Baring some blockbuster trade this offseason (bold predictions not withstanding), the Panthers are extremely unlikely to be major players in the running back market this offseason, and with Reggie Bonnafon and Rodney Smith returning, they also have solid depth pieces who stylistically match what they have in Christian McCaffrey. However, with Mike Davis hitting free agency, what the Panthers could lack – should he not return – is a more physical downhill runner who can compliment the more elusiveness and receiving focused running backs.
This probably isn’t something the Panthers are going to spend a high draft pick on, but from the middle of the final day onwards this is something the Panthers might consider. It is also worth noting that with Alex Armah also hitting free agency, a player who could offer some RB/FB flexibility in the style of Mike Tolbert might have additional appeal.
With that in mind, what does the 2021 RB class have to offer?
What Is It We Look For?
Like with most positions, athleticism certainly has value for running backs, and those who are able to accelerate rapidly, who can change direction at speed and who have the deep speed to take maximum advantage of any open space in the second level are going to be sought-after. Additionally, and particularly relevant to any conversation about replacing Mike Davis, players who show good balance through contact and can shake off tacklers are also going to have an advantage.
Vision is also extremely important for running backs, though this can be harder to judge for some prospects than others depending on what they are asked to do schematically, but all prospects should hope to clear the bar of being able to spot clear rushing lanes and avoid running into already-occupied gaps. Better prospects will also demonstrate the ability to manipulate defenders leverage using subtle changes of speed and direction in order to create rushing lanes.
Of course, players who can add value to what is blocked for them are going to stand out, which ultimately comes down to being able to either make a defender miss in space, break tackles with some consistency or to add yards through contact. Very few players can offer the ability to both juke a safety out of their skin on the second level and run over a linebacker in the hole, and this is less about ticking skill-set boxes and more about showing an ability to gain more yards than their blocking indicates would be the case.
Finally, players have to be able to contribute in the passing game, especially as receivers. Players who don’t show an ability to consistently catch the ball are going to be hard to put on the field in passing situations and will limit offenses, whereas players who show an ability to create separation against man coverage as route runners down the field have understandably become increasingly valuable. Pass protection is also important, and while very few running backs are exposed to NFL-style protection schemes and posses developed blocking technique, those who show consistent awareness of their responsibilities and are willing to make a block are at least more encouraging in this regard.
Finally, it is worth noting that players who are able to be effective in a range of rushing schemes are going to receive more widespread interest, as those who require the offense to be somewhat built around them; such as those who struggle rushing out of the shotgun; are going to have to be exceptional to convince teams to build around them in this way.
How The 2021 Class Stacks Up
Well, here’s the board:
|Name||College||Height||Weight||Athletic Traits||Vision||Rushing Traits||Receiving Ability||Pass Protection||Questions||Grade||Ranking|
|Travis Etienne||Clemson||5'10||210||Pretty good quickness and deep speed, excellent contact balance and good agility||Navigates well in the open field, and works through outside zone reads, but running downhill can be overly hastly and unsure how he can manipulate gaps||Doesn't gain many yards through contact but has good ability to make defenders miss and does a great job of weaving through traffic and breaking arm tackles||Good hands and flashes some nice receiver traits but didn't run the fullest route tree||Willing blocker and does a pretty good job of recognising assignment but blocking technique itself is pretty poor.||Can he be an elite inside runner or will he make his money in space?||Late 2nd Round||1|
|Javonte Williams||North Carolina||5'10||220||Good contact balance with decent-to-good burst and pretty good deep speed and agility||Shows good vision and is consistently able not just to spot the open running lane but where the open lane will be though wasn't consistently asked to manipulate blockers for leverage||Breaks the occasional tackle but consistently adds yards through contact through while he flashes occasional make'm miss ability this isn't a regular part of his game||Shows good hands and at least some potential as a route runner but his route tree was fairly limited and he is unlikely to ever be an elite route runner||Shows an understanding of where he needs to be but technique is fairly basic and will need work||How effective can he be in the pass game as he is little more than a check-down option at this point?||Mid 3rd Round||2|
