Carolina Panthers

Game, set, mismatch: Panthers should pick LSU’s Leonard Fournette at No. 8

LSU running back Leonard Fournette (7) enjoys running over defensive backs, and actually practiced doing so while with the Tigers. Joseph Person says he should be Panthers’ pick at No. 8.
LSU running back Leonard Fournette (7) enjoys running over defensive backs, and actually practiced doing so while with the Tigers. Joseph Person says he should be Panthers’ pick at No. 8. AP

After watching Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman get to the edge, exploit mismatches and blaze their way to a berth in Super Bowl LI, I wondered whether the Carolina Panthers needed an infusion of speed in the backfield.

Heading into the NFL scouting combine, I was leaning toward Florida State’s Dalvin Cook as my choice for the Panthers at No. 8 in next month’s draft.

Then LSU’s Leonard Fournette showed up in Indy and – if anyone needed more convincing – showed again how big, fast and explosive he is.

Now I’m firmly in the Fournette camp.

There are others – including my misguided colleague Jourdan Rodrigue – who will tell you Cook is the better choice for the Panthers because of his speed and versatility.

But that speed argument went out the windows of Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday after the running backs ran the 40.

Cook was clocked in 4.49 seconds. Fournette – despite carrying 30 more pounds than Cook at a chiseled 240 – essentially matched him with a 4.51.

Game. Set. Mismatch in the argument with my millennial co-worker.

It was the fastest 40 ever by a back weighing 240 or more at the combine, topping Derrick Henry’s 4.54. And Fournette predicted it the day before while meeting with the media.

“A lot of people think I’m just strong. Some people say I lack speed, lack burst,” he said. “(Friday) will show it all.”

Fournette is not a do-it-all back. He’s not as talented a receiver as Cook, who is a good cutback runner in space.

But what Fournette does best – run north and south and destroy safeties at the second level – happens to be the best fit for Carolina.

No wonder Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman smiled when asked this week for his thoughts on a 240-pound back.

“Big running backs are nice,” he said. “They tend to run people over better than 180-pound running backs.”

The Panthers realized last season they need to do something to better protect quarterback Cam Newton, whose shoulder, head and morale took a beating.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has talked about re-committing to the run game, forcing opponents to honor Newton’s fakes and opening up the play-action game. And by run game, Rivera means power run game.

Enter Fournette, who says he actually worked on breaking tackles during practices at LSU (pity the Tigers’ defensive scout-teamers).

“My motto is ‘Never let one man take you down,’” Fournette said. “That’s my whole purpose.”

That’s a good motto.

It should be noted the Panthers already have a guy on their roster who enjoys running over and through would-be tacklers. But Jonathan Stewart has only one year left on his contract and hasn’t played a full season since 2011.

I think Stewart would welcome some backfield help at this point in his career. Stewart thrived while sharing carries with DeAngelo Williams after the Panthers drafted Stewart in the first round in 2008.

The two were called “Smash & Dash” that season. A Fournette-Stewart pairing would be more like “Smash & Smash.” Smashburger could get involved.

That’s assuming Fournette is even available when the Panthers pick.

The Jaguars, who pick fourth, and the Jets (No. 6) both have running back needs.

Even if all things were equal in the Panthers’ on-field evaluation of Cook and Fournette, Cook’s checkered past would give general manager Dave Gettleman pause.

Cook was cited in 2014 after allegedly leaving three pit bull puppies chained by the neck outside, according to Sports Illustrated. A year later a woman accused Cook of punching her outside a bar in Tallahassee.

And while Cook has no convictions on his record, his legal troubles date to high school and sure look like a pattern of questionable behavior and decision-making.

Meanwhile, Fournette has no history of off-the-field issues despite growing up in New Orleans – no small feat.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Fournette is “completely clean off the field.”

Lance Zierlein, another draft expert with NFL.com, described Fournette as being “built like a linebacker with speed like a receiver,” and compared him to Bo Jackson.

Fournette might not be as fast as Bo was, but he has that wrecking-ball running style and is plenty fast. I still think the Panthers need to give Newton another fast playmaker, but they can do that with a slot receiver in a later round.

If Fournette is sitting there at No. 8 on April 27, the Panthers better pounce.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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