CHARLOTTE – When a foot injury sidelined veteran linebacker Chase Blackburn midway through last season, rookie A.J. Klein made a seemingly seamless transition into the starting lineup.
Next season, with all that he learned in 2013 at his disposal, Klein hopes to make a push for a spot in the starting lineup regardless of Blackburn's status.
"I'm excited for next year to see where I fall in the lineup," Klein said. "I've just got to keep working, and if it's time, it's time. And if it's not, it's not. But I'm going to work to be the starter, and that's all you can do."
That's exactly the approach Klein took as a rookie, and it paid off throughout the season, especially when he was called upon for a more prominent role.
Blackburn, who joined the Panthers last season as an unrestricted free agent, tried to play through his midseason injury, but it got progressively more difficult to do. When Carolina visited San Francisco for a much-anticipated showdown in Week 10, the injury limited Blackburn to special teams duty and left the starting assignment at weakside linebacker to Klein.
Klein, who had played some on the weak side as a senior at Iowa State but had gotten his first NFL practice reps there just 10 days before the 49ers game, responded to the challenge. A big third-down run stop and Klein's first career sack highlighted a six-tackle game – second most on the team behind Luke Kuechly – in the Panthers' dramatic 10-9 victory.
And when Blackburn missed the next three games to recover, Klein continued to contribute before returning to a special-teams heavy role for the remainder of the season.
"Anytime you can go out and perform in your first NFL start, it's great. And we came out with the win that day, and that made it even better," Klein said. "And probably the best part is that I continued to learn and to build on that game in the next three games. I'll take positive notes from each of those games."
Klein, the Panthers' fifth-round draft choice in 2013, has long been known for working hard but also working smart. At Iowa State, he learned all three linebacker spots in the Cyclones' 4-3 defense and made at least five starts at each, finishing his career with 361 tackles, four interception returns for touchdowns (tying the NCAA record for linebackers) and three All-Big 12 Conference selections. In 2011, he earned co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year along with former Oklahoma and current Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander.
Not surprisingly, Klein's work ethic showed up in the classroom as well and continues to do so. He's currently taking three classes at Iowa State – including functional anatomy and motor control – as he closes in on his kinesiology degree.
Kinesiology, which is the study of human movement, no doubt helps Klein on the football field. Wisely, he took advantage of every source of help available to him as a rookie.
"Every one of the linebackers on this roster helped the cause," Klein said. "We worked together as a group so well. Whether it was in meetings or on the field, it was definitely a collaborative effort involving all of us working to become the best that we could.
"We were one of the best defenses in the league. We didn't get the No. 1 spot like we were hoping for, but we were right there. That was a goal that we came close to accomplishing."
Next season, Klein's goal will be to move up from the No. 2 spot – both in the NFL defensive rankings and on the depth chart.
"My rookie year went well. I did my job on special teams. I bought into my role. And then when the opportunity came for me to play on defense, I think I capitalized on it," Klein said. "I showed the head man and all the coaches here that I can play. Those are definitely some positive notes for me to build on next year.
"Everybody wants to play. Obviously, I'm going to work toward that, and just like at the beginning of my rookie season, I'm going to find my niche. I'm going to find my role, grasp onto it and make the most of it."