PFF's Top 101 of 2014: No. 9, Luke Kuechly
The Panthers’ defense had a dip in production after their 2013 dominance so the leader of the defense had to be at least partially responsible, right? Eh, not so much. On box score statistics alone, Luke Kuechly’s 2014 season might look similar to his 2013 campaign, but in our grading system Kuechly took his game to a whole new level. The inside linebacker went from a +11.1 overall grade in 2013 to +28.4 last season.
When you go back to the game tape you see a player that shored up a handful of his weaknesses from the year he won Defensive Player of the Year. His pass rushing and tackling both showed marked improvement. The biggest performance leap, however, came in coverage. Kuechley made the jump from a solid coverage linebacker to the best coverage grade at his position. He made an unbelievable 65 tackles in coverage and 38 stops, both tops in the league — while missing only three tackles — and finished with a +15.8 coverage grade, over five points higher than the next best off-ball linebacker.
Best Game: Week 5 vs. Chicago (+5.5)
Matt Forte may have gone for over 100 yards receiving in this game, but when Kuechly was covering him, his seven catches went for a total of 29 yards. It highlighted Kuechly’s greatest strength this season which was finding ball-carriers in space. He made six different coverage stops (defined as tackles that result in a ‘win’ for the defense) in the game, an extremely high number. On the first play of the second quarter, shown below, Kuechly put on a master class in screen defense. He knew that if he attacked just one of the blocks he could easily be taken out of the play or beaten with a cut. So instead he took on and beat both blocks to make the tackle for a short gain.
Besides his coverage prowess in this one, Kuechly was his normal productive self against the run with two stops and a +1.5 grade. He makes it look so simple the way he calmly sorts through the trash at the second level and consistently meets the ball-carrier at the line of scrimmage. Grading his games I often feel like he has an unusually high amount of easy plays to make versus the run, but when I reviewed him I realized it’s because he’s putting himself in the correct place play after play. Instead of being a step slow to react and having to beat a block, Kuechly makes the block impossible for the lineman by beating him to the spot.
Key Stat: His 81 combined stops were 20 more than the next best inside linebacker
Stops are one of the most important stats for an inside linebacker as they provide context to the impact of a play that tackle stats alone do not. Not only did he produce 33% more than anyone else at his position, he also produced 33% more than he did in 2013 and it’s the reason why he jumped up from 80th a year ago to ninth this season.
Outside of his stops numbers, Kuechly did all the other little things you’d want from a middle linebacker. He tackled at an extremely high rate last season with a 15.7 tackling efficiency, the seventh-best figure at the position. As a pass rusher he improved greatly, albeit in a small sample size. Kuechly’s Pass Rushing Productivity jumped up considerably from 11.9 in 2013 to 20.8 last season on 61 and 54 pass rushes, respectively.
In coverage, Kuechley’s numbers aren’t as impressive as you might expect. His yards allowed per coverage snap was a middling 0.93, but the reason for that was his target rate; Kuechly saw 87 targets, the second-highest total among inside linebackers. As I said earlier, his value in coverage came from tracking down receivers in space and the numbers bore that out. He yielded an average of 4.1 yards after the catch, the third-best figure in the league.
The year-on-year improvements from Kuechly can’t be understated. This is a young player with all the physical tools to be one of the all-time greats and he’s still improving aspects of his game. He’ll be heading into just his fourth season in the league next fall and I foresee more Top 101 selections in Kuechly’s future.
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