Carolina’s Kuechly voted top inside LB in AP rankings

(AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

NEW YORK (AP) — Luke Kuechly tackles just about everything that comes his way. The toughest opponent lately for the Carolina Panthers’ playmaking star has been the injuries that have kept him off the field.

Kuechly was voted the NFL’s top inside linebacker in The Associated Press rankings on Friday.

He beat out Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley for the No. 1 spot. The voting was done by Pro Football Hall of Fame member James Lofton and 10 AP football writers.

“A throwback and three-time All-Pro with relentless pursuit of the play,” said AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell, who is based in Minneapolis.

“He stops the run, will chase down a QB and can handle coverage duties,” added AP Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich, who is based in Washington. “He really does do it all — with the possible exception of staying healthy. Concussions have been an issue, but when he’s on the field, no one is better.”

Kuechly is currently in the league’s concussion protocol and will sit out the Panthers’ game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday . It will be the 11th game he has missed over the last three seasons because of concussions.

When healthy, Kuechly is one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL with 739 career tackles, nine sacks, 13 interceptions and five forced fumbles.

“The Panthers’ do-everything linebacker and team leader not only makes a slew tackles, he makes the critical ones,” said AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner, who is based in New York.

Kuechly received seven of 11 first-place votes in a 10-points-to-one-point system and placed second on three ballots and third on one for 105 total points.

Wagner got the other four first-place votes and finished second with 91 points. He received four second-place votes, one for third, one for fourth and one for sixth.

“The heart and soul of the perennially strong Seahawks defense is versatile and smart,” said Wilner, who voted for Wagner at No. 1. “Wagner is as irreplaceable as star safety Earl Thomas.”

Wagner has 41 total tackles, a half-sack and a fumble recovery for a touchdown this season.

“Consistent, savvy, athletic and an all-around beast,” said AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi, who is based in Philadelphia and also voted for Wagner for the No. 1 spot. “He gets the top nod over Kuechly because he’s been more durable.”

Mosley was a distant third with 58 points, ranked as high as second in two ballots and as low as ninth in one.

“A perfect complement to Terrell Suggs,” said AP Pro Football Writer Simmi Buttar, based in New York. “They form a dominant duo.”

Mosley is tied for the NFL lead in total tackles with 55 and has an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery through the first six games.

“Best Ravens linebacker since Ray Lewis,” Maaddi declared.

Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier finished fourth with 51 points in the balloting that included 29 players receiving votes.

“Shazier not only is a tackling machine,” said AP Pro Football Writer Teresa Walker, based in Nashville, Tennessee, “he already has forced four turnovers all by himself in the fine tradition of the Steel Curtain.”

New England’s Dont’a Hightower rounded out the top 5, receiving 44 points. He helped the Patriots win last season’s Super Bowl with a sack-fumble of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. A highly sought free agent in the offseason, Hightower received a four-year, $43.5 million contract from the Patriots, including $19 million guaranteed.

“The Pats extended his contract,” Lofton said. “Enough said.”

Atlanta’s Deion Jones finished sixth with 37 points, followed by Denver’s Brandon Marshall (35), the Los Angeles Rams’ Alec Ogletree (30), Houston’s Benardrick McKinney (26) and Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson (22) to complete the top 10.

“The old man of our list,” Wilner said, “Johnson remains a force at 34.”

Washington’s Zach Brown (14 points), Arizona’s Deone Bucannon (14) and Miami’s Kiko Alonso (12) were among those who also received votes in the balloting.

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