Luke Kuechly was considered a can't-miss prospect at middle linebacker when he was picked ninth overall last year by the Carolina Panthers. And he had a 164-tackle rookie season, just to prove everyone right.
And at the start of his second season, Kuechly looks like he wants to take the crown as the best middle linebacker in football.
Kuechly wreaked havoc on the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night, and was the main reason the Panthers led 24-7 at halftime against the Super Bowl champs.
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Kuechly forced two turnovers in the second quarter, showing off his tremendous skill against the run and the pass.
His forced fumble on Bernard Pierce was a thing of beauty. He shot through the line and seemed to surprise Pierce at how quickly he closed on him. Pierce coughed up the ball when Kuechly hit him. Pierce did not fumble in 115 touches as a rookie last season. The Panthers recovered and returned the fumble for a touchdown. That score was all Kuechly.
Later in the second quarter, with the Ravens driving, Kuechly picked off Joe Flacco, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, and probably would have returned it for a touchdown had he not hesitated. He was all over the field.
Kuechly was a bigger scoring threat than the Panthers' offense, which still hasn't done much this preseason. Cam Newton has now been, at best, below average for three straight preseasons. The Panthers' hope has to be that Newton avoids the slow start he had last season and has another good season, because the defense looks ready to perform at a playoff level.
Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei played his best game of the preseason, dominating the interior at times. Linebacker Jon Beason returned after missing the first two preseason games, which is a good sign for a front seven that has a lot of talent.
And if Kuechly's play this preseason is a sign of what's to come in the regular season (spoiler alert: it is), the Panthers should be pretty good, assuming Newton plays like he should.