Come with me, Panthers fans, to a new year.
It’s a year in which quarterback Cam Newton throws more and gets hit less. A year where the offense moves down the field with cohesion and creativity.
Picture it: Newton steps back to go through his progressions. He looks left – there is Kelvin Benjamin, streaking downfield, but wrapped around him is a cornerback. Newton looks right – there is Devin Funchess, in the same predicament.
The pocket begins to collapse; fans in the packed stadium exhale, ready for frustration.
But wait! Not to worry. There, juking defenders out of their shoes is rookie running back and No. 8 overall NFL draft pick Dalvin Cook.
Lordamercy, he can run. Bless his heart, he has great hands.
As it becomes ever more likely that the Panthers use their No. 8 pick on a running back, the debate rages: Does the team go with LSU power back Leonard Fournette, or with FSU’s shifty, multi-faceted Cook?
Fournette is a force to be reckoned with at 240 pounds and 4.51-second 40 speed. Stopping him on the field would be like trying to corral a speeding semi. He is the type of pass blocker the Panthers want too – although pass blocking is a skill that can be taught, not just pure athleticism.
But first and foremost, I don’t think Fournette is around at No. 8. Any Joe-schmoe (or Joseph Person) could guess that.
Furthermore, I think it’s time for the Panthers to put a true weapon in all phases on the field.
While Fournette is great in a ground-and-pound game, we have not really seen whether he is a receiving threat – we see him run in a straight line, through people.
He would be too slow to use in the slot, another wrinkle the Panthers desperately need to utilize. We also don’t know how effective he could be running the ball out of a shotgun formation – analyst Graham Barfield watched all of Fournette’s tape and concluded that 86 percent of his runs at LSU in 2016 were handoffs from a quarterback under center.
Is that really a big deal? Maybe not, but it’s notable that if a running back is taking a handoff in shotgun formation, which is how the Panthers line up, he needs a tremendous initial burst since he will have less time to find a hole and more distance to travel to get to it. Fournette’s vertical jump at the scouting combine, a test of initial burst from the lower body, was just 28 1/2 inches – worse than a lot of offensive linemen.
Cook is a gamer in every sense of the word. Not only did he rush for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2016 at Florida State, he also caught 33 passes for 488 yards – an average of 14.3 yards per catch – and a touchdown.
“I think what separates me is I can do it all,” he said this week. “I can stay on the field all three downs and I’m just a do-it-all back.”
The bottom line is that Cook offers options. He offers creativity – something that was lacking in the Panthers’ scheme last season. Rivera said at the combine that he likes the complement of current veteran back Jonathan Stewart (the traditional power back) and quick-cutting Fozzy Whittaker as a receiving threat.
But with Stewart, 29, on the last year of his deal and Whittaker’s window shrinking (he’s 28), why not draft the back that can be both of those options – with fresh legs, to boot.
Yet with Cook, there is a catch – and with the Panthers, it could be a big one.
His off-the-field behavior is problematic. Reports show Cook was arrested in high school on robbery charges that were later dropped. He was also arrested on charges of firing a weapon and possession of a weapon on school property, but the charges were either dropped or abandoned, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
At Florida State, he was charged with criminal mischief for an incident with a BB gun on campus, but was given pretrial intervention according to reports, and in 2014 he was cited for violation of animal care according to ESPN.
Cook said he will be as honest as possible when he is grilled about these red flags in team interviews.
“I’m open and willing to answer every question. I ain’t hiding nothing,” he said. “If they ask I’m willing to answer. I’m willing to move forward to be a better person.”
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman will not draft a player he believes has character issues, but said this week their vetting process will be in-depth. Last year, Carolina drafted corner Daryl Worley despite his arrest on charges of misdemeanor assault (the charges were dropped).
If Cook shows he has good character in his interviews, his draft stock has no ceiling. And the Panthers, looking for a versatile impact player who could be their next offensive star, will be paying attention.