The Panthers defense should be much improved with Kuechly on the field. (US PRESSWIRE)

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly becomes the highest player selected in the 2012 NFL Draft to sign a contract, inking a four-year, $12.58 million deal, all guaranteed, ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted Thursday night.

Kuechly, selected ninth overall in the April draft, was the first linebacker off the board. He immediately upgrades a Panthers defense ranked worst in the league (32nd overall, 32nd against the rush, 29th against the pass), according to Football Outsiders.

Coming into the draft, Kuechly, the former Boston College standout, was often referred to as one of the cleanest players available.

"He might be the safest player in the draft, to be honest with you," one high-level scout told's Rob Rang in February. "You look at his stats and you think there is no way that he can be in on that many tackles but when you watch the tape, he is. Just an incredibly instinctive player who is always around the action. I'm not so sure he's going to test well or fits in every scheme, but he's a hell of a player who can be the quarterback of your defense for the next 10 years because of his leadership and preparation."

The biggest issue now facing Kuechly: where will he play in Carolina's defense? Coach Ron Rivera has indicated that he could play middle linebacker with former first-rounder Jon Beason moving to the weak side. "You get excited about who he is as a football player," Rivera said via

Kuechly, meanwhile, is saying all the right things.

"There are a lot of areas that can be difficult," he admitted. "It's a new system, for one, and it's going to be bigger and faster. Everyone comes in wanting to be a starter, but they've got a lot of good guys here. I've got to get in here and start working, start earning the respect of the older guys and then hopefully something good happens from there.

"You've got to be humble because you've got to start over again. You can't come in with an overly big head because you haven't done anything yet. You might have done all right in college, but moving forward it's a different level."

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