Studying the Panthers prospects: RB Kenjon Barner

US PRESSWIRE

The Panthers picked up a dynamo in the sixth round of last week's draft; what can Barner contribute from day one? Is Barner a future feature back for Carolina?

The sixth round pick of the Panthers, RB Kenjon Barner (5'9" 196 lbs.) was an absolute weapon for the Oregon Ducks during his four years in Eugene. A consensus first team All-American, Barner accrued 3,641 running yards as a Duck, including 1,767 yards on 279 carries (6.3 YPC), and 21 TD's. Demonstrating his versatility, the Moreno Valley, California native returned punts and kicks at Oregon, and also caught 20 receptions for 256 yards and 2 TD's.

Since the shock of drafting a running back has worn off, most fans have warmed up to the idea of having Barner waiting in the proverbial wings while the DeAngelo Williams situation unfolds. Many fans are excited about the electricity Barner brings to Carolina, and how his versatility will translate into the Panthers Offense.

However, Barner was a sixth round pick for a reason; he's not LaMichael James, the 49ers 2011 second round pick, and it would be unfair to juxtapose his career path to James'.

Like many young backs, Barner has a predisposition to bounce runs outside at the first spot of trouble, passing up crowded running lanes for a potentially unobstructed path up the sideline. In college, Barner was able to use his NFL-caliber speed and agility to outrun defenders, however in the NFL, defenders are much smarter and possess commensurate, if not superior athletic abilities. By bouncing runs towards the sidelines, the runner slows his progress, which allows defenders to consolidate on his position, as in this example from Barner's record setting day versus USC.

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Here Barner (located under the red triangle) will take the handoff from the Oregon QB, and head through the B-gap, between the RG and the RT.

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As Barner hits the wide open hole, his vision shifts to the crashing safety. With the open field ahead of him, Barner has only the safety to beat for a huge gain.

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The safety approaching, Barner opts to kick the run outside, rather than taking his chances beating the safety in the open field.

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In kicking outside, Barner has placed himself in the vicinity of three Trojan defenders. And while only one of which has a true angle on him, in the NFL the defenders are more agile and quick, capable of cutting down a runner's angle. Although, it's easy to see why Barner and many esteemed college RB's like to kick runs outside: on this play Barner outruns all three USC defenders and scores a TD.

This next play is a less than successful example of kicking a run outside.

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Against Oregon State, here Barner takes the handoff on an inside zone read play, which should take him outside the C-gap, off the RT's outside shoulder.

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As Barner takes the handoff, the Oregon State defensive linemen get good penetration into the backfield.

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The play is blown, as more Beavers make way for Barner. Here Barner needs to make the best out of a bad play, and hit the hole right in front of him, between the two OL. In that scenario, the worst outcome is Barner being tackled for no gain.

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Instead, Barner decides to kick it outside, and is met by the OSU DL as he sheds his blocker.

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Barner is able to stay upright, but is run out-of-bounds for a loss of two yards.

Kicking runs outside is a poor habit for a running back, however, with proper discipline, and tutelage, many runners are able to overcome this flaw, such as LeSean McCoy and CJ Spiller. Nevertheless, for all those that do surpass this deficiency, there are those like Laurence Maroney who are unable to, and never reach their potential.

Furthermore, Barner has demonstrated good patience and vision during his college career, as in this play during the 2013 Fiesta Bowl versus Kansas State.

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I can't say for sure what play the Ducks are running here, so Barner may, or may not, be running a misdirection play, like a belly run. Anyhow, we'll follow the assumption that Barner is operating under his own volition.

As he receives the handoff, Barner takes note of the penetrating NT, only yards in front of him. Running backs are taught to read the helmets of defenders: if blockers are a partition, ideally a RB would like to run towards the opposite side of the defender's helmet. Although, at the higher levels, DL Coaches teach their players to flash their helmets to the opposite side of which they are more easily able to disengage, in order to trick RB's. In a ready example, the NT's helmet is poised to Barner's left; Barner wants to go right.

Additionally, the crashing safety eliminates the playside C-gap.

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Barner makes note of the waiting safety, and makes a quick jump cut to change direction.

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After identifying the safety, Barner again changes direction, and forges a path through the RT and TE on his way to a 16 yard gain. Even if the call were a some sort of 'belly' play, Barner displays fine vision and quick feet in identifying the crashing safety, and changing direction.

Another criticism in Barner's game is his inability to run through contact, and break tackles. Of course Barner is never going to be a hulking bruiser of a running back, but he at least needs to possess the proper technique to break tackles. Barner, and any running back for that matter, will not be able to out-juke every defender they run into.

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As Barner takes the handoff and works outside, he does a fine job of following his blockers, displaying patience.

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As Barner turns the edge, the only player between him and the endzone is the incoming DB.

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Barner decides to try and run through the defender. A typical sight in Barner's game, the Oregon RB almost turns sideways, and leans his shoulder into the DB, as if he were falling into the DB's arms. When Barner encounters a defender in this situation, he needs to square his shoulder pads to the target, and achieve better pad level than his mark, before running through the defender.

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As a result of his poor technique, Barner is tackled by the similarly sized DB.

Barner runs with a fairly high pad level. In and of itself, this is not the end-all-be-all, but in order to become a feature back in the NFL, worthy of 10-15 carries a game, Barner must improve his technique, and develop the skills to run through contact. If he doesn't, he won't amount to anything more than a change of pace back.

This next play serves as a barometer of Barner's speed. Obviously the former Duck possesses more than adequate speed to succeed in the NFL; however, I don't think Barner is quite the burner some make him out to be.

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Barner hits the hole, accelerating through the Oregon State front seven, and is soon in the open field, running right through the slow-footed defenders' angles. Within seconds, Barner is behind the defense.

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By the time he has reached the forty yard line, Barner has two steps on the trailing DB's. Worthy of notice, two of the DB's have caught up to Barner from the opposite side of the field.

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Barner is caught from behind by the Beaver DB's.

Although this is just one play, I don't think that Barner has game changing speed. Perhaps these DB's are much faster than the average NCAA DB, or perhaps Barner was hampered by an injury of sorts, but it doesn't appear that Barner has that extra gear to leave defenders in the wind, a la Chris Johnson. That's not a mark against Barner by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a temperance against some of the hype he has received.

In spite of Barner's ability, he will not see the field if he cannot be relied upon to effectively pass block.

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On this play Barner is charged with picking up a pass rusher on his QB's blindside.

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Barner is a second late in picking up the blitzing defender, after completing a play-action fake.

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Barner does not engage the blitzer, but rather seems to catch the Wildcat defender, absorbing him. This passive attempt at blocking is horrible technique. If the rusher had been a 280 lbs. DE, Barner would have been steamrolled. Like any other blocker, Barner needs to square his body to the defender, achieve proper pad level, and extend his arms inside the pads of the defender.

There are no two ways around it: Barner will not play any significant snaps on Offense if he does not become a capable pass blocker. This Offense cannot afford another liability in pass protection. It's not necessarily a quick fix either; some runners go years before developing into competent pass blockers. And not only is it a matter of learning how to block hulking defensive linemen, but of learning the protection schemes. I think it's a fair assessment that Oregon's protection schemes are elementary compared to those of the Panthers.

There is a possibility that Barner develops into a fine running back for the Panthers. He has decent vision, is a fairly patient runner, and possesses quick feet and change of direction. His experience running different zone read option plays, and his capabilities in the receiving game (watch the Senior Bowl; Barner recorded 7 rec. for 60 yards and 1 TD) help make him a good prospect for the Panthers. However, he needs to overcome the aforementioned failings in order to develop into a mainstay in the NFL.

I think Kenjon Barner was a good pickup for Carolina in the sixth round, but fans shouldn't delude themselves into believing that Barner is 'an X-factor' or a difference-maker on Offense as a rookie.

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