With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, whose last name is pronounced "Keekly," which is a lot of fun to say over and over. Keekly! Keekly! Your mouth is forced to smile when you say it.
That's not why people like Kuechly so much. The Butkus Award winner made an astounding 191 tackles in 12 games last season. He's a three-year starter, a team captain, and an All-American Boy type, not to mention an All-American.
So is Kuechly for real, or some product of an unguarded Tom Coughlin daydream? Watch tape of Kuechly, and he grows on you. The first tackle does not look like anything special. The 191st wears away your skepticism.
Pros: Kuechly is always around the ball. If he is not involved in the tackle, he is in the gap, forcing the running back to change direction. Kuechly ranges from the middle of the field to the sideline to force the ball carrier out of bounds and chases plays down from the backside. He sheds blocks well in the open field and can disengage when the ball carrier approaches.
Kuechly has good instincts, both against the run and in zone coverage. His performance in the Fight Hunger Bowl against Nevada showed what he was capable of. On one play, he drifted back in Tampa-2 style coverage, read a pass on a post-route to his left, and got a good enough jump on the play to make an interception. On another, Nevada ran one of their tricky Pistol reverses, and Kuechly began sprinting to defend the backside of the play the moment he read his keys. He did not quite make the tackle, but he got his arms on the ball carrier and slowed him down until the cavalry came.
Kuechly shows some flashes as a gap penetrator. If he times things well, he can slice through the line of scrimmage and make a play in the backfield. He is a bit of a drag-down tackler, but he gets the job done.
Kuechly covered kicks for Boston College in important games and displayed a knack for breaking wedges and getting to the return man.
Cons: Kuechly is not huge, super-fast, or explosive. When he makes a tackle along the sideline, it is usually after the rusher has turned the corner and gained a few yards. Kuechly uses anticipation to make up for lightning speed, but that has its limits. Similarly, he uses hustle and technique to get off blocks, but he can be blown backward by a blocker when he tries to fill a gap.
Those crazy tackle totals — 532 in three seasons — are impressive in themselves, but Kuechly makes lots and lots of tackles after 5-6 yard gains. Most are "funnel" tackles (the line ate up blocks so he could flow to the ball), not impact plays.
Conclusion: Kuechly's tape leaves you guessing: are you looking at the young Zach Thomas or London Fletcher, or just another middle linebacker who records a ton of tackles because that's what starting middle linebackers do? The devil is in the details, like Kuechly's ability to read blocks or pass route combinations. Diagnostic skills can help a step-slow, pound-light linebacker thrive in the NFL. Kuechly can be very productive in a classic Tampa-2. He can also fly around the field and clean up after the defensive line in a Lions or Eagles type Wide-9 defense, though he would get walloped now and then.
Kuechly's upside is not great. He will never be Brian Urlacher. But the risk level is low. He will learn his role, play special teams as a rookie, and make the plays he is supposed to make. And if his college production is any indicator, a few more. Kuechly is a little better than the NFL comparison player below, but their play styles are similar.
NFL Comparison: Pat Angerer, Indianapolis Colts
More Shutdown 50:
#17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame | #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC | #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska | #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy