LINEBACKERS PREVIEW: There is arguably no better linebacker group in the NFL. Luke Kuechly is as good as it gets in the middle, and Thomas Davis is one of the most versatile outside linebackers around. Those two lead the entire defense and headline a unit that features solid depth behind them.
1. Has Kuechly reached his ceiling yet?
The All-Pro middle linebacker has gotten better each year, quickly becoming one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He's always been an elite run-stopper, and his pass defense continues to improve. Last year, Kuechly matched a career high with four interceptions in the regular season, and he returned two picks for touchdowns in the postseason. It's easy to see why the Panthers want Kuechly patrolling the middle of the field, but he's determined to become a more effective pass rusher when given the chance to blitz. Kuechly will be the first to tell you he still has room to improve, and he'll always take the field with that attitude.
2. Will Thompson make a bigger impact?
Last year, Shaq Thompson flashed the athletic ability that made him a first-round pick. We should see it more consistently in his second season. A hard-hitting, fast-flowing linebacker, Thompson has all the tools to be a Pro Bowl caliber player alongside Kuechly and Davis. A better understanding of the system will give Thompson more opportunities to make plays in 2016, and he looks ready to take advantage.
3. Who earns the final spot(s)?
Beyond the starters, former fifth-round picks A.J. Klein and David Mayo are waiting in the wings. Klein can back up all three positions and has proven his worth when called upon. Mayo brings speed to the position and should play an important role on special teams. If the Panthers choose to keep six linebackers on the 53-man roster – as they did last year – that leaves one spot remaining. Ben Jacobs has been a steady contributor on special teams for the past two seasons, but undrafted rookies Jeremy Cash and Jared Norris are intriguing talents who will intensify the competition.
View photos of Carolina's linebackers in action.