|Najee Harris||Alabama||6'1||230||Decent-to-good quickness and deep speed and good contact balance but agility is pretty unremarkable||Appears to read the game pretty well both on power and zone runs, and does a nice job of navigating blockers to avoid direct contact, but ability to manipulate blocks is unclear||Drags the pile well and breaks arm tackles with some consistency but isn't going to run people over though there are some flashes of make'm miss ability||Pretty good hands but didn't run much of a route tree to speak of||Pass protection is pretty limited and some concerns about his ability to identify responsibilities||Does he do enough as a runner to make up for the fact that he is largely replacement-level in the passing game by NFL standards?||High 4th Round||3|
|Pooka Williams||Kansas||5'10||170||Good quickness, agiility, contact balance and deep speed, though power is a concern||Shows pretty good vision and while slightly hesitant at times, shows the ability to spot gaps and flashes the ability to manipulate gaps as well||Doesn't break many tacklers who line him up or add yards through contact though has really quite good make'm miss ability||Good hands and flashes some nice receiver traits but didn't run the fullest route tree||Wasn't really asked to pass protect and there should be some scepticism about his ability to ever excel in this regard||Can he turn route running flashes into a high level receiving threat?||Mid 4th Round||4|
|Michael Carter||North Carolina||5'8||199||Decent-to-good burst and contact balance with pretty good deep speed though agility is somewhat concerning||Shows an ability to set-up blocks with nice changes of pace and reads rushing lanes pretty well though can struggle to match what he sees with what he is capable of||Breaks a few tackles and consistently adds yardage through contact while also flashes some make'm miss ability here and there||Shows pretty good hands though there are some drops away from his frame but didn't run a very full route tree and is unlikely to every be a top tier route runner||Shows and understanding of where he needs to be and is very good for a college RB from a technique standpoint||Does he have the agility to excel in a rushing scheme that asks him to work laterally on a consistent basis?||Mid 4th Round||5|
|Gerrid Doaks||Cincinnati||6'0||230||Pretty good burst with decent deep speed and decent-to-good contact balance but agility isn't amazing||Wasn't asked to navigate rushing lanes a huge amount in a read-option heavy offense but showed at least some awareness of where the space was though this will likely be probed a lot more at the next level||Breaks a few tackles here and there and consistently adds yardage through contact but doesn't show a huge amount of make'm miss ability||Shows really good hands and while he didn't run a hugely complex route tree he showed he could be an effective receiver down the field despite lack of top tier explosion||Shows willing as a blocker as well as a decent understanding of where to be but technique still requires work||Does he have the vision to be an effective rusher outside of a one-gap scheme?||Late 4th Round||6|
|Khalil Herbert||Virginia Tech||5'9||212||Pretty good quickness and deep speed with good contact balance but agility is merely decent||Reads running lanes really well and does an excellent job of manipulating leverage as play opens up, but not clear how effectively he can manipulate blocks||Breaks a reasonable number of tackles and consistently adds some yardage through contact but doesn't make men miss very often||Route tree is very limited and wasn't thrown the ball with consistency, but seems to be able to catch the ball based on limited reps||Willing blockers and knows where to be but technique needs significant work, especially his hand usage||Can he make a significant contribution to a passing game or was his lack of usage in college due to limited capability?||Late 4th Round||7|
|Chuba Hubbard||Oklahoma State||6'0||208||Really good contact balance with deep speed is pretty good and decent-to-good burst and agility||Shows good vision with a nice amount of patience and has the ability to manipulate gaps at times with the ability to take good angles in the open field||Doesn't break a ton of tackles buts adds some yards through contact and has the ability to make a man miss in space at times||Didn't run much of a route tree and does have some drops but can catch enough to be a check down option at least||Seems reasonably willing as a blocker but lacks both technique and familiarity in an NFL blocking scheme||Can he become a plus player as a receiver by eliminating some cencentration drops and adding to his route running?||Late 4th Round||8|
|Jaquan Hardy||Tiffin||5'10||225||Excellent contact balance, with decent burst and deep speed with good agility||Shows some ability to manipulate leverage and shows generally pretty good vision though he ends up running down an alley a fair amount due to blocking scheme||Breaks a ton of tackles and consistently adds yards through contact with a pretty good ability to make a man miss though level of competition could be a factor||Can catch the ball at least somewhat but really wasn't tested much as a receiver and route tree was very limited||Seems to know where he needs to be but technique needs further development||How much of his brusing running style was made possible by his level of compettion?||High 5th Round||9|
|Kenneth Gainwell||Memphis||5'11||195||Pretty good burst, contact balance and agility with decent-to-good deep speed||Vision isn't a notable issue but wasn't asked to read and react a lot behind the line of scrimmage and did seem a little overly-willing to bounce runs looking for the big play at times||Doesn't break a ton of tackles or add much yardage through contact but doess have some ability to make a man miss in space||Generally pretty good hands and a high level route runner for a running back, though much of this has come from the slot||Wasn't asked to pass protect, will need to learn from scratch if he is to be used in this way||Can he do enough as a ball carrier to make him a legitimate running back or is he doing to get caught somewhere between RB and WR?||High 5th Round||10|
|Trey Sermon||Ohio State||6'0||221||Pretty good burst and deep speed with decent agility but contact balance is nothing special||Does a good job of spotting space and doesn't make many obviusly bad reads, but doesn't do a great job of manipulating blocks and does miss some opportunities||Doesn't break a ton of tackles or gain many yards through contact but weaves through defenders quite well but lacks much make's miss ability||Pretty good hands and flashes odd bits of route running but will need significant development in this regard||Showed an awareness of where he needs to be in pass protection but is still in need of technical development||Can he continue to develop as a route runner to offer a Kamara type #2 option?||Mid 5th Round||11|
|Larry Rountree||Missouri||5'9||210||Pretty good quickness with decent-to-good deep speed and agility and decent contact balance.||Tends to hit the line pretty fast and then bounce off of that, but ability to read lanes is promising and shows some ability to manipulate blocks.||Doesn't break a ton of tackles or add a lot of yards through contact but does have some make'm miss ability.||Good hands but didn't run much of a route tree though there are flashes of route running.||Really wasn't asked to play in pass protection much.||Can he be a pimary ball carrier or is he a change of pace back who can do a bit here and there?||Mid 5th Round||12|
|Caleb Huntley||Ball State||5'10||229||Good quickness and contact balance with pretty good agility and decent-to-good deep speed||Can be a bit hesitant behind the line but picks his gaps well and does well to spot an open edge, wasn't really asked to manipulate leverage||Breaks a lot of tackle and consistently adds yards through contact even though not a clear power carrier, with some make'm miss ability||Can catch the ball at least somewhat but really wasn't tested much as a receiver and route tree was very limited||Knows where he needs to be in pass protection and core technique is at least decent but needs refinement||Can he contribute to the passing game in a meaningful way beyond just check-downs?||Mid 5th Round||13|
|Kylin Hill||Mississippi State||5'10||215||Pretty good quickness and agility with decent deep speed and contract balance||Ability to judge rushing lanes is really quite concerning and often runs into traffic rather than space with ability to manipulate blocks hard to discern||Does have the ability to make a man miss here and there and does break some tackles but isn't going to run people over||Pretty good hands and move quite well but route tree is fairly limited||Blocking could do with further improvement in terms of arm extension but is at least competent||Is he a running back or is he going to end up a bad compromise of traits?||Mid 5th Round||14|
|Javian Hawkins||Louisville||5'9||182||Good quickness and agility with pretty good contact balace and deep speed||Seems able to navigate blocks well and shows the patience to wait for blocks to develop but doesn't show upper level abilities in terms of manipulating blocks||Doesn't really break many full tackles or add yards through contact but has a prety good ability to make a man miss||Shows pretty good hands but did't run too full a route tree and will need to work on this going forwards||Wasn't really asked to pass protect at all and it seems unlikely this will be a strength of his game||Can he be a more significant receiving threat at he is unlikely going to be a primary rushing option?||Late 5th Round||15|
