Linebacker is one of the surest things on the roster
The Carolina Panthers probably have the surest thing at the linebacker position since 2013, and this past season the linebackers once again rose to the task to lead the defense.
Luke Kuechly was, once again, the all-pro linebacker that leads the Panthers, registering a team-high 130 combined tackles and reaching the Pro Bowl the sixth time in his career and 1st-Team All-Pro for the fifth time in his career.
Shaq Thompson had a decent season with the Panthers as well. Thompson has been showing solid improvement since entering the league, as he has finished with more total tackles as each season came and went. This past season he finished 78 combined tackles, a huge jump from the 57 tackles he had just one year prior.
The biggest challenge the Panthers linebackers are going to face is how they are going to adequately replace Thomas Davis, who was released by the team after spending his first 14 seasons in the league. Thomas’ production will be difficult to replace; difficult, but not impossible.
A Scheme Transition Could Help the Linebackers
With Ron Rivera taking over the play-calling duties this season, the team has been making adjustments to change from a primarily 4-3 scheme to a combination of the 3-4 and the 4-3 defensive schemes.
It was most evident that the Panthers would make this shift with two of the team’s biggest acquisitions this offseason.
The first major signing on the defensive side was edge rusher/outside linebacker, Bruce Irvin. Irvin has been a linebacker for most of his career but was capable of playing defensive end as well, giving the Panthers versatility on the outside.
Irvin will also provide the Panthers with some level of production on the outside. As I mentioned yesterday during our edge defender preview. Irvin has only played one season registering fewer than five sacks.
Brian Burns, the team’s first-round pick from Florida State will probably be playing some linebacker in addition to playing defensive end. Burn’s tallied 10 sacks in his final season with the Seminoles and even put on a ton of muscle during the offseason getting ready for the draft, so that should help him power through NFL offensive lines.
The real question is going to be who is going to play the second inside linebacker next to Kuechly. The Panthers could go with several options, but we think it will be an amalgamation of Christian Miller, who will also be playing a bit of outside backer, and Antwoine Williams. The rotation will probably go on until the bye week when the Panthers finally get an idea about who will be a better fit for a postseason run.
Overall Prediction for the Linebackers
We believe the linebacking core, despite the loss of Davis this season, will probably the most solid group, aside from the defensive interior, on the whole defense and probably the whole team.
I think the scheme will be a good fit for Kuechly as well, as he is a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who can play any of the positions.
I think this change will be so good for Kuechly that he will post more than 150 combined tackles and win his second Defensive Player of the Year and cement his case for being in the conversation for being the best middle linebacker of all time.
One thing is for sure, the linebackers will have a solid season, and we think it’s going to lead the defense to an all-time great form.