ALAMEDA -- Not all Butkus Award winners are created equal.
Carolina Panthers rookie Luke Kuechly, winner of the award out of Boston College as college football's top linebacker in 2011, moved from outside linebacker to the middle in Game 6 after an injury to starter Jon Beason.
Kuechly has logged more film time than Brad Pitt, showing up in nearly every frame with 138 tackles, second in the NFL.
Meanwhile, third-year Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain, winner of the Butkus Award in 2009, is invisible, failing to provide even a supporting role.
McClain has been ineffective, indifferent and ultimately inactive after watching a 15-0 win over the Kansas City Chiefs from the sidelines last week following a two-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
Kuechly, the No. 9 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, is the future, counted upon to be the heart of the Panthers defense for the next decade. McClain, the No. 8 overall pick in 2010, is expected to be either released or traded after the season.
The Raiders will be looking directly across the line at the player they thought they had in 2009 when they visit the Panthers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
"When I see a rookie linebacker tackle Tony Gonzalez, then get up and not back down when Tony tries to shrug him off, and you see it happen two or three more times, you know a guy's got a little something to him," Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said. "He's always around the ball. He's fast to react. He's got pretty good instincts. It does show up on tape."
Knapp, of course, is talking about Kuechly, who has seized a leadership role on the defense in a way McClain never did.
"I don't know that we have the guy that steps up and says, 'I'm the guy and I'm going to make all the adjustments for you,' " Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. "We're still looking for that."
Kuechly said by conference call that he ascended to a leadership role gradually.
"You can't go in and act like you're the head guy," he said. "There's like a hierarchy, a totem pole ... you have to earn the respect of the other guys."
Carolina coach Ron Rivera, a star linebacker at Cal, likened Kuechly to the 49ers' Patrick Willis and former Raider Matt Millen as players who immediately had the attention of their teammates because of their play and preparation.
"When you're the guy everybody is looking to, Luke has the answers," Rivera said by conference call. "It's so much easier as a play-caller when you have a guy that can handle all the checks and reloads based on what the offense is doing, that's huge. Hopefully you put good players around him and he can do it for many years."
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer said Kuechly's value goes beyond his statistics.
"He has the stats, but you turn on the film, he just shows up," Palmer said. "He's all over the place, harassing guys running routes. He's always around the ball, making tackles and assisting tackles."
Nine players who will start against Carolina are ticketed for unrestricted free agency March 12: offensive tackle Khalif Barnes, defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, guard Cooper Carlisle, middle linebacker Omar Gaither, free safety Matt Giordano, punter Shane Lechler, tight end Brandon Myers, defensive end Matt Shaughnessy and linebacker Philip Wheeler.
Others are defensive end Andre Carter, running back Mike Goodson, wide receiver Derek Hagan, cornerbacks Joselio Hanson and Shawntae Spencer, quarterback Matt Leinart and safety Mike Mitchell.
Raiders (4-10) at Carolina (5-9), 10 a.m. CBS