With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at the heart and soul of the Panthers defense.

The Prototypical Three-Down Linebacker

The modern-day NFL linebacker has evolved into a glorified safety. New-age spread offenses have helped scheme run-first ‘backers off the field in recent seasons as fantasy-friendly space backs have proven more and more capable of working as running/receiving hybrids to exploit mismatches all over the field.

And then there’s Luke Kuechly.

The Panthers made Kuechly the ninth-overall selection of the 2012 NFL Draft after he racked up 150-plus tackles in each of his three seasons at Boston College. Kuechly’s combination of power and agility is nearly unmatched among his peers.

(via PlayerProfiler.com)

Kuechly ranks in the 85th percentile or higher in basically every conceivable athleticism score. The one thing you could knock him for are his short arms, but he otherwise possesses ideal size. He not only handles his run responsibilities, but is capable of running down the seam with slot receivers in a way your everyday 6-foot-3, 242-pound linebacker should never be able to — but Kuechly isn’t your everyday linebacker.

On vs. Off the Field

Kuechly managed to suit up for all 48 regular-season games during 2012-2014, his first three years in the league. Unfortunately for the Panthers, his active tendencies in pursuit have helped contribute to several injuries since:

  • 2015: Grade 2 concussion
  • 2015: Offseason shoulder labrum surgery
  • 2016: Grade 3 concussion
  • 2017: Grade 1 concussion
  • 2017: Offseason right shoulder surgery

When he’s on the field, Kuechly has a very real case as the league’s most valuable linebacker. Overall, the Panthers have gone 53-23-1 with their all-world linebacker since 2012, but they’ve gone just 5-5 without him. Over that span, they’ve allowed an average of 20.7 points and 327 total yards per game with Kuechly in the lineup compared to 23.5 and 347, respectively, without him.

The impact of Kuechly’s absences have been most evident in the passing game, as Panthers opponents have averaged an additional 16.7 passing yards per game with him sidelined.

The Panthers have routinely ranked as one of the league’s most zone-heavy defenses under head coach Ron Rivera. Their decision to let Josh Norman walk in free agency after 2016 was at least somewhat rooted in the reality that Kuechley’s ability to handle the deep middle of the field allows the Panthers to play plenty of Cover-2, which gives each cornerback safety help over the top. It’s tough to find a linebacker who has been as good as Kuechley at playing the deep middle since Brian Urlacher (who Rivera coached as the Bears defensive coordinator in 2004-2006).

Trouble for Opposing Running Backs

Kuechly has helped the Panthers operate as one of the league’s stingiest fantasy defenses against quarterbacks, running backs, and tight ends. Per our NFL Trends tool, the Panthers defense has allowed negative Plus/Minuses and depressed Consistency Ratings against every position except wide receivers since 2015. With Kuechly, Carolina has particularly struggled to limit explosive performances to running backs, allowing them to surpass 20-plus DraftKings points in 40% of games without Kuechly compared to just 24% of games with him.

The 2018 Panthers defense won’t feature end Charles Johnson, tackle Star Lotulelei, or safety Kurt Coleman, and while Carolina acquired some much needed defensive-back depth and also signed defensive tackle Dontari Poe, Kuechly’s sideline-to-sideline ability will be needed more than ever in his seventh season.

Fantasy investors should be cautious as long as Kuechly is on the field for the Panthers but ready to pounce if he’s forced to miss time once again.

You can use our tools to research more player- or team-specific questions for yourself, and be sure to check out The Action Network for more in-depth NFL analysis.

Pictured: Luke Kuechly
Photo Credit: Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports