- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Luke Kuechly celebrated becoming the NFL’s highest-paid middle linebacker by heading back into the film room to study more tape of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“Then I will go to sleep and do it all over again tomorrow,” Kuechly said at a press conference Thursday night.

That’s pretty much the Carolina Panthers fourth-year linebacker in a nutshell - focused, always working to get better, and relentless in his pursuit of victory.

The humble 24-year-old Kuechly signed a five-year, $62 million contract extension that will keep with the Panthers through 2021, a person familiar with the situation said Thursday. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because financial terms weren’t released.

His deal pales some in comparison to the six-year, $100 million-plus the Buffalo Bills gave defensive tackle Marcell Dareus earlier in the day, largely because the value the NFL puts on certain positions.

But teammate Thomas Davis said Kuechly is to the Panthers what Tom Brady is to the New England Patriots.

“He deserves to be the highest-paid defensive player in this league based on what he’s done, what he’s capable of doing and what I expect him to do,” Davis said.

Kuechly’s $12.4 million annual salary tops that of Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who received a four-year extension worth $10.75 million a year in August.

“That speaks to what Luke has been able to accomplish and what he’s done,” Davis said. “How can you argue with that? He deserves every cent of it, if not more.”

Kuechly has an NFL-best 473 tackles since coming into the league as a first-round draft pick in 2012. He’s one of only three players to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year award within his first two years, earning that honor in 2013.

Since Kuechly arrival the Panthers have been a top 10 defense every season and coach Ron Rivera called him a “perfect fit” in Carolina.

“Luke is a special player and has been a big reason why we have had success on defense,” Rivera said in a press release. “He has the skillset you want in a middle linebacker - a great first step, the ability to play downhill and drop into coverage - and he has great command of our defense and what we want to do schematically.”

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called him a “servant leader,” saying that he has helped build an unselfish atmosphere in the Carolina locker room.

“That’s the greatest compliment I could give someone,” McDermott said

The deal comes three days before the Panthers face the Jaguars in the regular season opener. The Panthers’ long-standing stance is not to discuss contract extensions once the regular season begins, so there was a rush to get things done.

Kuechly said he was never worried though, knowing the deal would get done at some point.

“It’s never been about me,” said Kuechly, who was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. “I want to win. I’m one guy on an 11-man defense that needs to do his job. I don’t like talking about myself. I would rather talk about other people.”

Kuechly becomes the fourth Carolina player to sign a big contract extension this offseason.

Quarterback Cam Newton previously signed a five-year, $103.8 million deal, tight end Greg Olsen was handed a three-year, $22.5 million contract and Davis got $18 million over two years.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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