In Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers have arguably the best running back in football, and a player who is not only able to run the ball but also be a central part of their passing attack as well. They are also fortunate to have two players in Reggie Bonnafon and Rodney Smith who are stylistically similar to McCaffrey and who can spell him him effectively. However, with Mike Davis hitting free agency, what the Panthers could potentially find themselves needing is a player who is able to compliment those running backs with a more power-based downhill rushing style.
The other thing worth considering at this point is that Alex Armah is another pending free agent, and while he hasn’t been exactly poor since his arrival in Carolina he has not shown himself to be a player who can make a significant contribution to an offense. Given this, and the potential need for a more downhill rusher, the Panthers could look to find a player who is able to fill both roles, similar to how Mike Tolbert was used in his five seasons in Carolina. But who would be a good option to fill this dual role, especially if the Panthers don’t want to use a lot of draft capital to fill it?
One option might be Ball State running back Caleb Huntley, who spoke to The Riot Report last weekend to discuss his game, how he’s preparing for the draft and what he can offer an NFL offense. While his full interview can be found as part of our draft podcast series Scouting the Culture, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the tape and see what he can offer the Panthers as a potential day three pick.
While Huntley is unlikely to run in the 4.3s at Ball State’s pro day scheduled for April 7th, he does show good quickness for a player of his size especially, and shows an ability to put his foot in the ground and get vertical quickly, allowing him to take advantage of momentary gaps to get into the second level:
He also has enough top-end speed to turn the chances he gets to get into the open field and turn them into long runs – even if it would be hard to describe him as a consistent home-run hitter in this regard:
While plays like this are ultimately not the main attraction when watching Huntley on tape, they are something that Huntley is keen to point out about his game:
“I don’t want to be labelled as just the guy that can just be that fullback-type dude because I’ve got some juice to me, believe it or not … I’m not just one of those guys that can just run through people, that can run for 4 or 5 yard gains, I can burst some big runs as well.”
These big runs are something of a bonus on top of what he can offer a team on a play-to-play basis, but his quickness is something that shows up on a consistent basis, which allows him to consistently hit the line at speed. It is worth mentioning though that there are a few plays where he occasionally wasn’t able to get past the second level defender and into the open field, though this isn’t a persistent issue with his game:
Ultimately, the Panthers’ need at running back is not for explosive plays but for options who can keep pace with the chains, especially in short yardage and red zone situations – as the Panthers found out last season in McCaffrey’s absence, it is important in these scenarios to still have a back with the quickness to prevent defenses from overly-compacting laterally, and Huntley looks to offer a good compromise between quickness and power in that regard.
Of course, the quickness to hit a gap with speed isn’t much use unless you are able to spot where the gaps are, and the ability to read and react to blocks and defenders is a crucial skill for any ballcarrier. Possibly the simplest example of this is when offenses look to stretch the defense laterally, with the running back tasked to spot where the defense is either over or under-pursuing and hit that vertical crease.
This is something that Huntley certainly showed the ability to do, showing the ability to spot when a defense over-pursues to the front side of a play without effectively closing the play from behind:
Or when the defense fails to align itself properly and leaves a unfilled gap in the middle of the field:
These plays are pretty clear example of large rushing lanes that you would expect an NFL running back to spot, but Huntley also shows some more subtle vision traits that should help to separate him from a lot of college prospects.
