Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers might look out for running back in NFL draft

Todd Gurley speaks to the media at NFL Pro Day at the University of Georgia, March 18, 2015, in Athens, Ga.
Todd Gurley speaks to the media at NFL Pro Day at the University of Georgia, March 18, 2015, in Athens, Ga. AP Photo

The Panthers broke up their Double Trouble backfield tandem when they cut DeAngelo Williams three weeks ago, but that doesn’t mean the running back position is going to be a one-man band.

Speaking at the NFL owners meetings last week, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he envisions a shared-carries approach in 2015, even with Williams now playing in Pittsburgh.

And it doesn’t sound like the No. 2 back is currently on the roster.

Fozzy Whittaker has good speed and the best name on the roster. But he’s more of a change-of-pace back who will be used in spot duty.

“Fozzy’s a different style of football player, as opposed to DeAngelo. He’s more of a scat back-type guy,” Rivera said. “So he fit a different niche for us.”

Whittaker will get his touches and return kicks with Ted Ginn Jr., and Rivera said he has to find a way to keep fullback Mike Tolbert involved in the offense, as well.

But based on Rivera’s comments in Phoenix last week, it sounds like the Panthers will target a running back in the draft to pair with workhorse Jonathan Stewart.

“The thing you’ve got to be careful about in this league is you can’t rely on one player at one position. I think at running back it’s definitely been proven that you’ve got to have a good two-back tandem,” Rivera said. “And that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for that complement to Jonathan.”

Rivera went on to mention having “a guy waiting in the wings for an opportunity” behind Stewart. Then he corrected himself: “Not necessarily waiting in the wings, but being part of what we’re doing in the game.”

That sounds like a back the Panthers will expect to make an immediate impact.

I made the case in this space last week for the Panthers to draft Georgia running back Todd Gurley, the Tarboro native who appeared to be on his way to the Heisman Trophy last fall before sitting out four games for accepting more than $3,000 for autographed memorabilia.

Gurley, who tore his ACL in November during his first game back from suspension, visited the Panthers two weeks ago.

General manager Dave Gettleman came away impressed with Gurley’s personality and demeanor, but said Gurley’s status will be determined in large part by what doctors find when they examine his knee at the “medical re-check” in Indianapolis next month.

Gurley declined to let doctors look at his knee at the combine in February, NFL Network’s Michael Silver reported.

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. believes Gurley’s injury will drop him to late in the first round, which happens to be when the Panthers pick 25th.

The Panthers also reportedly brought Indiana running back Tevin Coleman to Bank of America Stadium recently.

Coleman (5-11, 206) is not as big as Gurley (6-1, 222), but he has the same type of straight-ahead speed. Coleman became the third player in Big Ten history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, despite playing most of it with a broken big toe that has since been surgically repaired.

Kiper views Coleman as a second-rounder, while most experts point to Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon as the only first-round backs.

And while the running back position has been devalued in recent years in a league dominated by the passing game, Rivera and the Panthers appear ready to re-load after dumping Williams.

THREE EXTRA POINTS

▪ The two offensive tackles the Panthers signed are best known for off-the-field fame or infamy – Michael “Blind Side” Oher and Jonathan Martin, the victim in the Dolphins’ bullying scandal two years ago. But none of that will matter once they line up across from the defensive ends in one-on-one drills in Spartanburg. Gettleman signed them because he thinks they can improve the offensive line. We’ll have a good idea if he was right come August.

▪ New Raiders coach and former Panthers defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has a simple idea he believes might reduce concussions: properly fitted helmets.

“Some of the improvements for the helmets, in my opinion, have gone to comfort and not necessarily safety,” Del Rio said. “When they pop off, I’m like, ‘How do you have a helmet that pops off?’ ... I always wanted to make sure my head had a shell around it. I didn’t ever want to be vulnerable and my helmet off in a pile. That could be bad.”

Del Rio said he played four years in high school, four years at USC and 11 years in the NFL, “and not one time did my helmet come off.”

▪ The Panthers’ signing of former Green Bay wideout Jarrett Boykin does not preclude them from signing Greg Jennings, another ex-Packers receiver. Jennings met with the Panthers last week, but had other visits scheduled, including one with Miami.

Gettleman pointed out that Jennings and free agent CB Alan Ball, who visited the Panthers before signing with Chicago, are veteran players who have families to keep in mind when considering their next team.

“They don’t want to become gypsies. Both of those guys are married. They’re grounded, good people,” Gettleman said in Phoenix. “For both of them, the fit is really important. So we kicked the tires on each other, that’s what we did.”

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