For the longest time, the linebacker position analysis has been the same: Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis anchor what is most likely the best linebacking corps in the NFL, with Shaq Thompson occupying either the third linebacker spot or the “big nickel” with an assortment of special teams dynamos-cum-backups throughout the last decade – almost all of whom were coincidentally drafted in the fifth round – providing a backup should injuries occur. And as the backup has shifted from AJ Klein to David Mayo to Jermaine Carter, Jr, the names at the top of the list have remained the same, even if one would miss time with concussion issues or another would be suspended, there would always be 58 & 59 standing just behind the defensive line ready to terrify opposing runners and passers.
But in 2019, the story is quite different.
With Thomas Davis leaving to play his final seasons in another uniform, Thompson in the final season of his rookie contract, Jermaine Carter, Jr. appearing poised to make the leap and rumors swirling of a permanent switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme, changes will be happening throughout the linebacking corps over the next few seasons, so will they look different when the 2019 season rolls around then they do even today?
As long as Luke Kuechly is on the roster, Carolina will always be on the higher end of this spectrum, as the Panthers defensive captain and best middle linebacker in the league has a cap hit just over $17m for the 2019 season – what’s more interesting is Thompson, who in the fifth year of his rookie deal, will make $9.2m, all of which the Panthers would save against the cap if he were to be released. Both Jermaine Carter and Andre Smith make less than $1m in their second season.
Another year, another All-Pro and Pro Bowl nod for the 27-year old linebacker, who quietly – and perhaps most importantly – played in all 16 games since 2014, as Kuechly did in 2018 what Kuechly does best, ranking eighth in the NFL in tackles with 130 – again, his most since 2014 when he led the league – and racking up 20 tackles for loss, the most in Panthers franchise history. What will be an important task for Kuechly will be the continued leadership and mentorship he shows to his younger compatriots in Thompson, Carter and Andre Smith; Kuechly is currently the elder statesman in that room at 27, a role he could previously look to Thomas Davis to fill, but will have to take on himself in 2019.
The Young Bucks
While a lingering hamstring injury and the dearth of linebackers, especially special teamers like David Mayo and Ben Jacobs, kept Smith from contributing in any capacity aside from three games of special teams and a cameo appearance in the second half of the final game of the season, the second-year ‘backer who starred at UNC despite struggling with injuries will get a chance to compete to be one of those special teams players in training camp, while Carter, who was drafted two rounds ahead of Smith, will likely be first in line for the third linebacker spot if the team doesn’t find someone in free agency. They turned to Carter the final games of the season after Thompson went on injured reserve and the rookie from Maryland caught Rivera’s eye and saw action in all 16 games in 2018.
Carter excelled in his preseason snaps – it’ll be interesting to see how he develops over the course of the summer, but as of now, he seems to be in the driver’s seat for that third spot.
Up Next: End Of An Era