"I know they run the wide-nine. That's about all I know. That's what they're still running, right?" Kuechly asked.
Is there much of a chance that Kuechly, 6-2, 240, an instinctive linebacker who averaged an astonishing 15.9 tackles per game as a senior, will actually find himself pulling on a midnight green Eagles cap on April 26? Historically, mock drafts have not been very good predictors of the Birds' intentions. Some of this is because the Eagles don't tend to pick toward the top of the draft, and the farther back you sit, the more variables must be considered. (Three years ago, nobody had the Eagles getting wideout Jeremy Maclin 19th overall, because Maclin was supposed to be long gone by then.) Some of it is because Eagles management's assessment of what the team needs often is wildly different from what fans and outside experts perceive. (Two years ago, the team covered up Victor Abiamiri's microfracture surgery to keep the rest of the league from guessing the Birds were looking for a defensive end in the first round. Then, when the Eagles traded up 11 spots to grab one 13th overall, it was Brandon Graham, whom many draft analysts pegged as a 3-4 linebacker in the NFL, not a 4-3 defensive end.) Then there is the fact that for whatever reason, the Eagles haven't taken a linebacker in the first round since Jerry Robinson in 1979.
Last year, the player most commonly associated with the Birds at 23rd overall was Colorado corner Jimmy Smith. Coming out of the 2010 season, the Eagles' most obvious need was at corner, where Ellis Hobbs had suffered a career-ending injury and fill-ins struggled. But head coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman elected not to address that situation high in the draft - they ended up signing Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency and obtaining Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie in the Kevin Kolb trade with Arizona. In the first round, the Eagles drafted 26-year-old guard Danny Watkins, who had been mentioned in a few mock drafts as a possible target, but largely was discounted because of his age and because teams tend to value offensive tackles over guards in the first round.
This time around, there seems little doubt that shoring up the linebacking must be a top priority. But minus last year's lockout scramble, the offseason schedule is back to normal - free agency starts March 13 and will be largely concluded by the time the draft starts. Will linebacker still be the Eagles' most obvious need come April 26?
Quite possibly, yes. We don't know yet which players will be franchised or otherwise re-signed in the next month, and even now, the free-agent linebacking talent pool doesn't seem especially deep. Some Eagles fans await Detroit letting former Tennessee Titan Stephen Tulloch walk. But if that happens, Tulloch will be looking to sign with his third team in 3 years, not the typical trajectory for someone capable of making a big difference on the field.
Kuechly rates as the first- or second-best linebacker in the draft in many projections. He seems to be slotted somewhere between the 10th and 20th spots, though the Feb. 22-28 NFL Scouting Combine could change that.
Kuechly played the middle the past two seasons. A middle linebacker with a nose for the ball would seem to be the answer to Eagles fans' prayers. Kuechly said he'll play anywhere, but prefers the middle.
"I got to set everything, got to be the guy who made all the calls in the defense," he said. "It was pretty interesting."
Sixteen tackles a game? Was he paying off the stat crew?
"It has a lot to do with how I prepare," Kuechly said. "I think our coaches do a great job of putting us in a position to make plays . . . I watch a bunch of film during the week, and kind of break it down into what they do in certain situations. The first couple days a week I watch film, the third day I kind of piece everything together [in practice] . . . by the time the game rolls around, a lot of that stuff you've kind of seen before and you kind of know where you need to be on it."
Before he played the middle, Kuechly was a BC starter as a true freshman on the weakside. This wasn't expected - it happened because Conestoga High's Mark Herzlich, now of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, was diagnosed with cancer that offseason. Then a couple of more seasoned backups got hurt.
"It was one of those things where I just got tossed in. You want to make the most of your situation. I had a lot of help around me that first year," Kuechly said. "I wouldn't say it was overwhelming. It was exciting."
Kuechly said he stays in touch with Herzlich, who came back to BC the next year with a titanium rod inserted in his affected leg. Herzlich's return was inspiring, a big story at last year's combine, but this time last year he hadn't gotten back to where he could run the way he once did, and he ended up going undrafted. Kuechly said when he asked Herzlich about the draft process, Herzlich's advice was, "You've been playing football, you've been answering questions the last couple of years. Go and have fun and just be you."
Kuechly isn't undersized, but he isn't a monster, either, particularly if he plays inside. He said he thinks the biggest questions he has to answer are about his size and possibly his speed, questions he's trying to address at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Kuechly is one of 30 prospects preparing for the combine.
"It's 6 weeks of straight work, it's real concentrated," Kuechly said. "Hopefully come combine time, we'll be ready to go."