With the retirements of bone-crushing hitters Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, Carolina Panthers' leading tackler Luke Kuechly is becoming the new model for the middle linebacker who can chase tailbacks, tight ends and even read-option quarterbacks out of the backfield. As NFL Network analyst Brian Billick recently pointed out, the position is evolving into one emphasizing athleticism and fluidity.

Just as swiftly as Jon Beason took the Panthers' defensive leadership torch from Dan Morgan a half-decade ago, Kuechly is grabbing the reins from Beason this offseason.

"(Kuechly) is a student of the game," wide receiver Steve Smith said, via WFNZ in Charlotte. "He is taking over that defense, he is composing that defense, which is neat to see. ... He really is becoming the quarterback of the defense."

It's high praise from a veteran who typically likes young players to be seen and not heard. Smith is hardly alone in his high regard for Kuechly.

"He has a lot of natural ability," coach Ron Rivera said of Kuechly. "Whoever coached him before he got here did a (heck) of a job."