
Kuechly's about as sure a thing as there is.