People tend to get enamored with big guys.
Wilt Chamberlain, William “Refrigerator” Perry, Mark McGwire – there’s something about supersized sports figures that fascinates the public.
And so it goes with Alabama running back Derrick Henry, whose combine measurements (6-3 and 247 pounds) seem to draw more attention than the fact he won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship during his final college season.
Much like Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been described as being built like a defensive end or tight end, Henry is bigger than a lot of the NFL linebackers who will be tasked with tackling him.
Henry’s size and speed – his combine 40 was 4.54 seconds – have led many to suggest he would be a good fit for the Panthers, who blend a power running game with a misdirection attack featuring Newton’s zone reads.
It’s a reasonable suggestion.
Jonathan Stewart turned 29 this offseason and hasn’t played a full season since 2011, and none of his backups have established themselves as an every-down back.
The Panthers thought enough of Henry to meet with him before next week’s draft. But Carolina has bigger needs than running back, specifically finding an edge-rusher to complement Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson.
And while Henry is expected to be available when the Panthers pick 30th, draft experts say Henry likely will be gone by the time Carolina is on the clock again near the end of the second round.
“When I say he’s an early second-round pick, that means a lot to me. I value a second-round running back,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think (Henry) can carry the ball 25 times a game. I think he gets stronger as the game goes on. And I think even though his feet aren’t the same as (Ohio State’s Ezekiel) Elliott, I think he’s got good feet and he’s difficult to tackle.”
Not the top RB available
Elliott is projected as the top running back this year, and most observers think he’ll go in the first round.
Henry is a more curious case, in part because of where he played and how he plays. While Elliott has a lot of quickness getting out of his cuts, Henry is more of a straight-ahead runner. And while his girth makes him difficult to bring down, his height gives defenders more hitting surface to try to do so.
“I think the biggest difference is lateral quickness and burst. Ezekiel Elliott is just about as fast sideways as he is forward,” Mayock said. “When you look at Henry, he’s a tall, high-cut, long-legged back, which is atypical, and those backs struggle in the NFL just because there’s a lot more vertical mass to aim at. Now having said that, I really like the kid.”
Henry is set to become the fifth ex-Alabama running back drafted in the first or second rounds since 2011, a list that includes 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, who was a finalist for the award in 2011.
Too much mileage?
But the mixed success of Alabama backs in the NFL has prompted some to question whether they arrive with too much wear and tear on their bodies after playing for Nick Saban.
Henry broke SEC records with 2,219 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns last season, but his 395 carries led the nation and were the fifth-most in NCAA history.
Meeting with reporters the day before his impressive combine performance in February, Henry dismissed concerns about his condition.
“I’m good,” he said. “I’m healthy. I’m ready to go.”
Room on the roster
General manager Dave Gettleman has taken a running back in each of his first three drafts with the Panthers. But all were fifth- or sixth-round picks, with second-year back Cameron Artis-Payne the only one remaining on the roster.
Artis-Payne averaged 4.1 yards a carry as a rookie and scored two touchdowns in a Week 17 win against Tampa Bay when Stewart was out. But he showed little breakaway ability and turns 26 in June after academics cost him a couple of years following high school.
The Panthers’ other running backs are Fozzy Whittaker, a situational player, and Brandon Wegher, who was an undrafted free agent last year.
Drafting Henry would definitely add star power and an intriguing option to the mix, but draft experts agree he’s not a first-rounder.
“It’s how the game has evolved and you’ve got to take it for what it’s worth,” Henry said. “You’ve got to make the teams want to draft you. So that’s all upon you and how you perform.”