Luke Kuechly lived for contact.
His approach to football was direct and impactful. His job, as he saw it, was to put opposing ball carriers on the ground, something he did well enough to be named first team All-Pro five times, second team twice, a Pro Bowler seven straight years and one of six linebackers on the 2010s all-decade team. Whether all that will be enough to make him the first Carolina Panther to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame remains to be seen, but his eight-year resume is one of consistently high-level performance.
In 2012 Kuechly left Boston College after two All-America seasons to become the ninth player taken in the NFL Draft. By the end of that season he’d led the NFL in tackles with 164, a number his coaches later changed to 205 after reviewing that season’s game tapes, and been named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Kuechly was the rarest of NFL linebackers, a three-down player capable of stuffing the run or dropping into coverage. He was so adept at both that when he replaced injured veteran middle linebacker Jon Beason midway through his rookie season Beason never got the job back.
A year later, Kuechly was named Defensive Player of the Year, anchoring a Panthers’ defense that finished second in both fewest points and fewest yards allowed. He was a big reason why. To put that into perspective, Kuechly and Lawrence Taylor are the only two linebackers in NFL history to win Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in successive seasons.
That is Hall-of-Fame company.
On December 22, 2013, Kuechly was credited with an NFL-record tying 24 tackles against division rival New Orleans, a number his coaches later insisted should have been 26. No one argued their point.
He would again lead the NFL in tackles in 2014 with 153, and in 2015 became the game’s highest-paid middle linebacker after signing a five-year, $62 million extension. He would cap that year with a starring role in the Panthers' run to Super Bowl 50, a game he helped Carolina reach in remarkable fashion. In both the NFC divisional playoffs against Seattle and the NFC championship game against Arizona Kuechly had interception returns for touchdowns.
But the first hint of the trouble that came with his approach to the game also surfaced when he was forced to miss three games that season after suffering a concussion. Despite that, Kuechly would continue his bulldozer approach to the game with predictable results. He continued to dominate opposing defenses and he suffered two more concussions in 2016 and 2017.
The latter was so severe it left him in tears as he was taken from the field in a cart during a nationally-televised Thursday night game. Despite those setbacks, Kuechly started all 16 games in both 2018 and 2019, was named All-Pro for a fifth time in 2018 and reached the Pro Bowl for the seventh straight season in 2019. By the end of the 2019 season, Kuechly had become the first player to reach 1,000 career tackles in just eight seasons, achieving that in just 118 games.
What neither the public nor his peers knew was what Kuechly had begun to realize. Despite his consistent production, he was no longer the player he once had been, The ravages of the savage way he played had resulted in not only those three well-documented concussions but a growing sense that he could no longer safely maintain the standard of play that made him pro football’s finest and most concussive middle linebacker for nearly a decade.
“In my heart I know it’s the right thing to do,’’ Kuechly said when he announced his retirement. “There’s only one way to play this game since I was a little kid – play fast, play physical and play strong. And at this point I don’t know if I am able to do that anymore. That’s the part that is most difficult.”
Eight years is not a lengthy NFL career, despite being almost 2 ½ times the league average. But when each of those years you played at the All-Pro level Kuechly did it makes for a strong argument for his inclusion in Canton not long after he becomes eligible in 2025.
Kuechly retired not only with 1,092 career tackles (an average of 136.5 per season) but 75 tackles for losses, 31 quarterback hits, 18 interceptions, a remarkable 67 pass deflected, seven forced fumbles, nine fumble recoveries and three defensive touchdowns. Those numbers are the definition of a disruptive force and a Hall of Famer.
Kuechly is just the fifth defensive player to have 100 tackles in eight straight seasons, numbers that left him with more tackles than any other player during those eight seasons and more interceptions than any other linebacker. In fact, if one reviews the first eight seasons of first-ballot Hall-of-Famers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher what you’ll find is equal or better production.
Kuechly had more tackles, interceptions and fumble recoveries than Urlacher in his first eight seasons and was the equal of Lewis’ totals during his first eight years in the NFL. He also had more All-Pro seasons and Pro Bowl selections than Urlacher or Lewis in the first eight seasons of their careers. If all that doesn’t constitute a Hall-of-Fame argument, one must wonder what would.