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A Tale of Two Draft Picks
The day was Thursday, April 26, 2012. Six or seven men in their mid-to-late twenties had just finished inhaling a feast of fried food that would make Thanksgiving Day look like a hunger strike. Empty bottles battled for space with sauce-stained styrofoam containers on decades-old end tables as the majority of those in attendance tried to moan away the pain of the barbeque delivery they had just consumed – all but two, that is. A pair of “gentlemen” stood, shot glasses in hand, fixated on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s saunter to the podium at Radio City Music Hall emanating from the television.
“With the ninth pick of the 2012 NFL draft…” Goodell began.
“Not Catch-lee! Not Catch-lee!” one of the phonetically-challenged, dinner-weary “gentlemen” pleaded.
“The Carolina Panthers select…Luke Kuechly. Linebacker. Boston College.”
“Better be Gilmore, then,” the previously-silent companion stated.
And so it was. The Carolina Panthers selected one slot ahead of the Buffalo Bills in the 2012 NFL Draft. In Week 2, fans of both teams are left to wonder what exactly fate left behind.
As the aforementioned individual mispronouncing Kuechly’s name on draft day, I have masochistically followed his young career with the Panthers, which has seen him skyrocket to status among the league’s elite. Starting all 16 games, Kuechly amassed 103 tackles, 61 assists, eight passes defended, two interceptions and a sack, earning himself Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. According to Football Outsiders, Kuechly racked up 96 stops, plays in which he denied an offense a successful play based on yardage and down, and 27 defeats, plays in which he denied first down yardage on third or fourth down, blew up a play for a loss or forced a turnover. To put that in perspective, Bills second year linebacker Kelvin Sheppard notched 46 and six, respectively. San Francisco’s Patrick Willis, commonly viewed as the gold standard for inside linebackers, registered 73 and 24 – both career highs. This week, NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling labeled him the best inside linebacker in football and suggested he could make a run at the Defensive Player of the Year award. Turns out this “Catch-lee” kid was even better than advertised.
Meanwhile, the Bills’ Stephon Gilmore turned heads across the league during his rookie campaign. He doubled the closest defender for the team lead in passes defended at 16 and ranked as a number one cornerback in percentage of pass plays resulting in stops, coming in at number 32. He struggled with penalties as most rookies do, but he stands as the only top-tier cornerback in an underwhelming and unproven Bills secondary. His tenure cannot compare to Kuechly’s, but the curious aspect of their back-to-back selections is how they fit in their units. Kuechly was chosen by a team which already featured three time Pro Bowler Jon Beason, also a middle linebacker by trade. Even after restructuring his deal to take a massive pay cut in 2013, Beason’s cap hit sits at $10.5 million for 2014 while his contract runs through 2016. This is a prime example of the lack of foresight that landed Marty Hurney, the general manager who drafted Kuechly, on the unemployment line. Meanwhile, the Bills landed Kiko Alonso in the second round of this year’s draft to anchor the interior of their linebacking corps. It’s unlikely he can ascend to the top of his postion’s class as fast as Kuechly, but the drop-off between Gilmore and Carolina’s top cornerbacks could be much steeper.
There’s no denying that the Panthers came away with a better immediate return between the ninth and tenth draft slots in 2012, and Gilmore’s gruesome wrist injury will deny us the opportunity to see both game-changing defenders battle on the same field this weekend. Even if Kuechly continues to mature into a better player than Gilmore overall, Stephon may make a bigger difference to his team than his draft-mate playing alongside an elite, highly-paid veteran with gigantic question marks at cornerback behind him.