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Luke Kuechly, an All-Time Great Linebacker, Has Retired at 28

The longtime Carolina Panther was the youngest person ever to win Defensive Player of the Year

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“There’s only one way to play this game,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly says in a video announcing his retirement on Tuesday. “Since I was a little kid, [that] is to play fast and play physical and play strong, and at this point I don’t know if I’m able to do that anymore. And that’s the part that is the most difficult, is …”

Kuechly pauses for eight seconds.

“I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision, so ...”

Kuechly pauses for another eight seconds.

“I’ve thought about it for a long time, and I think now is the opportunity for me to step away.”

With that, one of the best linebackers of his generation left the game at age 28. Kuechly was the youngest player ever to win Defensive Player of the Year and the third-youngest player to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. (The only other player to win those awards in back-to-back seasons was Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor.) He was voted to five All-Pro first teams and seven Pro Bowls in eight seasons. He ranks no. 1 in tackles (1,092) among all players since he entered the league, and he leads all linebackers in interceptions (18) and pass breakups (43) in that span. He is also the highest-graded linebacker by Pro Football Focus over the last 10 years, beating out 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, who retired after the 2014 season at age 29.

“While I wish we could have him for many more years, he has done everything the right way and we respect the decision he’s made,” Panthers owner David Tepper told reporters. “Luke is a once-in-a-generation player and someone we want every member of this organization to emulate.”

Panthers players also responded on Twitter, including former linebacker Thomas Davis …

… receiver D.J. Moore ...

… and longtime Panthers tight end Greg Olsen.

After years of stability with Ron Rivera at head coach, Cam Newton at quarterback, and Kuechly anchoring the defense, the Panthers will be a new team in 2020. Last week, Carolina hired former Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who steps into the role Rivera occupied for nine years before he was fired in December. Newton, who will turn 31 next season and missed all but two games in 2019 with a foot injury, is entering the last year of his contract and could be a cap casualty (with savings of $19 million) if the team decides to move on. Olsen, the 34-year-old tight end who has been with the team since Newton’s rookie year in 2011, could also be gone before the start of the season.

That leaves running back Christian McCaffrey, Moore, and the next Panthers quarterback as the likely new faces of the organization. Earlier on Tuesday, the team hired LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady as offensive coordinator. Brady masterminded the LSU offense that scored the most points in FBS history (726). The Tigers went 15-0 and won a national championship while quarterback Joe Burrow set an FBS record with 60 passing touchdowns and won the Heisman Trophy by the largest voting margin ever. The Panthers’ future will look different, but it may also be bright.

In his announcement, which was filmed in the linebackers meeting room, Kuechly specified that his decision has nothing to do with the new coaching staff and that being around his teammates is what he will miss most.

“Obviously, on the field is awesome,” Kuechly says in the video. “But some of the best times of playing this game are behind the scenes in the locker rooms and these meeting rooms, on the buses, traveling to games. You can’t replicate that anywhere else, and that’s why this is so hard to do. To move on in a different direction. But in my heart I know it is the right thing to do and, it’s hard, but that’s why you play this game to form relationships. And if you formed strong relationships they never go away.”

Kuechly was not the first player to retire on Tuesday. Chargers tight end Antonio Gates announced his retirement earlier in the day. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch demurred on Sunday about whether he would re-retire, but if his memorable press conference is the last we hear from him as an active player, that’s three all-time players to retire in the last three days, with the fates of Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Larry Fitzgerald all unknown.

Unlike those players, Kuechly is still in his prime. Kuechly was the no. 1 or no. 2 graded linebacker by Pro Football Focus each year from 2015 to 2018. This season he was the no. 5 graded linebacker by PFF, including no. 7 in run defense, no. 5 in tackling, and no. 3 in pass coverage, so his play has not significantly slipped.

Kuechly joins Rob Gronkowski and Andrew Luck as players at or near the top of their position to retire at 28 or 29 in the last year. Kuechly did not mention any specific injuries as a reason for the decision, but looming over his decision is at least three diagnosed concussions in his NFL career. Kuechly played 118 of a possible 128 regular-season games, plus seven playoff games.

Kuechly ended his video by thanking many people in the Panthers organization, and then thanked Carolina fans.

“When you love the players for who they are,” Kuechly says, “I think that transcends the game.”