|Trey Ragas||Louisiana||5'11||227||Decent-to-good quickness and agility with pretty good deep speed and contact balance||Does sometimes probe for the big run at the expense of what is there on offer but does flash some ability to manipulate blockers to generate leverage||Does break the odd tackle but doesn't have a ton of make'm miss ability and while he gains some yardage through contact this isn't a stand-out trait||Has pretty good hands but wasn't asked to run the fullest route tree and will need to continue to develop in this regard||Seems to know where he needs to be but tecnique is likely to need further work||Does he do enough with ball in hand to make up for the occasional missed play in terms of vision?||Late 5th Round||16|
|Rakeem Boyd||Texas A&M||6'0||206||Pretty good quickness and agility with decent deep speed but contact balance is nothing special||Largely asked to hit a hole and put his head down, but seems to naviage through traffic well. Doesn't show much ability to manipulate blockers||Doesn't break many tackles or add much yardage through contact but does have pretty nice make'm miss ability||Pretty good hands but didn't exactly run much of a route tree||Technique is pretty awful but seems to at least know where to be, effort is also a slight concern||Can he do enough in the passing game to get a rotational role?||Late 5th Round||17|
|Jermar Jefferson||Oregon State||5'10||217||Burst is decent burst nothing special with decent deep speed and pretty good contact balance but agility isn't amazing||Shows a pretty good reading of rushing lanes and rarely ends up running into alleys though wasn't really asked to manipulate blocks and leverage||Doesn't posses much make'm miss ability but breaks a fair number of tackles and does a pretty consistently good job of adding yards through contact when up to speed||Shows reasonable hands but wasn't really asked to run many routes and doesn't show much potential in this regard||Wasn't really asked to pass protect and will need to develop in this regard||Can he be effective in a scheme where he isn't the offensive focus as he isn't good enough to be a real feature back in the NFL?||Early 6th Round||18|
|Rhamondre Stevenson||Oklahoma||6'0||246||Decent quickness and deep speed with pretty good contact balance but agility is fairly unremarkable||Does a good job of reading rushing lanes at speed and navigates blocks in the open field well, but isn't the best at working behind the line and changes of speed aren't his forte||Flashes some nice ability to make a man miss and breaks some tackles here and there while consistently adding some yardage through contact||Moves reasonably fluidly in space but lacks the agility to excel and ran a relatively limited route tree but catches the ball pertty well||Seems to know where he needs to be but technique is still fairly raw and will need to improve in this regard?||Does he do enough as a runner to make up for usage limitations and lack of massive upside in the passing game?||Early 6th Round||19|
|Brian Robinson||Alabama||6'0||226||Pretty good quickness and contact balance with decent deep speed and agility.||Does a good job of navigating through blocks and reacts well to changes in leverage with some ability to manipulate blocks to create rushing lanes.||Does a good job of dragging the pile and does break the occasional tackle but doesn't have much make'm miss ability.||Decent hands but didn't run much of a route tree and didn't show much that indicates that he can be a high level route runner.||Pass protection is pretty poor technically, though willing.||Can he do enough on the ground to make up for the fact that he's only going to be mediocre in the passing game.||Early 6th Round||20|
|Jake Funk||Maryland||5'10||205||Quickness is pretty good as is deep speed with good agility but contact balance isn't great||Doesn't make many blunders in terms of missed opportunities but doesn't create much more than what is blocked for him and doesn't show an ability to manipulate leverage||Doesn't break many tackles or add any consistent yardage after contact and while he does have some ability to make a man miss this doesn't stand out||Good hands and flashes some really nice ability as a route runner but route tree is reasonably limited||Seems to know where he needs to be but technique is fairly raw and isn't hugely suited to this role||Does he do enough to stay as a running back or is he likely to get pushed out to receiver at the NFL level?||Mid 6th Round||21|
|Elijah Mitchell||Louisiana||5'11||221||Decent quickness and deep speed, really good contact balance but agility is nothing special.||Was largely asked to hit a hole rather than working through blocks and while vision doesn't seem problematic, it doesn't stand out either.||Breaks some tackles and does a pretty good job of adding yards through contact, but doesn't have much make'm miss ability.||Good hands but really didn't run much of a route tree.||Really wasn't asked to play in pass protection much.||Can he develop as a route runner in order to be more than a check-down option in the passing game?||Mid 6th Round||22|
