Although Luke Kuechly is an undeniable talent and has plenty of potential as an NFL prospect, he should not be a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Top-10 picks at any position, not just linebacker, are reserved for players who will come in and make a huge, sweeping impact on a franchise. As great as Kuechly is, he’s just not that type of player. By either their first or second year, top-10 picks are expected to be an important part of opposing teams’ game plans, but Kuechly will still be fighting for playing time or will still be trying to make a name for himself by then. There is little doubt that Kuechly will be a successful linebacker in the NFL for a long time, but a top-10 pick should be reserved for only the most elite linebacker prospects, and so far Kuechly hasn’t shown that he deserves that risk.
Kuechly can be best described as a solid and reliable linebacker, but not a game-changer at the professional level. Former top-10 picks at linebacker include Von Miller, Rolando McClain, and AJ Hawk. In a Big 12 filled with incredibly tough competition, Texas A&M’s Miller caused havoc not just down the field but also in the backfield. Offenses had to be aware of where he was on every play. The same goes for Alabama’s McClain. He captained one of the best defenses in college football, punishing backs and blockers every game. Hawk was the exact same way.
Miller, McClain, and Hawk also all had the benefit of playing in the Big 12, SEC, and Big 10, respectively, facing some of the nation’s biggest and best offenses. Although it’s no fault of Kuechly’s, he did not face challenges against ACC offensive lines or skill-position players. The last ACC linebacker to be selected in the top 10 was Wake Forest’s Aaron Curry in 2009. The main advantage that Curry had over Kuechly was that Curry proved he could create turnovers. He set an NCAA record for interceptions returned for a touchdown while at Wake. Creating turnovers and bringing them back for points is not a strength of Kuechly’s.
At BC, Kuechly’s main job was doing clean-up work for a defensive line that struggled all season. Although his tackle numbers are very impressive, most of those stops came at least five yards down the field. This doesn’t mean that Kuechly can’t get through the line of scrimmage and break up plays, but it does mean that he hasn’t proven it yet. He also hasn’t proven that he can be equally effective against elite competition like Miller, McClain, and Hawk were in college.
The Philadelphia Eagles at the 15 spot is probably the highest Kuechly should go. A team that already has a solid linebacking corps would be a perfect fit for him. He can take his time to learn and adjust to the pro game before stepping in and making a difference. Any team expecting him to come in and be their No. 1 linebacker on opening day will probably find itself disappointed. A team picking in the mid to late-first round, especially a team that already has some established players at linebacker, will be able to take its time with Kuechly and not ask him to do more than he can handle.
In a few years, Kuechly should be a consistent and productive pro-player, but he will not be able to come in and turn around a pro defense right away. Teams picking outside of the top 10 will realize that, and they will be a much better fit for the former Eagle.