The term, “embarrassment of riches,” doesn't even begin to describe how loaded the Panther’s linebacking corp is as a whole. The group has many of the key components that make up a special unit; there is star power, athleticism, smarts, cohesion, and most importantly depth. Over the next few weeks, Ron Rivera and Co. will begin to thin out the team and try to keep the 53 best football players on the roster. This will be no easy task, hours and hours will be spent in front of game tape and whiteboards in their attempt of choosing the best players for the team. Six linebackers made the final cut last year; and with more depth and competition, could we see that number rise? Let’s find out.
The Locks: (4)
Coming off of his second All Pro season in as many years, Kuechly plans to improve his game even more by honing his pass rush skills. Ranked as the #1 linebacker in the game by Pro Football Focus, it’s amazing he is so active in finding areas of his game to improve upon. His natural athleticism and great work ethic are just some of the things that are quickly molding him into a generational talent.
Fresh off signing a two year extension, the organization and the fans alike, are ecstatic to have #58 back in Bank of America Stadium through 2017. As the other half of Carolina’s dynamic duo, expect Davis and Kuechly to have another exceptional year leading their defense. The 11-year veteran ranked #3 in PFF’s linebacker top ten, not bad for a guy who’s suffered three ACL injuries.
The Panther’s most recent first round pick is expected to be the starting strongside linebacker, and complete the most talented and fastest linebacking trio in the league. A hamstring injury has kept him sidelined for a portion of training camp, but his return to the practice field was announced with a 100 yard pick six, courtesy of Derek Anderson. His first round selection would signal him as the heir apparent to Thomas Davis’ role in the defense.
As the most puzzling selection in the Panther’s draft class, the expectations placed on his shoulders among fans are higher than the average fifth round pick. In a previous article, I mulled over the reasons Dave Gettleman may have drafted Mayo, and what his impact may be as Luke Kuechly’s primary backup. Although he has had an quiet training camp overall, he has made a few plays. On a blitzing drill, he mowed over fellow fifth round pick Cameron Artis-Payne; he also has had a handful of pass breakups throughout training camp. Though his play thus far doesn’t scream “lock,” I doubt Gettleman puts another draft pick at the risk of heading to another team, via the practice squad, anyone remember the Tyler Gaffney incident?
On the Bubble: (4)
Just a year ago, the fan base was eager to see what Klein’s future held. After a 21 tackle and 2 sack rookie season, some fans were quick to call him Luke Kuechly Jr. In his second season, he was pedestrian at best; although he increased his tackle total, he failed to register a sack, and was blown by in pass coverage several times. He is capable of playing all three linebacker spots, and Ron Rivera loves versatility. But does the selection of David Mayo make him expendable? Penciled as the starter on the strongside in the Panther’s first depth chart, I expect him to make the final roster.
Glanton’s play last year, particularly the last two weeks of the season, was as exciting as Klein’s was dull. When Klein went down with a shoulder injury, Glanton was forced into a starting role as an undrafted rookie. His two regular season starts came in weeks 16 and 17, and boy did he impress. Over the last two weeks of the season, Glanton accumulated 11 tackles and a forced fumble. His play made him one of Carolina’s several undrafted free agent gems, and added confusion to why exactly the Panthers would draft a linebacker in the first round.
After coming off a relatively productive season with the Miami Dolphins, the Panthers signed Trusnik to be their “special teams ace.” His addition muddles the linebacker competition, and frustrates me. Though we desperately need special teams help, it may come as a tradeoff, considering we already have a similar player in Ben Jacobs. Jacobs is seemingly his main competition for a roster spot, and it will be a duel to watch for. Trusnik is really going to have to make some plays on special teams if he wants to make the roster, because it’s unlikely he is asked to take many snaps on defense. His veteran savvy could be crucial to the success of our special teams unit, and will be his chance to stick to the 53.
The aforementioned Jacobs was a solid contributor on special teams last year, and got to see the field on defense as well. Though Jacobs had dibs on a roster spot before Trusnik, it’s likely he will lose that spot. Rivera seems fond of Trusnik, using key words such as: leader, special teams ace, and experienced player when speaking of him, shortly after his signing in March. Jacobs is on the bubble for now, but just one year off the practice quad, he is certainly expendable.
Long Shots (2)
The safety turned linebacker has a solid chance of making the practice squad as an undrafted free agent out of Utah. Blechen has been decent during training camp, but he's still towards the bottom of the pile in the linebacker competition.
The former North Carolina Tar Heel was able to find another area code in the Carolinas last year. As a player used almost exclusively on special teams, Reddick posted one tackle in the box score a season ago. Even though he had one of the biggest hits in training camp, at the expense of Brandon Wegher, he is the definition of longshot.
Final Prediction: (7)
Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, David Mayo, AJ Klein, Adarius Glanton, and Jason Trusnik.
I predict the Panthers keep one more linebacker than last year, and trot out the deepest and most talented linebacking corp in the league next season. I believe AJ Klein will make the final roster and serve as the starting strongside linebacker, until Shaq Thompson is ready to play at a high level. Once Shaq assumes the starting role, Klein will serve as one of the primary backups for all of three of the linebacker spots. Adarius Glanton makes the roster with his solid play and untapped potential, it’s possible he or Klein can serve as trade bait in the future. The final spot is taken by Trusnik, who should hopefully end up as a vocal leader of the special teams.
These seven men serve as the paramount of NFL linebacker units, and lead the league in sleep hours lost by offensive coordinators. The linebackers are the heart and soul of the Panther’s defense, and can finally garner the positive media coverage that has eluded Carolina to this point. And that would be an accomplishment in it’s own right.
By Grant Hughes
Follow Grant on Twitter @KenjonVander