Will the Panthers Draft a Kick Return Specialist?

Eric Francis

With Ted Ginn leaving via free agency the Panthers kick and punt return jobs are now wide open. If the Panthers fail to land one of the top level WRs that possess return ability they might instead use a late round pick on a specialist.

Mocking the Drafts Dan kadar weighed on some mid to late round return assets:

If you get past some first rounders like Odell Beckham, Justin Gilbert, Bradley Roby, Marqise Lee and others, I like these guys as return assets:

Dri Archer, RB/WR, Kent State
Corey Brown, WR, Ohio State
Robert Herron, WR, Wyoming
Solomon Patton, WR, Florida
Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma
De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon

Let's take a look at each of these guys.

Dri Archer

This kid lit up the combine, putting up the best performance in 4 categories: 40 yd dash (4.26), 20 yd shuttle (4.06), vertical jump (38.0") and 3 cone drill (6.86).

More on Archer:

STRENGTHS Rare burst, acceleration and top-end speed to take the corner and create big plays. Can fly by MAC competition with top gear. Very good agility, balance, vision and creativity. Weaves through a crowd and can find daylight. Soft-handed and plucks the ball with ease. Extremely strong pound-for-pound. Very good career all-purpose yardage. Good versatility -- contributes as a runner, slot receiver and return man. Four career kickoff-return TDs (and was kicked away from). Clocked a 4.16-second 40-yard dash in 18 steps on one official handheld combine watch, tying Calvin Johnson’s NFL Scouting Combine record for fewest steps. Has a 38-inch vertical jump.

WEAKNESSES Very short and rail thin with no strength or running power. Not a tackle-breaker and goes down easy on contact. Limited inside runner. Can be knocked off routes easily and struggles catching on contact. Not a nuanced route runner. Very marginal, underpowered blocker. Could stand to do a better job securing the ball in traffic. Is not ideally built to withstand a full NFL season.

Archer is projected to be a 3rd or 4th rounder, a position affected by his slight frame and risk of injury.

Corey Brown

Brown is another smaller guy who didn't really distinguish himself at the combine.

STRENGTHS Works himself open short-to-intermediate. Adjusts to throws. Quick enough to elude the initial tackler and pick up yards after the catch. Functional blocker. Lined up inside and outside and has punt-return experience.

WEAKNESSES Has a lean build and relatively small hands. Needs to get stronger in order to combat the jam. Not an explosive athlete. Average initial quickness into routes. Lacks elite top-end speed to beat defenses vertically. Bland, unrefined route runner. Lets throws into his body. Inconsistent traffic player. Average production and playmaking.

Brown is considered a priority free agent. Given the Panthers situation maybe Brown will try his wares in Charlotte.

Robert Herron

The Panthers met with Herron a week ago so he is on the Panthers radar for sure. I find it interesting that Kadar mentioned Herron as a return specialist given he did not return kicks for the Cowboys:

2014 NFL draft: Robert Herron works out for Panthers - Cat Scratch Reader
Herron had his best season in 2013, finishing with 937 yards and nine touchdowns. He's a smaller receiver best equipped for the slot, but confuse that with him being special teams player. Herron did not return kicks and punts for Wyoming, meaning the Panthers' interest is purely as a complementary receiver. It's expected that he will be selected on day two of the draft.

I found the explanation on NFL.com in his combine profile:

Robert Herron Draft Profile – NFL.com
STRENGTHS Good athlete. Exceptional straight-line timed speed -- can accelerate and get on top of DBs vertically. Quick-footed. Above-average hands. Has return capability (despite not being used as a returner because of offensive value).

WEAKNESSES Does not play fast. Marginal toughness -- does not like crossing the middle or extending across his frame. Drifts in his routes. Short-arms the ball. Does not adjust to or track the deep ball well. Lacks physical strength and is jarred on contact after the catch. Carries the ball loosely. Disinterested blocker, especially on the back side. Regularly matched up vs. inferior competition. Has been dinged a lot and long-term durability is a concern.

They are suggesting he was too valuable to the offense to risk returning kicks. I guess that flies but most coaches would put him out there anyway. You wouldn't know that from the analysis above. He's a late day 2 or day 3 draft pick.

Solomon Patton

Patton is another Day 3 prospect with a slight frame but more WR experience than most of the others.

Solomon Patton Draft Profile – NFL.com
STRENGTHS Good short-area burst and acceleration. Adjusts well to the thrown ball and stabs it out of the air. Extends outside his frame and catches the ball cleanly. Quick to turn upfield and displays fine vision and run instincts to create and elude tacklers. Is very tough for his size and can withstand a hit. Outstanding pro-day workout, posting sub-4.40 40 times.

