Carolina’s captain is calling it quits.
“It’s never the right time to step away, but now is the right time for me. It’s a tough decision. I’ve thought about it a lot. I think now is the right chance for me to move on,” Kuechly said. “It makes me sad because I love playing this game, I’ve played it since I was a kid. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do. The memories I have from this place and this organization and playing on the field with these guys, they’ll never go away.
“There’s only one way to play this game since I was a little kid, it’s to play fast, play physical and play strong. And at this point I don’t know if I am able to do that anymore and that’s the part that’s the most difficult. I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision.”
Kuechly, 28, leaves the game as a seven-time Pro Bowler, a five-time first-team All-Pro and the 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year.
The Panthers linebacker started all 16 games in Carolina’s 2019 campaign, finishing with 144 tackles and two picks. Kuechly will finish his career with 118 starts in 118 games played, 18 interceptions, seven forced fumbles, 12.5 sacks and 1,092 total tackles.
Kuechly had two years remaining on his deal in Carolina and is walking away from $10.8 million in 2020.
Drafted ninth overall out of Boston College in the 2012 draft, Kuechly had an immediate impact on Ron Rivera’s Panthers. The linebacker took home AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 and then was named DPOY in just his second season. Kuechly participated in four Panthers postseasons, including Carolina’s run to Super Bowl 50 in 2015.
A member of one of the greatest inside-linebacker duos in NFL history alongside Thomas Davis, Kuechly was a tackle machine. He led the league in tackles in 2012, his rookie year, and 2014. Since entering the league no player has more tackles than Kuechly (1,092); Davis is fourth (804).
Kuechly was one of the defining defenders of the 2010s, in the same conversation as Patrick Willis, Aaron Donald, Bobby Wagner and J.J. Watt, all of whom boast five first-team All-Pro selections. Like Willis, Kuechly retired in his prime and has a great argument to end up in Canton one day.
The Panthers great isn’t the first member of the first round of the 2012 draft to organize a surprise retirement in the past six months. First-overall selection Andrew Luck, then 29, also retired due to health and quality of life reasons this season.
Kuechly will be remembered for his sideline-to-sideline ferocity and hard-nosed play but now also for a career shortened by myriad injuries. Kuechly suffered multiple concussions and dealt with multiple shoulder issues during the back half of his career. He didn’t miss a game in his first three seasons, but missed 10 starts from 2015 through 2017.
The Panthers will surely miss him, as they embark on a massive transition in the front office with owner David Tepper shaking things up; on the sidelines with Matt Rhule replacing Ron Rivera as head coach; on offense with Cam Newton‘s future in doubt; and now on defense without Kuechly calling it quits.
Shaq Thompson will be the new leader in the middle of Carolina’s defense, but few players if any can replicate the leadership and steady play Kuechly provided the Panthers for eight outstanding seasons.