Panthers revamped at linebacker

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera gets pretty excited when he thinks about the potential of this year’s group of linebackers.

Injuries ravaged the unit a year ago, but with former All-Pro Jon Beason is healthy again, Thomas Davis is close to achieving the improbable, and rookie Luke Kuechly has impressive upside.

Rivera can’t hide his enthusiasm.

“We’ve got experience and speed back,” Rivera said. “When you’ve got Jon Beason in there and when you’ve got Thomas Davis in there it’s a different thing because these guys have played five, six years in the league. When you watch Luke Kuechly and his athleticism and some of the things that he does, that’s exciting.”

Beason went down in the team’s opener last season and never returned. Davis has played in just nine games since the conclusion of the 2008 campaign and is attempting to become the first NFL player to return after three ACL injuries. Kuechly was a tackling machine at Boston College the last few years and can play any of the team’s three linebacker positions.

In addition, the Panthers also have James Anderson, last year’s leading tackler, Jordan Senn, who they signed to an extension in April after a surprisingly productive year, though he may be relegated to the special teams and serve as only an emergency linebacker, and Jason Phillips, who has caught Rivera’s eye more than a few times.

But the core of this unit, and the reason its potential lights up the coach’s face, are the two returning veterans and the newcomer. Rivera has to believe being healthy at linebacker with its additions will assure them of improving on last season’s defensive NFL rankings of 28th in total yards allowed and points allowed.

Beason gives the defense an attitude it needs and instant leadership, not to mention he’s played in three Pro Bowls. Davis’ return, quite frankly, is gravy. Nobody knows for certain what he can give the team. He’s missed all of the team’s work in full pads after suffering a calf injury last week, but he’s clearly showing positive signs to the staff. But the x-factor here may be Kuechly.

Kuechly set NCAA records for tackles at BC, averaging 14 per game for his career and nearly 16 a game last fall. But his ability to make plays anywhere and at key times, plus that he can defend the pass made the decision a bit easier for Carolina’s brass for him to begin on the outside.

Last fall, Kuechly, who is 6-3, weighs 240 pounds and runs a 4.58 40, was responsible for 59 of BC’s 115 third-down stops. He re-routed and jammed receivers on 45 (38.5 percent) of 118 plays versus the pass, broke up six passes, snared three interceptions, forced a fumble and registered six quarterback hurries.

“We don’t treat him like a rookie, and we don’t expect him to play like a rookie, either,” Beason said.

Beason will remain in his customary spot in the middle while Kuechly has moved outside. Beason constantly talks to Kuechly in practice, offering pointers and encouragement. His embracing Kuechly is one of many positive early developments of camp.

“Jon Beason has been as professional about this as you can be…,” Rivera said. “Jon understands if Luke plays well, he plays well. If James Anderson plays well, he plays well. If Thomas Davis plays well, he plays well. It’s a huge plus when you have guys who feel like that about their teammates.”

Kuechly said the crucial component of chemistry is coming along.

“I think it’s good,” he said. “A lot of these guys have been on this team for a while. Jon, and T.D. and James have been here for five-plus years, and that helps, and the other guys have been around here for a while. So I think the chemistry is good.”

Davis, who strained his right calf a week ago and hasn’t yet practiced in pads, was listed Tuesday as Saturday’s starter ahead of Kuechly in the team’s exhibition opener versus the Houston Texans.

For the record, Rivera didn’t start Cam Newton in last year’s preseason opener, either. And it turned out pretty well for the eventual Rookie of the Year.

If Kuechly earns those honors this fall and Beason and Davis remain healthy, this could be the most improved position group in the NFL.