Week 17’s official gamebook lists Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein as a starter. In reality, Luke Kuechly’s supposed fill-in played fewer snaps than anyone on Carolina’s defense.
In what could be his final game in a Panthers’ uniform, Klein was in for just six plays as coaches took a longer look at David Mayo, who made seven tackles in 21 snaps. But Sunday was just the continuation of a trend involving Klein.
In his first start in place of Kuechly this season, the 2015 fifth-round pick was in for all 74 plays in Oakland. Klein’s snap counts over the final five games then went like this:
- at Seattle – 58
- vs. San Diego – 53
- at Washington – 47
- vs. Atlanta – 33
- at Tampa Bay – 6
The biggest reason for the decrease was the increased playing time of Shaq Thompson, who’s earmarked to one day replace outside linebacker Thomas Davis. But after Klein allowed a couple of big plays against the Raiders, coaches began giving Thompson a longer look at middle linebacker in the Panthers’ nickel packages. Then came Sunday, which was a possible glimpse of a future with Mayo as Kuechly’s main backup.
As Klein cleaned out his locker Monday morning, he was asked for his thoughts as he heads into free agency.
“My thoughts are it’s unfortunate that we underachieved this year as a team,” he said. “I think going forward there’s a lot of positives they can build on, that we can build on as a team.”
Yes, Klein caught himself saying “they.” But was that a hint of how he’s now feeling or was it just a simple slip-up?
“I want to be a part of this team,” he said, “but with free agency and everything that happens, I don’t have a lot of control over anything. So I’m just going to let themselves work out.”
During his four seasons in Carolina, Klein played in all but four games. And while his tackle numbers took a dive this season, it’s possible he has enough on tape to become a starter. And while that won’t happen as long as Kuechly’s around, Klein’s not yet willing to pull the plug on the Panthers.
“I wouldn’t say (starting) is necessarily my goal,” he said. “My goal is to be part of a championship team, and I believe that here in Carolina, there’s definitely all the pieces to be a championship team.”