|Asim Rose||Kentucky||6'1||210||Decent-to-good burst and deep speed with reasonable contact balance but agility is smooth rather than abrupt||Doesn't make any blunders in terms of getting himself in a blind alley and shows some abiltiy to set up leverage but was largely asked to hit a hole||Doesn't break many if any tackles and isn't great at adding yards through contact or making a man miss in the hole so largely gets what is blocked for him||Was asked to get out in space a fair amount but didn't run a very full route tree though has at least some ability to catch the ball||Wasn't asked to pass protect a lot and when he did it was clear he has a lot to work on||Can he find a rotational role in a team that looks for downhill runners with some pass catching upside||Late 6th Round||23|
|Shane Simpson||Virginia||5'11||200||Pretty good quickness but change of direction and deep speed don't seem great while contact balance is decent but nothing more||Seems to be able to spot the open lane when it appears but rarely asked to work latteraly and doesn't show ability to manipulate block leverage||Doesn't really have much make'm miss ability and while he adds yards through contact from time to time he largely gets what is blocked fro him||Good hands with ability to make catches away from his frame but route tree is really pretty limited||Wasn't asked to pass protect much and when he was looked somewhat lost with limited technique||Can he be a useful depth piece due to his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield||Early 7th Round||24|
|Jaret Patterson||Buffalo||5'9||195||Pretty good quickness and agility with decent deep speed and flashes of some nice contact balance though this seems to be much more effective at low speeds||Seems overly keen to charge downhill rather than letting outside plays develop at times, but rarely runs down blind alleys though doesn't show much ability to manipulate leverage||Flashes some really quite nice make'm miss ability and does break the occasional tackle but doesn’t consistent add much yardage through contact||Does show some nice flashes as a route runner underneath but ran a limited route tree and hands don't seem to be amazing though not awful either||Does a pretty good job from a technical point of view and seems to know where he needs to be but can just get run over at times||Does he have enough upside to any part of his game to be more than a depth piece at the NFL level?||Early 7th Round||25|
|Deon Jackson||Duke||6'0||220||Decent burst and deep speed with pretty good contact balance but agility is nothing special||Shows a generally good ability to spot rushing lanes emerging though might be a little overly willing to cut back inside and wasn't asked to manipulate leverage much||Breaks a reasonable number of tackles and consistently adds yardage when up to speed with some ability to make a man miss in the hole||Shows reasonable hands but wasn't really asked to run many routes and doesn't show much potential in this regard||Shows a good awareness of where he needs to be in pass protection but technique needs further development||Can he find a role as a rotational downhill runner as he will likely struggle if asked to work laterally on a consistent basis?||Mid 7th Round||26|
|Spencer Brown||UAB||6'0||220||Burst and agility are decent but deep speed isn't great and contact balance is nothing notable||Shows really nice vision with the ability to spot rushing lanes before they emergage and does a good job of setting up blockers even in full motion||Doesn't break a ton of tackles or add many yards through contact and while he flashes occasional make'm miss ability it is very occasional||Shows pretty good hands but ran a fairly limited route tree and ulimately lacks the explosion to excel as a route runner||Wasn't asked to pass protect much and so will need to master NFL protections and technique as a blocker is quite poor||Does he have the athleticism to be effective at the NFL level as he is currently surviving through vision alone really?||Late 7th Round||27|
|CJ Marable||Coastal Carolina||5'10||200||Decent-to-good burst and deep speed with pretty good contact balance but change of direction is a little limited||Does show an ability to recognise leverage and bounce runs over when gaps change but doesn't consistly manipulate leverage and does leave some plays out there||Does have some ability to make a man miss and does break the odd arm tackle but doesn't add much yardage through contact or consistently break tackles||Catches the ball pretty well but wasn't asked to run a varied route tree and limts of his hands hard to judge due to low target numbers||Seems to know where he needs to be but technique is really quite poor at this stage||Does he offer more than a reasonably quick downhill runner?||Late 7th Round||28|
