Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly closing in on his own payday

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (right) walks to practice Thursday. Kuechly has led the NFL in tackles in two of his three seasons and will likely command a huge contract extension much like Cam Newton’s before long.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (right) walks to practice Thursday. Kuechly has led the NFL in tackles in two of his three seasons and will likely command a huge contract extension much like Cam Newton’s before long. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Cam Newton got paid.

Before long, it will be Luke Kuechly’s turn.

It is only a matter of time before the Carolina Panthers’ star middle linebacker has a day like Newton did on Tuesday, but there will be a few differences.

The news conference will be shorter. Kuechly probably won’t wear a suit. And the money will be in the eight figures rather than Newton’s nine – although it will still be more cash than the soft-spoken, lightly recruited kid from Cincinnati ever thought he would make.

Kuechly will be a bargain by NFL standards for one more year for Carolina under the terms of his original rookie deal. In 2015, he is scheduled to make $2.1 million (counting $4 million against the salary cap) in the final year of his four-year, $12.6 million deal. He is not even among the top 20 highest-paid inside linebackers right now.

His contract extension could come any time, from now until next summer, as the Panthers try to make sure their cornerstone on defense is as secure as the one on offense.

“Hey, whenever it happens,” Kuechly said Thursday. “I’m not too worried about it. Right now, I’ve got a lot of things to worry about, and that’s not one of them.”

Kuechly is the NFL’s best middle linebacker – a remarkable tackler who has led the NFL in that category in two of his three seasons and finished fourth in the other.

He’s been the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time Pro Bowl starter. He graduated this offseason, too, just like Newton did. Kuechly finished his degree in marketing at Boston College with an online course. Like Newton, Kuechly decided not to walk in the graduation ceremony.

It is no coincidence that Kuechly has played for Carolina for three years and the Panthers have been a top-10 NFL defense in each of those seasons. Only San Francisco and Seattle have stayed in the top 10 all of those years, too.

But Kuechly isn’t perfect, and he’s said as much.

“I’ve got to work on pass coverage. That’s something I’ve been trying to get better at since I’ve been here – that and blitzing,” he said. “It’s one of those deals that if you’re called to blitz, you’ve got to get there. If you don’t get there, it’s a wasted player at that point.”

One thing I’d like Kuechly to get better at this season: turnover-causing plays. He had a career low one interception in 2014, along with one fumble caused and one fumble recovered. He has yet to score an NFL touchdown.

Kuechly had a second interception last season in the playoffs – a critical one in the home victory over Arizona. But I think No. 59 would agree that he could benefit from some tutoring on how to force fumbles from new Carolina cornerback Charles Tillman (who has 42 caused fumbles in his career, compared with Kuechly’s one).

Teammates admire Kuechly for his consistency. “Luke is going to be Luke,” Carolina cornerback Josh Norman said. “His passion for the game is second to none, even in practice. Everything he does is with a pro-like football approach. That’s all you see. He’s getting better and better – although how much better can you get?”

It is not certain Kuechly will get the next very big contract extension for Carolina. Norman, who is going into the final year of his contract and was in Kuechly’s 2012 draft class, has gotten much better and will need big money to stick around. Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis will also be in the final year of his deal, and the Panthers are trying to figure out the next contract for the NFL’s reigning Man of the Year.

But Kuechly will get his money before long, and deservedly so.

The Panthers have never employed a player with better tackling instincts. Kuechly moves forward toward the ball while everyone else is still moving laterally. He is amazing to watch, and part of the appeal is that he’s genuinely so humble about it. The aw-shucks act with Kuechly? It’s no act.

Kuechly said he’s glad Newton got his five-year, $103.8 million contract extension this week.

“That’s great,” Kuechly said. “We got that taken care of – that was in the works for awhile. Now everyone’s happy and excited that he’s back. I’m happy he’s here.”

On the practice field, Cam and Luke are polar opposites. Newton trash-talks and yells the way Michael Jordan did at Chicago Bulls practices. Kuechly lines up his teammates verbally, but otherwise is silent.

Together, they will remain the Panthers’ two most important players for the rest of this decade.

One already has a much fatter wallet. The other soon will.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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