Jon Beason has made it clear he wants to stay at middle linebacker.
But should he?
Thats the question the Panthers will kick around during the bye week before facing Dallas on Oct. 21. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott indicated no fewer than four people will help make the decision general manager Marty Hurney, coach Ron Rivera, linebackers coach Warren Belin and McDermott.
The Panthers have stepped lightly around the issue since drafting Kuechly in the first round with the ninth overall pick in April. Kuechly was an All-American middle linebacker at Boston College whose average of 14 tackles a game set an NCAA record.
Beason is a three-time Pro Bowler at middle linebacker who posted the top four single-season tackle totals his first four years with the Panthers (James Anderson broke Beasons mark in 2011).
But Beason was coming off a season-ending Achilles injury, and Kuechly was the highest-ranked player on the Panthers draft board after Tampa Bay took Alabama safety Mark Barron with the seventh pick.
Beason said last spring he was surprised the Panthers drafted a linebacker, especially that high.
Beason, 27, a defensive captain, has been slowed by nagging injuries since training camp, leading to some missed tackles. He sat out last weeks loss to Seattle with shoulder and knee injuries, but said he will be back after the bye.
With Beason out, Kuechly made his first start in the middle after playing the weakside spot the first four games. Kuechly had a career-high 16 tackles against the Seahawks, and pulled down his first interception.
He looked good. He looked good on the outside, as well, Rivera said. Hes a very well-rounded football player and I think hes got a lot of ability.
But Kuechly said he did not play a perfect game against Seattle. He was beaten in coverage on a long pass down the middle on a Seahawks scoring drive.
Youre never as good as you think, and never as bad as you think, Kuechly said. There was a big play down the seam that I missed on. That led to some points. And weve still got to stress tackling. Thats something thats important. Youve got to tackle that guy with the ball.
Kuechly and Beason both believe middle linebacker is their most natural position, though both have played weakside. Beason started eight games at weakside, or Will, in 2010 when Thomas Davis was out.
Kuechly said theres more action in the middle, known as the Mike spot.
I think youre more active at Mike. I think whoevers at Mike you talk to Beason, hes played Will before when he was at Mike, you can make more plays, Kuechly said. At Will, you kind of sit backside.
Beason has been effective at both spots. In 2010, when Davis was out, Beason had 85 tackles in eight starts at weakside and 77 tackles in eight starts in the middle.
I really dont like to pigeon-hole linebackers unless a guy can only do one thing. I believe when you play football a linebackers a linebacker, said Rivera, a Chicago Bears linebacker for nine years. He should know how to play all three spots, unless he has only a specific set of skills. And in this case, I think our guys have the ability to play all different positions.
Linebacker is the Panthers deepest position on defense. In addition to Beason and Kuechly, Davis has returned strong following three ACL surgeries on his right knee.
Anderson, whose 174 tackles last season topped Beasons mark of 169 set in 2009, set a Panthers single-game record with 20 tackles in a 30-28 loss to Atlanta on Sept. 30. Jordan Senn is the special teams captain, but played well in seven starts at linebacker in 2011.
Weve got a talented linebacking corps, and thats a good problem for us. Weve got to make sure weve got the right players in the right position, McDermott said. Jon Beasons a heck of a football player in his own right, and hes done a lot of good things for this team over the years. To make any decision at this point wouldnt be (fair) from where I come from.
McDermott echoed Rivera in saying he wants playmakers on the field, regardless of where they align.
If youre a football player, youre a football player, McDermott said. So whether you play Mike or Will or Sam (strongside) or you play in a 3-4, a football player makes plays.
And you saw that from Luke, moving from outside to inside. He made plays. Thomas Davis was on the field (Sunday). He makes plays. Thats the name of the game is making plays.
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