Two of the best young linebackers in the NFL recently received contract extensions, and Wednesday at Wofford College, a third was waiting his turn.
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly understands the team wants to make him the highest-paid middle linebacker in the game no matter his “when it happens, it happens” approach.
A league source told the Observer talks have continued between the team and Kuechly’s camp, but the chances of reaching a long-term contract extension before the season are “50-50.”
“If it doesn’t happen before the season then we’ll play the season and see what happens,” Kuechly said Wednesday. “I’m not too concerned about it. Like I’ve said a couple of times it gets done when it gets done.
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“I get to go out and play football and whatever happens, happens, and we’ll see.”
Kuechly, a two-time All Pro and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract that will pay him a base salary of $2.105 million and charge the Panthers a cap hit of $4.002 million this year. Carolina has picked up Kuechly’s fifth year option for 2016 at a cost of $11.058 million, but it’s highly unlikely Kuechly will play that season under that contract.
As of Wednesday, the Panthers had more than $12.8 million in cap room for this year, according to the NFL Players Association site. That would seemingly be enough to absorb whatever increase in the cap an extension with Kuechly would bring.
Since the start of training camp, Seattle inside linebacker Bobby Wagner and Tampa Bay outside linebacker Lavonte David have received big contract extensions. Because neither was a first-round pick like Kuechly, their respective teams did not have the luxury of exercising the fifth-year option and got a deal done before they became free agents at the end of this season.
“Lavonte and Bobby are two studs who definitely deserve what they got,” Kuechly said. “We’ve played against those guys quite a bit. Good for them and they’re great players.”
David’s five-year, $50.25 million extension this week isn’t the best comparison to Kuechly’s future deal because David plays outside linebacker.
Wagner’s deal represents a more apples-to-apples comparison. The Seahawks signed the former second-round selection to a four-year extension worth $43 million. His $10.75 million per year is highest among all inside linebackers in the league.
Still on his rookie deal, Kuechly ranks 24th this season according to overthecap.com.
On Wednesday, Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn’t hesitate to call Kuechly the best linebacker in the league.
“I think right now the two best young guys are him and Wagner,” Rivera said after practice. “I think those two guys are the future of the linebackers in the league. Those are the prototypical middle linebackers and both are very smart football players and they help to make their teams better.”
On Tuesday, football analytics site Pro Football Focus ranked Kuechly as the top linebacker in the NFL at this moment. He earned a grade of 92.3, which falls in the “superstar” status according to the site.
His coach called him the best linebacker in the game, and so did an independent analytical site. His pay will be commensurate to that, so Kuechly isn’t concerning himself with when it happens.
“You guys know I’m not too worried about that stuff,” Kuechly said. “All that you worry about is what your play is on the field.”