On this first play, he spots the cutback lane similar to on the earlier play, but as he decelerates slightly to cut back he spots the defensive tackle rolling back to the outside gap is able to spot the leverage this then creates on the front side of the play, creating a good gain from it:
Most impressively, Huntley also shows an ability to change his speed and angles in order to generate leverage through manipulation of defenders, such as on this next play where he is able to read the middle linebacker and with a slight hesitation is able to get him to roll to the back side to take away the cut-off, allowing him to follow the flow of the blocks for a solid gain:
Or here, where his little stutter-step gets the near-side linebacker to bite inside, allowing Huntley to continue with the sweep for a touchdown:
Like all players, there are a couple of plays where he gets it wrong, such as here where there was probably a chance for him to bounce the run to the outside for a big gain:
And while he generally did a good job of in this regard, there was at least one time on tape where he let the run string out a little too long looking for an outside gap and would have done better to just put his foot in the ground and get as much as he could get:
He also shows pretty good vision in the open field, spotting where the leverage is on blocks and where the open space is, allowing him to turn what could have been a ten yard gain into a thirty-five yard gain:
Finally in this regard, he does a really good job of moving laterally between while gaps while maintaining momentum, allowing him to work between gaps while still having the speed to explode into the second level or to drag defenders for extra yards:
This also makes him very adept at dealing with traffic around his feet, with the ability to carry momentum through a gap when the offensive line allowed interior penetration being a persistent feature of his game on tape:
Huntley might not be in the very upper tier of running back prospects from recent years in terms of vision alongside the likes of Nick Chubb and Damien Harris, but he shows both a consistently good ability to read rushing lanes as they develop in front of him, while also flashing upper tier traits such as the ability to manipulate defenders with footwork in order to generate that leverage.
This might not always look super flashy on tape, but it is an extremely valuable tool that allows him to consistently make the most of the opportunities his blockers present him with.
Of course, for players to really separate themselves at the NFL level, they need to be able to get more yardage than simply what is blocked for them, and while how players go about doing this varies massively; Shady McCoy and Marshawn Lynch being two very different examples of this; players who are able to either add yards through contact or make defenders miss entirely are always going to be valued in the NFL.
Unsurprisingly for a running back who weights a shade under 230 pounds, Huntley’s ability to do this resides mostly in his ability to consistently break tackles and add yards through contact – but how he does this is really interesting and a bit unusual.
To start with, Huntley is consistently able to either drag tackles or contort himself forwards for an extra yard or two on a remarkably consistent basis, and very rarely does he go down where a defender initially makes contact:
In this way, he is consistently able to turn three yard gains into five or six yard gains, and with the margin between a rushing play keeping pace with chains and falling behind often being very small, consistently adding one or two yards to every run makes a big difference. What can already be seen from these clips is that Huntley has very impressive contact balance, and it is the way in which he makes use of this that really makes him stand out.
For a start, he is consistently able to break a slot of arm tackles, as players who aren’t able to wrap him up struggle to force him off-balance, and by changing direction slightly before contact he is able to force defenders off their feet in the tackle and so increase the likelihood that they will be forced into trying to trip him up rather than wrapping:
This balance also makes him very hard to bring down unless defenders are able to hit him exactly square-on, as evidenced by the way he shrugs off what is a pretty solid technical attempt at tackling him by the defensive tackle on the following play:
This is where we get to the slightly unusual way in which Huntley uses this power, as on tape it is not unusual to see him launch himself at tacklers either off his feet completely or bouncing off one leg:
By going off his feet in this way, he makes it almost impossible for a defender to wrap him around the legs, and while he then tends to ricochet off the tackle at an unusual angle, he is often able to then recover his balance and either continue running or fight for extra yards where he would otherwise have been brought down by the original tackler.
Talking about this part of his game, Huntley made it clear that this balance and ability to recover against tacklers is something that has always been part of his game, but is something that he has continued to work on in order to build-upon even further:
“This past offseason in particular I made sure I did a little extra work on that piece of my game. You know how you have the balance balls … I would do some exercises where I would catch a football and try and catch as many as I can without falling off the balance ball. I feel like that helped me a lot with my balance”
In this way, he is able to consistently break tackles without having to be the guy who lines up linebackers in the A gap and runs them over, and while he certainly isn’t lacking in conventional power, those expecting him to consistently flatten linebackers are going to be disappointed:
Additionally, while he does have the upper-level explosive agility to make a significant number of potential tacklers miss entirely, what he is able to do is to use his footwork to change the leverage of tackles to make it easier to then drag the tackler for extra yardage, such as he does here with this mini-juke:
And here with this slow-motion spin move:
Yes, he’s not going to get confused for McCoy anytime soon, but all these different facets lead to a player who, without necessarily doing anything that jumps off the tape at you, is consistently able to end up gaining significantly more yardage than the situations suggest he should:
As a ball carrier, Huntley is unlikely to lead to the league in rushing in his career, but he is able to consistently maximize his blocking with his vision and then add yardage to what has been blocked for him using his very good contact balance and his ability to combine good leg power with subtle changes in angle and speed to add yards through contact. This should not only make him an effective ball carrier at the NFL level but would also be a good stylistic compliment to the more home run-hitting McCaffrey.
