In just under four NFL seasons, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly has already amassed three Pro Bowl invites, two first-team All-Pro selections (with a third likely in 2015), one Defensive Rookie of the Year award and even a Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
Kuechly, who plays in the middle of Carolina's 4-3 defense, was picked ninth overall in the 2012 draft, 49 spots ahead of Lavonte David, who plays weakside linebacker in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 4-3. Since they entered the NFL together, Kuechly and David rank first and second in total tackles. David also has one first-team All-Pro award, but has yet to make a trip to the Pro Bowl.
The man who plays David's position next to Kuechly is Thomas Davis, an 11th-year veteran who has also been one of the NFL's best outside linebackers for years. Kuechly saw Davis finally get his first Pro Bowl nod this year, among a league-leading 10 players set to represent the 14-1 Panthers. Kuechly knows it can be tough for 4-3 weakside linebackers to garner attention in a league full of 3-4 edge rushers, but he thinks the Buccaneers' star defender is worthy of all-star honors, too.
"I think he's one of those guys who's a lot like Thomas, that sometimes doesn't get the Pro Bowl recognition, but he's one of those guys that deserves it," said Kuechly. "I think it was maybe '13 when he was an All-Pro or second team All-Pro and I think he's still playing at that level. It's just a tough position, that outside linebacker, to get a whole lot of recognition with those 3-4 guys."
Whether David eventually gets that recognition or not, Kuechly enjoys watching him work.
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"I think he's a fun guy to watch," said the Panthers' defensive leader, noting that he sees David play during film study of common opponents. "The one thing I like watching about him is that he's everywhere. He's fast, he's athletic, he moves well, he'll hit you. He's fun to watch. He's always around the ball; he's done a great job."
This week, of course, Kuechly has been watching tape of the Buccaneers' offense, a group the Panthers hope to keep contained in order to get the win that will ensure Carolina's home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Speaking of postseason honors, Tampa Bay has a prime Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate in quarterback Jameis Winston. A big day for Winston could get him to 4,000 yards on the season and the Bucs' offense is close to breaking its franchise record for total yards in a season. Kuechly has seen the numbers but he's been more impressed by what he's seen from Winston between throws.
"I think he's confident and I think he sticks up for the guys on his team," said Kuechly of Winston. "He takes a lot of pride in what he does. There was one play in the past few weeks where I think he threw a screen pass and went down and tried to block someone. He defends his guys. Obviously, he's a great player and he's improved a lot, but the thing I think's really neat about him is little stuff like that that he does. He's trying to go block someone, or he standing up for his teammates. I think that part's cool. For a young guy to be able to do that, I think that's cool."
Winston threw for 287 yards against Carolina in Week Four, though he was also intercepted a season-high four times. His favorite target in that game was Vincent Jackson, who caught 10 passes for 147 yards in that game. Jackson is now on injured reserve, so the Bucs' passing attack may need to go through second-year man Mike Evans. Evans is finishing off his second 1,000-yard season in as many NFL years, but in three games against Carolina he has a total of just 10 catches for 82 yards.
Even though Carolina has kept Evans in check so far, Kuechly says they still have to make sure they always know where the second-year wideout is.
"He's a lot like Kelvin [Benjamin] – a big, athletic, strong guy that can run," said Kuechly. "But you have to really figure out where he is. You can't let him sneak around. You have to identify where he is and make sure you know, maybe if he's in the slot he runs this route, or if he's at the backside X, he might run this. So you just have to know where he is and make sure we're communicating, because a guy like him, if you let him get open, he's going to catch it and make something happen."