Luke Kuechly’s surprise retirement last week left fans and media paying tribute to one of the greatest Carolina Panthers defensive players in team history.
As Kuechly settles into retirement and decides what’s next — ESPN reported earlier this week that he was hoping to land a job somewhere in the Panthers organization — the team needs to find a way to replace the massive hole he leaves in the middle of the defense.
Kuechly’s performance last year showed that he had plenty left in the tank. He led the team and was fifth in the NFL with 144 tackles, his most since 2014. His 81 solo stops were second on the team. Kuechly tied for the team lead with 12 pass defenses and was one off the lead with two interceptions.
Kuechly’s role changed with the new Panthers defense last season, giving him fewer options to rush the passer. It was his first NFL season without a sack, and his four tackles for loss were a career-low — and down from 20 the year before.
How does the team replace that production?
On the roster
Shaq Thompson will likely step into Kuechly’s role as leader of the defense. He was third on the team with 109 tackles. He had three sacks and a team-high 11 tackles for loss, apparently already stepping into Kuechly’s role as a force in the backfield.
Thompson is three years younger than Kuechly and just signed a contract extension to keep him off this year’s free agent market. He has yet to play a full season in the NFL, however, with a maximum of 14 games in any of his five pro seasons.
Bruce Irvin, a pass-rushing linebacker, is a free agent after one year in Carolina.
The rest of the linebackers currently under contract are promising young players who could develop into productive starters, but none of them are immediate candidates to pair with Thompson to give the Panthers the one-two punch of Kuechly and Thompson, or Kuechly and Thomas Davis before that.
Jermaine Carter started five games and had 25 tackles. Andre Smith and Jordan Kunaszyk combined for three tackles.
Free agent market
The Panthers will have to shore up the pass rushing end position that was called outside linebacker in last year’s defense, with Irvin and Mario Addison set to hit the open market, but the team could also try to find money to replace Kuechly with a veteran.
Looking at tackle numbers, the top candidates to replace Kuechly are Green Bay’s Blake Martinez, who was second in the NFL in stops, Cleveland’s Joe Schobert, the Rams’ Cory Littleton and Washington’s Jon Bostic.
Martinez figures to get bids of $8 to $10 million, which may be too rich for a Panthers team that will be saddled with dead money from Kuechly’s contract.
Littleton will be looking for a significant raise from his current $3 million contract, which could put him in Martinez range or close.
Schobert may cost less than Martinez, and owner David Tepper is likely familiar with him from his days going up against him with the Steelers. The Wisconsin alum will likely be a target of the Packers to replace Martinez, however.
The Panthers could bring back former backup AJ Klein, who has developed into a starter since he left.
There’s also the possibility that Carolina could surf the secondary free-agent market after players currently under contract get cut to clear cap space. Philadelphia’s Nigel Bradham is an example of that.
The Panthers hold the seventh overall pick, and linebacker has suddenly rocketed up the team’s list of needs. If Carolina uses that pick to replace Kuechly, the top options are Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, who starred during the National Championship game, although he might be more suited to safety in the NFL.
Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray, expected to go in the mid-to-late first round, would be next, should the Panthers look to trade down and hoard picks.
Alabama’s Anfernee Jennings, Wisconsin’s Zack Baun, App State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither and Oregon’s Troy Dye are options.
New Panthers coach Matt Rhule is likely very familiar with Big 12 rival Texas Tech’s Jordyn Brooks. He’d likely be a day three addition and a prospect, rather than an immediate plug-in replacement for Kuechly, however.
So what’s the plan?
The best bet is a vet and a kid. The team should take a run at Schobert and possibly settle for Klein. Taking Simmons at seven wouldn’t be a shock. The team could then decide which position of need to apply him to — safety or linebacker. Then Rhule could add Brooks in round four to help build for the future.