But what about the part of the game where he isn’t rushing the ball?
Well, Huntley really wasn’t used much as a receiver at Ball State – he has more career rushing touchdowns than receptions – but when he was thrown the ball he caught the ball effectively, and while he isn’t likely to make his money as a receiver at the NFL level, he showed at the College Gridiron Showcase earlier this offseason that he can at least offer an outlet in the passing game:
Convincing teams that he can be a reliable and valuable part of the passing game as a receiver is going to be arguably the most important part of the pre-draft process for Huntley, as this is comfortably the biggest question mark about his game from tape (which is what teams will be very reliant on this year due to the COVID situation), and this is clearly something that Huntley is aware of:
“When I’m at the facility every day, I’m catching jugs, catching passes from quarterbacks, stuff like that. Just improving that ability that I already have, just to make sure that they know that when we throw him the ball he’s going to come down with the catch.”
The other aspect to the passing game that is often something of a challenge for rookie running backs entering the NFL is pass protection, and while Huntley wasn’t used a huge amount in this regard either (on the passing plays where he was on the field he was often used as part of a run fake), this is an area where he does show some ability, and will be a skill that he has to be able to demonstrate to a high level given his likely usage in the NFL.
On the whole, he shows a good awareness of where his responsibility is:
Though here he could have done with setting a slightly wider base both to lower his pad level and increase his effective power; that would also to improve his ability to recover laterally to momentary losses in leverage. He also shows an understanding of at least some basic rush concepts, such as here, where he shows good anticipation of the interior defender wrapping around outside the tackle:
While he will need to continue to work on the mental aspect of pass protection – as all college running backs do entering the NFL – he is certainly ahead of most college running backs in this regard.
From a technical perspective, he generally does a pretty good job and shows quite nice hand placement and arm extension on the whole, though he needs to make sure that he doesn’t let his hands drops as he sometimes does on tape, as this will make him slower to react and exposes his frame to defenders making it easier for them to locate their hands:
This is something that he is working on though, and he is certainly focusing on all the right things in this regard:
“Definitely working on that, I felt like I could have had tighter hands at times during the season. Anything that I feel like I need to work on I’m working on right now … We’ve got bags at the facility, and I’m just working on striking them with tight hands, keeping my fingers up when I’m striking it and getting to the top of my bench press”
Blocking technique of this sort will be especially important if he does transition to also playing some fullback, and while it is understandable that he hopes to also play a meaningful part in the offense as a ballcarrier, he made it clear that playing this dual role is both something that teams have talked to him about doing and is also a challenge that he is willing to accept if needed:
“Honestly, I’ve had some teams talk to me about that, but to me it really doesn’t matter what they ask me to do, [if] they need me to do it I’m going to do it.”
For the Panthers, Huntley likely wouldn’t be the foundational piece to their rushing attack – with CMC presumably back healthy, a rookie like Huntley wouldn’t play as big a role as Mike Davis played this year, but he looks to be somebody who could potentially offer an upgrade over Alex Armah at fullback, certainly in terms of versatility, while also being able to assume some of the responsibilities Mike Davis had as a ballcarrier in this offense should he sign elsewhere in free agency.
He might not be the piece that turns an offense around, but finding players who are able to contribute, especially those who can contribute in multiple ways, late in the draft is a key part of building a contending roster – that is something the Panthers will absolutely be looking to do as we approach the 2021 NFL draft.
(Top photo via Ball State University Creative Services)