|Greg McCrae||UCF||5'10||175||Burst is decent but nothing more and deep speed is mediocre but he changes direction reasonably well at low speeds and contact balance is decent||Can be hesistant behind the line but tends to take what is there for him and does show some ability to wait for blocks to develop and to aid with leverage||Has some ability to make a man miss but isn't going to be mistaken for Shady McCoy, limited power in terms of breaking tackles or adding yards through contact||Shows pretty good hands and flashes some ability as a route runner at the head of routes but route tree is pretty limited||Knows where to be in protection and is willing to make a block but technique is really quite raw||Does he do anything well enough to give him value over a replacement player?||Undrafted||29|
|Mekhi Sargent||Iowa||5'9||209||Burst, contact balance and deep speed but decent but neither stand out while change of direction appears reasonably limited||Does seem to dive in behind blockers a touch too often and wasn't really asked to work laterally or to exploit leverage, leaves some big runs on the field||Doesn't really add much value either in terms of broken tackles or missed tackles and while he adds some yards through contact this isn't a stand-out||Pretty good hands and can make catches away from his frame and does flash little bits as a route runner but tree was pretty limited||Is willing to get in the way and seems to know where to be but technique is pretty raw||Is his vision going to be a non-starter as he definitely leaves too many big plays on the field?||Undrafted||30|
The standout running back in the 2021 class is Travis Etienne, and while there should be some questions about whether his vision is the the very upper tiers – as he does sometimes rush into gaps inside when a little more patience could have allowed him to spot an open lane – there’s really not much else to critique about Etienne’s game. He consistently adds yardage to what is blocked for him, has the flexibility to be effective in a range of schemes and flashes significant potential as a receiver.
While Najee Harris has clearly had an excellent college career, Javonte Williams is possibly the slight better prospect, as he is slightly more explosive and offers a higher ceiling in the passing game in terms of his route running. With that said, Harris is also a good prospect and both should be in a position to get significant playing time right from the start.
Aside from these three, there are a number of players who should be significant rotation pieces wherever they end up. Pooka Williams’ size is going to be something for NFL teams to debate in terms of his limitation in the NFL but he is super explosive and breaks many more tackles than his size would suggest, and is arguably the best receiving back in the class outside of Etienne. Michael Carter is also somebody who should get some day 2 consideration as while his lateral agility can’t always keep up with his vision he is a really well-polished back who has a chance to start somewhere.
This is a really good class for somebody looking to find a rotation piece on the final day of the draft as the likes of Gerrid Doaks, Khalil Herbert and Chubba Hubbard all have a chance to contribute as part of a rotation though all three have enough limitations that they are unlikely to be “the guy” wherever they end up.
For the Panthers, the two most interesting options late in the draft appear to be Ball State’s Caleb Huntley and Tiffin’s Jaquan Hardy. Huntley would certainly fit the mould of what the Panthers might be looking for as he is an effective runner who breaks a significant number of tackles while showing more explosiveness than his size would indicate. He needs to prove he can be an effective part of a passing game having largely not been asked to be that in college but does show flashes as a blocker though this will likely be a continued work in progress.
Hardy is more of a pure gamble, in part because it is hard to project how effective his hyper-physical style will be when faced with NFL calibre athletes. He was quite reliant on this physicality and contact balance in college, and certainly would be a stylistic fit with what the Panthers might want, but his blocking and receiving games are both quite raw and whether he will be able to transition to the higher level of competition is likely going to remain the major concern.
If the Panthers do resign Davis (and McCaffrey isn’t included in any blockbuster trades) then it will be hard to see running back getting much of a look-in on draft night, but if he does walk, there are certainly a range of options who are likely to still be available quite deep in the draft who would fit in well not only with the other running backs on the roster but with what the Panthers are looking to do offensively.
(Top photo via Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer)