Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers could get bargain if they draft RB Gurley

Georgia running back Todd Gurley breaks a tackle against Tennessee at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 27, 2014 in Athens, Ga.
Georgia running back Todd Gurley breaks a tackle against Tennessee at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 27, 2014 in Athens, Ga. Getty Images

During a week when the Panthers signed a little-known safety and hosted an even lesser-known cornerback, the most interesting visitor to Bank of America Stadium was a running back from Tarboro who needs no introduction.

The Panthers might have bigger positional needs to address, but Todd Gurley put a little sizzle in Carolina’s offseason.

When Gurley revealed at Georgia’s pro day last Wednesday he was visiting the Panthers the following day, it was met with equal parts fascination and horror by the fan base.

Just as the Panthers climbed out from under the weight of DeAngelo Williams’ contract – and with the well-compensated Jonathan Stewart on the books for at least another two years – some found the idea that general manager Dave Gettleman would invest in another running back as hard to digest as a $9 steak.

Others – at least among those who call into the local sports talk shows – were intrigued by the possibility the Panthers might take a big, fast back who was headed for the Heisman Trophy before the NCAA enforcement staff took him down.

Bringing Gurley in doesn’t mean the Panthers will draft him, but it means they’re considering it.

Stewart, who turned 28 on Saturday, showed last season what he can do when healthy. But he hasn’t exactly had a strong track record in that regard.

Gurley had his own injury problems at Georgia, beginning with an ankle injury that cost him three games in 2013. He tore his ACL last November against Auburn in his return from a four-game NCAA suspension for accepting more than $3,000 for autographed memorabilia.

Gurley didn’t work out at the combine or the Bulldogs’ pro day, but hopes he’ll be ready for minicamp in June. While that timeline might be optimistic, the team that drafts Gurley would be looking at his potential beyond 2015.

At 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds, Gurley has the speed of a young Williams and the tackle-breaking ability of Stewart. He’s Double Trouble all wrapped into one thick-thighed package.

The NFL.com’s combine bio of Gurley compared him to Marshawn Lynch -- minus the Skittles and surly attitude.

Williams had a lot of miles on him when the Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2006, having logged nearly 1,000 carries at Memphis.

Gurley had 510 carries at Georgia and played less than 40 percent of the Bulldogs’ offensive snaps over his three seasons.

Gurley’s 44 career touchdowns rank second at Georgia behind someone named Herschel.

And those special teams the Panthers are looking to improve? Gurley had a pair of 100-yard kickoff returns, including one during his one-man-wrecking-crew showing against Clemson this past August.

There are valid reasons why the Panthers won’t draft Gurley, beginning with this one: He might be gone when they pick 25th. Of the six NFL.com analysts who have done mock drafts, three of them have Gurley still available for the Panthers.

Then there is the Great Offensive Tackle Debate.

The Panthers signed Michael Oher to a two-year deal to be the bridge between their left tackles past (Jordan Gross) and future after Byron Bell’s failed, one-year experiment.

With a deep tackle group this year, that long-term answer might be found in the persons of Ereck Flowers (Miami), Mallard Creek product D.J. Humphries (Florida) or T.J. Clemmings (Pittsburgh).

Gettleman is a proponent of taking the best player available, and uses free agency to fill holes on the depth chart so he can stick with that approach on draft day.

The stars aligned for the Panthers last year, when the top name on their board when they picked 28th just happened to be at their biggest position of need. Kelvin Benjamin was the big wideout Cam Newton never had.

But positional need and “BPA” may not mesh as cleanly this year for Carolina, especially if Gurley is still sitting in the green room when the Panthers are on the clock.

Gettleman inherited the unwieldy contracts former GM Marty Hurney gave to Williams and Stewart. But the rookie wage scale in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement means teams can now sign first-round picks for four years at deep discounts.

After overpaying at the position for several years, getting a game-breaking talent on the cheap sounds like a pretty smart deal.

THREE EXTRA POINTS

▪ The Alan Ball saga reached Day 4 when Saturday came and went without a signed contract by the free agent cornerback. I’m sure neither side was happy when Ball’s contract parameters got out prematurely, and that might have added a kink in the negotiations.

But I think Ball still winds up in Charlotte, where he would give defensive coordinator Sean McDermott the flexibility to use second-year corner Bene’ Benwikere at nickel.

▪ There’s been little or no mention of Bell since the unrestricted free agent announced on social media last month the Panthers weren’t bringing him back. Bell became a punching bag in Charlotte and was not a good fit at left tackle. But he’s a serviceable right tackle who will find work somewhere.

▪ Speaking of bad fits, Greg Hardy could not have landed in a city with more potential for off-the-field distractions and temptations than Dallas. Well, except maybe Miami, where Hardy spent some of his downtime last season while on the commissioner’s exempt list.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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