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As the NFL asks what is the value of a RB, the Panthers answer by drafting Jonathon Brooks

Jonathon Brooks

CHARLOTTE—What is the value of a running back?

It's a question that has dominated the NFL in recent years, sparking endless debate, comparisons of history versus probability, and sending ripple effects through contract negotiations and draft boards.

For the Panthers, however, it's "non-negotiable."

Since 2014, there have been 12 backs drafted in the first round, and six in the top ten. There was one of the latter as recently as last year, when Texas running back Bijan Robinson was drafted at No. 8 overall by the Falcons. But through the first day of the 2024 NFL draft on Thursday, there wasn't a single running back's name called. One wouldn't come off the board until midway through the second round, on Day 2, when the Panthers selected Texas back Jonathon Brooks, at No. 46 overall.

The league might not see value. But the Panthers saw 1,139 rushing yards, a 6.1-yard-per-carry average, 10 rushing touchdowns, and they saw the future.

Heading into the draft, Panthers head coach Dave Canales was aware of the narrative the league has set around running backs, and the opportunity that created for them.

"I think we do have to just kind of trust, you know, what does the league say," Canales said Friday night after the draft. "Where does everybody see the value of the running back; and we have to play off of that too and just be aware of it."

While cognizant of the changing value around backs, Canales and his staff, along with general manager Dan Morgan, have to weigh it against what's most valuable to this Panthers team, and it's clear that the running game matters here.

"We value the running backs; we value the run game," Morgan said simply.

Texas running back Jonathon Brooks runs during an NCAA college football game against Louisiana-Monroe, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)

Perhaps there's nothing that illustrates the Panthers value of a running back more than the fact the club drafted the first one off the board this year, while already having a room with two guys with established credentials: Chuba Hubbard and Miles Sanders.

Hubbard is coming off of a year with 238 carries and 902 yards, with an additional 39 receptions for 233 yards. Sanders, in his first year in Carolina after four in Philadelphia, had 129 carries for 432 yards, but is just one year removed from a season that eclipsed the thousand-yard mark (1,269 yards on 259 carries).

Brooks knows he can learn from the two, saying Friday, "those are two good running backs for me to go in there and learn off of, you know, they've been in the league for some years."

Still, if his arrival pushes the team's running game to new heights, that's the point.

"We got a really good running back room right now and when Dave and I took this job, we said that we were going to create competition in every position group," Morgan said. "It just so happened, you know, Jonathon was there. We took the opportunity to draft him, and I think it's going to be a really competitive group and I'm excited to see them all compete during training camp and OTAs and it's going to be fun."

And for Canales, an extra running back is necessary for his expanded playbook.

"Every team that I've been on, we use all of our running backs at different points because it's just such a violent position," he said. "We look for those players who can handle that, but also just knowing we have good solid players because we are going to run the ball and it's going to be a non-negotiable for us."

The violent nature of the job, as Canales mentioned, is a large reason the running back position is so tough to place value on. Almost more than any other position, running backs are bounced around like a pinball machine, taking hit after hit. And unlike those in the trenches, who are also ramming into large objects of mass minute after minute, running backs are much smaller body types. Each carry is another loud tick of the clock towards the end of a back's career.

Most backs with illustrious college careers have put up a lot of quality tape, adversely meaning they enter the NFL already like a car driven off the lot and devalued. But Brooks comes to Charlotte having only carried the ball 238 times across three years of college. He spent two years behind Robinson at Texas, but that time in the former No. 8 overall's shadow, could be what gives Brooks more NFL miles on the tires.

"You do all the analytics, and you study all the history of running backs and the amount of carries and all that. And this is a really amazing opportunity for us" Canales said. "Best back in the class to have this type of year, this type of production, you know, and to see his future, to see where he can become, it's really exciting."

Three running backs were taken in the third round, meaning four are off the board total. But Brooks was the only one in the position drafted during the second round. For Canales, knowing what he needs for his playbook, the chance to have Brooks was too good to pass-up.

"Our system calls for a back that can be used, of course, just in a traditional way, hand it to him. Then, how can we get this player in space? Being able to get him in perimeter screens check downs. We got a really cool empty package where we use the backs, flex them out to get matchups, things like that," Canales said.

"He's a bigger back, he's got range. There's so much that he brings from a versatility standpoint, that's probably the biggest thing that stood out and then just vision, patience, contact balance, acceleration, like he's got it all, he's the best back in this class."

Brooks visited Charlotte for his 30 visit, and the coaches' plan to use him stood out, making it—what he called—his best visit amongst all the team. He is coming off of an ACL injury suffered in early November. He is on track to return by training camp, something his doctors stated and the Panthers training staff was able to confirm.

When Brooks steps on the field this fall though, he knows he's carrying the weight of the first running back drafted, and with it, the responsibility to prove a running back is still valuable in today's NFL.

"As a running back class in this class and just in the NFL, in the league, I think a lot of people are going to start showing why we should be held to a higher standard," said Brooks.

"I guess the league and all the fans will see this year."

View photos of Texas running back Jonathon Brooks, drafted by Carolina in the second round of the 2024 draft.