Last season, the Panthers lost three-time Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beason to a torn ACL in Week One. Beason returned in 2012, but a knee injury sidelined him prior to Week Five.
“When Jon went down, we were like, ‘Man, what are we going to do?’ ” Panthers CB Captain Munnerlyn told PFW.
Those worries were short-lived.
Munnerlyn had a feeling rookie Luke Kuechly, who started the first four games at weak-side ’backer, would do well in the middle. He was right.
It did not take more than Kuechly’s first career start in the middle — 11 tackles in a Week Five loss to the Seahawks — for Munnerlyn to see his belief become a reality.
“His first game at middle linebacker, he came out and led the team in tackles and had an interception,” Munnerlyn said. “It was a crazy experience. He just has that instinct.”
Beason did not play another down all season. Kuechly became the full-time starter in the middle and played every defensive snap the rest of the way. The Panthers’ “D” improved from 24th in the league after four weeks to 10th at season’s end — the biggest jump by a defense over that span. Kuechly, the ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft, was the league leader in tackles (164), and nearly half of those tackles were made for a loss or within three yards of the line of scrimmage.
Kuechly, the PFW/PFWA 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year, is proud that the Panthers won their final four games to finish 7-9.
“It’s cool to win the award, obviously, but like I always say, it’s a defense and it’s 11 guys for a reason,” Kuechly told PFW. “We didn’t play as well as we wanted to at the beginning of the year. It took us a little while to get rolling, but I think toward the end of the year we started clicking.”
Munnerlyn said Kuechly is already one of the best leaders on the team. His teammates respect him for his consistency, competitiveness and serious approach to the game.
“You have to go out there and work hard,” Kuechly said. “Keep your mouth shut. Listen.”
Kuechly might sound like a rookie. He did not play like one.