Can Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly Win Defensive Player of the Year in 2016?

JJ Watt has been the runaway choice for Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons. However, the last player to win the award not named Watt was Luke Kuechly. Is the Carolina Panthers' linebacker set to take the award back in 2016?

There is no question the Carolina Panthers have one of the best linebackers in the game today in Luke Kuechly. The former Top 10 pick has been excellent since stepping on the NFL field and has racked up awards and accolades over that time from NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, three Pro Bowl selections, three First-Team All-Pro selections. He also was the last player not named J.J. Watt to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award back in 2012.

The Texans' pass rusher has been the run away favorite the past two seasons to win the award but the Panthers' linebacker could be set up to make a strong case for it in 2016.

Last year was the first time the Panthers' linebacker was forced to miss any playing time after he suffered a concussion in the first half of the first game of the season. He ended up missing the next three games after that but still finished with an impressive stat line.

He continued his streak of 100+ total tackles and has yet to have a professional season without reaching this mark. However he set a career high in interceptions with four in the regular season, including his first ever defensive touchdown. He was done there adding two more interceptions in the playoffs and returning both for touchdowns.

While Kuechly has been great for his four seasons in the league, this upcoming season could end up being his best yet.

Last year, the Panthers linebacker was focused on his pass defense and that clearly showed. He was seen dropping back into coverage more, getting into passing lanes and if he wasn't intercepting passes, he was deflecting them.

A full season of that type of play will only help his statistics.

However, one of the main reasons he will push for the award is that this season he could be asked to do even more for this defense. While there is potential across every level of the defense, it is a relatively inexperienced group.

Kony Ealy will be expected to step into the starting lineup as a full-time starter. He will lineup opposite Charles Johnson to help revitalize a pass rush that fell off last season.

This is going to be incredible important because the Panthers' secondary that could potentially have two rookies see significant snaps and Bene Benwikere asked to be the top cornerback for the first time in his career.

This is where a player like Kuechly will need to elevate his game even further and he shouldn't have a problem doing so. This may mean him rushing the passer more and not giving the quarterback time in the pocket. This could mean him dropping back into coverage as another defender to eliminate throwing lanes for the opposition.

Whenever the coaching staff has had to lean on number 59, he has always responded and this upcoming season should be no different. If he does, the Defensive Player of the Year may not reside in Texas but rather in North Carolina.

Twitter @BrandonCroce

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