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Luke Kuechly, born and bred in Cincinnati, Ohio, is seen by many as the top linebacker and one of the safest picks amongst all incoming rookies this year.  A three-year starter at Boston College, Kuechly is a decorated tackling machine who has been compared to dependable and productive former NFLer Zach Thomas for numerous reasons. His instinctual play and natural feel for the defense are second to none, and he’s got an incredible stat sheet to back him up. In his three years with the Eagles, Kuechly amassed a stunning 532 tackles, which is a career record for both the school and the Atlantic Coast Conference.

He was an all-state safety for Division 1 Saint Xavier High in southern Ohio before committing to Boston College for the benefit of their academics and small campus, even though he was told he’d have to redshirt and fight for playing time. Luckily for Luke (and unfortunate for them), in his first spring with the team, starting middle linebacker Mike McLaughlin tore his Achilles and outside man Mark Herzlich had to miss the season to undergo treatment for cancer that was found in his system, which pushed Kuechly out of his redshirt status and into the starting lineup. He began the year on the interior and moved to the strong side when McLaughlin returned mid-season and earned himself ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors while leading the team, conference, and all but one player in the nation with 158 tackles.

The following year saw Kuechly move back to middle linebacker, which is where he stayed for that and his final year at the school, earning himself unanimous consensus All-American honors and, in his Junior season, winner of the Butkus, Lombardi, Lott, and Nagurski trophies. With all of that notoriety it’s scary to think what more he could have done with another season under his belt, but his advisers and coaches let him know he was ready to move on and pursue a professional career. Kuechly is credited with being something of a student of the game and an extra coach on the field with the way he absorbs and distributes everything about his and the opposing team while applying it to game situations.

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In a much-improved defensive unit, the obvious weak point in the front seven is at the strong side linebacker position, which is currently veteran Kirk Morrison’s for the taking. Not to say we can write off Morrison as an impact player after last year where he was the fourth or fifth inside linebacker in a foreign scheme, but you can see how he was handicapped there. Either way, both he and Nick Barnett are in their thirties and have had some injury concerns in their careers, which begs the necessity of quality youth behind them to step in when necessary. The biggest positive of Kuechly’s game, specifically in relation to this team, is his mid-zone coverage. His ability to stick with a tight end and some slot receivers is something that we’ve lacked on this team for years and have resorted to shifting a safety (Bryan Scott) in as a linebacker to handle coverage over these players. In a division with Dustin Keller, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski, someone who can stick with tight ends in the middle of the field is integral, and Luke can do just that. He’s great working over this zone and has a great ability to delay release at the line of scrimmage, which disrupts timing plays of that nature. Past that, Kuechly is as instinctual and technically sound of a kid as you’ll find and is a leader on and off the field.

No matter who your team is, you can never have enough of those guys. He routinely shoots through gaps and fights off blockers, using his understanding of the roles of everyone on his squad as well as knowledge of the opposition to be able to take the proper angles to make plays that many can’t and won’t. That ability, to hustle and take the right angle, is something that players don’t usually pick up on until well into their pro careers. It’s a quality that makes him more of a day-one starting candidate, especially here. Having played multiple defensive positions in his career, his versatility could be beneficial as well – possibly moving in as the middle linebacker in the future if Kelvin Sheppard doesn’t progress the way he’s expected to. He’s a quick player and has shown the ability to add and manage his weight and muscle, something that would definitely be asked of him on a team that values so highly the size of their defenders.  Following his final season, Luke put on an additional five pounds simply to show scouts and coaches that he still had the same high mobility and game speed with a little more on his frame. It worked out, showing that as well as his admirable drive to excel and be a better player, as he ran a 4.58 second 40 yard dash at the scouting combine.

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For a kid who is revered for his tackling, he doesn’t have great form – often reaching too high which allows the ballcarrier to easily elude him as he’s not incredibly strong. Luke’s heady and instinctive play is a definite plus for him and will help him transition well, but he routinely relies too much on his instincts and follows them aggressively, which gets him fooled by pulling guards, misdirections, and play action frequently. In his defense, he does have good recovery speed and smarts, but even with that you can see his tackle numbers are somewhat inflated as they are mostly racked up 5-8 yards past the line of scrimmage (think Fletcher, Posluszny, DiGiorgio – tackles aren’t everything).

Kuechly is a durable player who will fight through injuries and, as a three-year captain for the Eagles, has proven himself as a strong leader. He’s not the ‘ideal’ size that Nix seems to desire in a linebacker, but he does have the ability to put on weight and, in a training program such as the one we have in place in Orchard Park, that shouldn’t be any issue. Make no mistake, Luke Kuechly is going to be an instant impact player and starter for someone in 2012 and beyond, but it won’t be for us. The value of a coverage linebacker has deteriorated almost to that of a runningback in the eyes of most in the league, and Kuechly doesn’t possess the overpowering pass rush ability or pre-existing size that teams are looking to get in a high defensive pick nowadays. The team will look for someone (maybe multiple someones) with similar qualities later in the draft, but at the tenth overall pick, I can’t even imagine Kuechly is in play for Nix and his crew.