Panthers linebackers look to turn weakness into strength

It’s still a little early to characterize the Carolina Panthers’ linebacker situation as an embarrassment of riches.

Heck, because of injuries to two projected starters, the Panthers’ linebacker corps was an embarrassment, period, at times in 2011.

But coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott seem to be pleased with the potential for the unit to dramatically improve over 2011. Barring injuries – and, granted, that’s never a safe thing to do with the Carolina linebackers – the unit could be the strength of the defense, and perhaps the team.

The selection of Boston College star Luke Kuechly in the first round, with the return of three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason from an Achilles injury that limited him to one game last season, should provide the Panthers with plenty of flexibility.

One-time weakside starter Thomas Davis is trying to come back from another ACL surgery on his right knee – the third of his career and second in two seasons – so he’s still a long shot.

But if Davis can overcome the knee woes to be even a situational player, he’ll add to what could suddenly be a fairly deep position. And that’s not taking into account James Anderson, who set a franchise record for tackles last season as the strongside starter.

“So far, so good,” Rivera said after last week’s offseason training session.

For now, Beason, who is being held out of the OTAs, is slated as the starter in the middle, and Kuechly will play on the weak side, although he has taken some snaps at middle linebacker.

That could change in camp, but the plan seems to be to keep Beason, who has played weak linebacker in the past, at his most comfortable spot in the middle.

Kuechly, who played primarily in the middle in college but was on the field for all three downs, seems to have taken pretty well to the weak spot.

“He’s really fast, not just in terms of running, but also in (smarts),” Beason said.

Kuechly, who had seven interceptions in his college career, including three in each of his final two seasons, was regarded by many scouts as a three-down defender, and is clearly more than just a middle run-stuffer.

If the Panthers can reach their potential at linebacker, and with quarterback Cam Newton coming off a successful rookie season, Carolina could be a surprise contender in 2012.

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