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Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly retires, sending waves through NFC South

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It’s a major, major piece of news for the division.

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers have changed in a major way.

They’ve hired LSU offensive coordinator Joe Barry to run their offense this season shortly after hiring new head coach Matt Rhule out of Baylor. They’ve also just, out of nowhere, lost perhaps their best player not named Christian McCaffrey.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly has announced his retirement from the league at the age of 28.

In terms of Kuechly’s decision, we wish him nothing but the best. He was a fierce competitor and a pain in the Falcons’ side for many seasons, anchoring what was long one of the toughest defenses to go against every season. His scary concussion history makes this decision not all that surprising and likely very wise for the linebacker, who played eight seasons in the NFL despite his youth.

He joins former 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland as linebackers who have retired at an early age.

As it comes to the Panthers and the NFC South, it leaves that franchise in even more transition. They’re taking a gamble on former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule and Barry to bring their pro-style offenses to the NFL, and they’re still not yet confirmed to be bringing quarterback Cam Newton back and starting him in 2020.

Impact defenders CB James Bradberry, DT Gerald McCoy, DE Mario Addison, FS Tre Boston, DT Vernon Butler and DE Bruce Irvin are all free agents, and former Falcons DT Dontari Poe is a likely cap casualty. RT Daryl Williams is also set to hit the market, and tight end Greg Olsen could very well retire himself.

But none of those guys leaving will have the same ramifications as Kuechly’s decision will. The Panthers are right to say Kuechly was the heart and soul of that defense, and him moving on to retirement leaves a team in transition with even more uncertainty in the air.

The Falcons, ironically, could have the least amount of change heading their way this offseason. The Saints and Bucs have to figure out what to do at quarterback along with the Panthers, and Carolina has a new coaching staff. The Bengals will more than likely draft Joe Burrow unless someone sends the farm, leaving a Burrow reunion with Barry very unlikely.

Kuechly leaving the Panthers firmly plants them in a mini-rebuild. He is a franchise-great talent for them and a future Hall of Famer. You don’t replace those guys easily, if at all.

We salute Kuechly for the stellar career he’s had and will be quite curious how the Panthers will try to fill his absence, as how they’ll fare in a new regime. No bones about it, this is a big move for the NFC South and one of Atlanta’s biggest rivals. We’ll feel the effects of this move this spring, fall and beyond.