WEAKNESSES Small-framed and lacks run strength. Small catching radius. Gets overwhelmed in the run game as a blocker and barely gets in the way.

These guys are all clones of each other it seems.

This next one does come with a positive reputation as a locker room 'fit' for the Panthers.

Jalen Saunders

Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma, NFL Draft - CBSSports.com - NFLDraftScout.com
STRENGTHS: Fast off the line of scrimmage with very good acceleration and initial burst. Explosive cuts to catch defenders off-balance with a sharp plant foot in his breaks. Very quick-footed with natural explosiveness to dance and create in space. Good balance and shifty moves to wiggle out of trouble. Quick, controlled hands and will contort his body and consistently secure catches away from his frame. Good catching radius for a target his size. Works the middle of the field well as an inside receiver and finds open zones. Productive after the catch with several big plays on his highlight reel.

Adds value as a return man on special teams and averaged 15.0 yards per punt return in college, including three career scores. Very hard worker off the field and prepares like a professional - motivated and determined. Football bloodlines as the nephew of 13-year NFL veteran WR Webster Slaughter.

WEAKNESSES: Smallish frame with narrow shoulders/hips and skinny limbs, lacking the body type to add much muscle. Very light as a ballcarrier and doesn't have much of a power element to his game. Lean frame makes him susceptible to crushing hits, especially over the middle, which creates durability concerns. Tough, but won't seek out contact. Smaller hands and will have some drops. Willing blocker, but very limited. Most of his experience is as an inside receiver and will be relegated to a slot role at the next level.

I like the blood lines aspect too.

Jalen Saunders Draft Profile – NFL.com
STRENGTHS Light on his feet with a fluid stride. Good balance and body control. Nifty, conscientious route runner. Has speed and twitch to separate vs. man coverage -- sinks his hips with ease and pops out of breaks. Quick, soft hands. Slippery after the catch. Eludes the first tackler and can turn a short throw into a long gain if he gets a step. Three punt-return TDs in 25 returns at OU -- eludes the first wave, runs to daylight and can take it the distance.

WEAKNESSES Marginal size. Cannot play outside -- is easily knocked off course and needs a free release. Lets throws into his body. Small catch radius. Lacks elite top-end vertical speed, especially for his size (averaged just 12.0 yards per catch as a senior). Outmuscled in a crowd. Limited run strength. Lets throws into his body. Weak blocker -- gets ragdolled outside. Durability could be a concern -- is not built to take a pounding.

De'Anthony Thomas

De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon, NFL Draft - CBSSports.com - NFLDraftScout.com
STRENGTHS: Without question, Thomas is the most electric player in the 2014 draft. He boasts remarkable elusiveness, instant acceleration and the speed to pull away from defenders to make him a legitimate threat to score each time he touches the ball. Shows good vision, locating holes and slithering through them to get into the open field. Has soft, natural hands for the reception, easily snagging passes and securing them quickly. Tougher than he looks, showing a willingness to lower his shoulder and fight through initial contact to gain as much yardage as possible. Offers the versatility to play several roles, potentially freeing up a roster spot due for other players.

WEAKNESSES: There is not an NFL offense better suited to taking advantage of Thomas' skill-set than the one he's leaving at Oregon, where wide splits, a dual-threat quarterback and up-tempo play-calling all exaggerated his talents. Does not possess the size and power to play more than a complementary role as an NFL running back. Most teams prefer a larger, tougher player at kick returner, as well. While a highly productive receiver with the Ducks, caught most of his passes on simple passes to the flats and quick screens and therefore while certainly possessing the quickness and balance to ultimately gain separation as a receiver, Thomas is a raw route-runner. Thomas' production and durability dropped each of his three seasons at Oregon...

If you like fast then this is your guy:

De'Anthony Thomas Draft Profile – NFL.com
STRENGTHS Has legit big-time sprinter's speed with very quick turnover and is field-fast. Cat-quick to the corner, accelerates very quickly and can easily take the perimeter. Good vision and cutback ability -- is patient and follows his blocks. Can tightrope-walk the sideline. Very quick to and through the hole once he sees a crease and can stick his foot in the dirt and go. Catches in stride with ease and can make difficult one-handed snags (see Arizona). Has home-run speed in the return game, with three career return TDs. Exceptional pro day performance.

WEAKNESSES Very small. Does not play in a conventional-style offense and takes most carries moving laterally. Goes down too easily and looks for a soft landing spot. Lacks the size, strength and toughness to be an every-down back. Alligator-arms the ball in the middle of the field. Needs to learn to appreciate the preparation process and would benefit from working more at his craft.

So which of these guys do you like as a late round specialist? Archer seems much like Kenyon Barner so though he is fast I'm not seeing a fit. The other guys could man the slot if needed. Thoughts?

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