Column: The Carolina Panthers need to draft a running back early


Despite an impressive 12-4 season in 2013, a five-win improvement from 2012, the Carolina Panthers come into the pre-draft weeks with some holes to fill. Left tackle Jordan Gross, a rock for well over a decade, has retired. The secondary took two big losses with Mike Mitchell joining the Pittsburgh Steelers and Captain Munnerlyn signing with the Minnesota Vikings. Though perhaps the most urgency in Carolina this offseason revolves around the receivers.

Steve Smith, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and proceeded only to set every franchise receiving record, is now a Baltimore Raven. Their current receiving corps would not cause any defensive coordinator to lose sleep. New addition Tiquan Underwood has just over 1,000 career receiving yards and is most known for being left off the Patriots Super Bowl 46 roster. Jason Avant, a decent possession receiver at best, was signed after being released by the Philadelphia Eagles. New addition Jerricho Cotchery has the most catches, yards and touchdowns of any receiver on the Panthers roster with 437, 5,558 and 30, respectively. These three join a host of nobody’s that have little to nothing on their NFL résumés. The rest of the receivers have a combined five NFL catches between them. Toney Clemons has three catches and 41 yards in the NFL to his credit, and Kealoha Pilares has two catches, 42 yards and one touchdown in the NFL during his first three seasons. Marvin McNutt, the former Iowa standout originally drafted by Philadelphia, and Tavarres King, the former Georgia Bulldog selected in the fifth round by Denver last season, figure to compete for playing time this season. (Of course, the group of pass catchers would be much more formidable if Carolina signs Sidney Rice.)

Still, I think it would be prudent to spend an early draft pick on a running back. While DeAngelo Williams is still a good runner and Cam Newton is a dynamic dual threat QB, they need to bring another workhorse back into the fold. Williams has now hit the dreaded age of 30 for running backs, and his production has been steadily declining. Ever since his dominant 2008 campaign, he hasn’t been able to play at that level again. 2009 was his only other 1,000+ yard season. After his 2010 season was cut short by injury, he came back to average 5.4 yards per carry in 2011, which dropped to 4.3 in 2012 and 4.2 last season. It is a real concern how long he can be a starting caliber running back. Mike Tolbert is nothing more than a goal line/situational back and Jonathan Stewart has simply never got on track due to all his injuries.

Cam is going to have to spend most of the offseason healing from ankle surgery. Cam is the face of the franchise, thus every precaution needs to be taken to keep him healthy. His running around hasn’t resulted in any major injuries yet, but one can only wonder how much longer he can continue to have good fortune.

I am not proposing they use the 28th pick on a running back, I think that should go to one of the other needs I talked about earlier. I figure with all I am that they will take a receiver, like Marquise Lee or Kelvin Benjamin, or one of many offensive tackles in the first round. While the secondary, specifically corner, is another area that could use improvement, with the dominant defensive line they have, they can get away with having less talented corners. So I would not use a particularly high pick on one, unless maybe a guy like Jason Verrett fell to them in the second round.

But to bring this full circle, with either pick 60 or 92, Carolina should look one of the following guys: Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Boston College’s surprise Heisman finalist Andre Williams, or, if he manages to last until the 60th pick, Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde. Of the runners projected to go off the board in the 2nd-3rd round, I think these three are the best options for the Panthers. Tre Mason, one of the catalysts of Auburn’s surprise run to the national title game last year, figures to be off the board first and long gone by pick number 60, so I won’t address him any more. With Hyde, I figure he will be gone by the time the Panthers are slated to pick for the second time, but I feel like he would be a good fit for this offense. He is a big back (6’, 230+ lbs) who gradually took on more and more of the workload at Ohio State as his career progressed. After rushing 106 times his sophomore year for 566 yards, he carried 185 times his junior year for 970 yards and an eye popping 16 TDs. His senior year he took off—he rushed 201 times for 1,521 yards, averaging a whooping 7.3 yards per rush, and found the end zone 15 times. While he could be a workhorse back, some might argue that Mike Tolbert’s presence on the roster diminishes some of his usefulness.

Sankey is an interesting guy, certainly a more shifty back than Hyde would be. My only concerns with him are he carried the ball 616 times the last two years at Washington, and he might be another version of DeAngelo Williams, just younger. At 5’ 10” and just over 200 pounds, he resembles Williams physically fairly closely. It is impressive how much of a nose for the end zone he has, running for 36 TDs over the last two years. He is a fairly good receiver though, as he averaged 10.9 yards per catch last season.

With Andre Williams, the fact he carried the ball 355 times last season is downright scary. But he looks like a complete back, he has size, speed, and a nose for the end zone, scoring 18 times last season. Wear and tear could be taken one of two ways with him though, because while he did carry the ball 355 times last year, the previous three years at BC he carried a combined 349 times and more than doubled his career total of rushing yards his senior year. Overall I’d say that he has less wear and tear than Sankey might, and moreover he will split carries with Williams and to hopefully as lesser extent, Newton. I would give this guy a long, hard look if I were Ron Rivera, and would consider moving up into the middle of the third round to get him if need be.

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