The Panthers’ situation at running back is an interesting one – with Christian McCaffrey leading the group, the initial impression would be that this isn’t a major need for the team. However, when you look past McCaffrey, the questions are abundant as the other two rushers currently on the roster having a combined zero NFL carries. Last season, the Panthers were able to get around this issue by using McCaffrey at a level that would make James Harden balk, but Rivera has talked recently about how they realize this is unsustainable – with the high workload increasing the risk of McCaffrey getting hurt as well as the impact of any potential injury. So with that in mind, what are the Panthers’ options if they look to find a running back to pair with McCaffrey in the draft?
The Usual Housekeeping
Before getting into the big board, it is worth looking at how I grade running backs. As with every position, some value is placed on pure athletic traits. For running backs, this means quickness, balance, agility and deep speed. Of those, deep speed might be the one that draws the headlines during the combine, but it is actually the other three that impact the majority of NFL plays; the other thing to note in terms of innate skillset is the ability to read running lanes in the moment; this is usually referred to as vision. Vision is harder to judge in some schemes than others, but the ability to work through blocks to find the open running lane is something that often gets undervalued when grading running backs.
Aside from the athletic traits, the biggest determinant for success is the ability to add value beyond what is blocked for the player in question. This can take a couple of forms: either the ability to avoid tacklers or the ability to break through tackles – the best prospects will exhibit the combination of agility and power to allow them to do both. In addition to this, players can add value by continuing to gain yardage even after they are tackled by continuing to drive their feet.
Besides being a ball carrier, players are also expected to contribute in the passing game – while the most valuable form this takes is as a receiver, the ability to pass protect shouldn’t be ignored. As a receiver, players of course need to show the ability to catch the ball; beyond that, the ability to separate against linebackers and safeties is highly valuable with only a few elite prospects being able to offer the ability to be bulk receiving options.
As always, these evaluations don’t take injury history or off-the-field concerns into account.