Leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, the linebacker conversation included many names. From Jarvis Jones to Arthur Brown, numerous players were thrown around as capable Day 1 contributors. The name you didn’t hear much was A.J. Klein, formerly of Iowa State.
That was, until the Carolina Panthers took Klein in the fifth round. And what a sleeper pick it was.
A three-year starter for the Cyclones, Klein has the sleeper potential that will help the Panthers get back to the playoffs in the near future. While he’s far from an elite physical specimen, Klein brings production (362 tackles, five interceptions, three sacks, four touchdowns), sneaky athleticism and elite football IQ to the table for Carolina.
What makes him a viable option to get an early opportunity is the durability of starting outside linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, who are both coming off of serious injuries. Neither Beason nor Davis is 100 percent heading into 2013, and will likely take it slow as the season gets under way.
Throughout his college career at Iowa State, Klein played both outside linebacker positions. Although he spent the majority of his time at “Sam,” he has the physical tools and smarts to thrive at either position at the next level. Even if he doesn’t work his way into a starting role anytime soon, Klein can be the Panthers’ No. 4 linebacker who fills in wherever needed. And what better role model than middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, a youngster who took the NFL by storm on his way to the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
There’s a good chance that, at some point this season, Klein will get an opportunity to prove his worth in the NFL. Whether it’s due to injury or breaking the linebacker rotation, the rookie tackle machine should find his way onto the field. Assuming that’s the case, there’s a good chance he earns more snaps while he’s at it.
While Klein is certainly no Kuechly, he’s a productive, versatile player with the instincts and natural feel for the sport that makes for a quality linebacker. The Panthers got a good one, especially considering he came at the cheap price of a fifth-round pick.