With the 204th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers selected Tyler Gaffney, a 5’11", 220-pound running back out of Stanford. With a crowded backfield of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, and last year’s 6th round draft pick, Kenjon Barner already in the mix, where can he possibly fit on this roster?
Rotoworld gives Gaffney an NFL comparison of Tennessee Titans running back Jackie Battle, formerly with the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. Battle’s most memorable season was in 2011, where he replaced an injured Jamaal Charles, and led the Chiefs in rushing with nearly 600 yards rushing, a 4.0 yards per carry average, and two touchdowns. If Gaffney could come close to that kind of production, Panthers fans will be happy.
Carolina Huddle had another interesting NFL player to compare Gaffney to: former Panthers great Stephen Davis. Davis was arguably the best running back to ever suit up for the Carolina Panthers, leading them to their lone Super Bowl appearance in 2003.
Why Battle and Davis? All three running backs have the same build, strengths, and limitations. All three can be described as tough, patient inside runners that thrive on contact. They all do not have "wiggle," and would not be expected to elude defenders. They all do a lot of things right, but none of them spectacularly.
Unique to Battle and Davis, however, is Gaffney’s potential breakaway speed. While I did not see it dramatically on tape, he did have some plays where he was able to peel away from the defense. At the combine, Gaffney posted an eye-popping 4.49 40-yard dash and had the second-highest 3-cone drill time amongst running backs. The measurables and potential are there for sure.
Why he fits the Panthers
With the crowded backfield, the biggest question coming into OTAs, mini camp, and training camp is, will Gaffney even have a chance to play? Regardless of his physical limitations, Gaffney has three solid, veteran backs in front of him the depth chart, and an up-and-coming scat-back in Barner.
But he is still the perfect fit for the Carolina Panthers.
Just not in 2014.
It is well-known that the Panthers and general manager Dave Gettleman are in "cap hell," thanks to the monster contracts of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Although they are fan favorites and locker room favorites, the reality is that the NFL is a business and a "passing league," forcing one or both to leave as a cap casualty.
That is where Gaffney steps in.
If Gaffney develops into the mold of Battle or Davis (and that is a BIG if), he can be the workhorse back this team needs. The personality and culture of the franchise under Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera is that of a big, physical team that imposes their will on offense AND defense. It could be the front 7 of the defense, the secondary, the offensive line, the quarterback.. every single unit fits this theme .
Except for running back.
With the exception of Mike Tolbert (who is supposed to be a fullback), Williams and Stewart have failed to be reliable ballcarriers that can convert "short" downs, or goal line situations. As a matter of fact, neither converted a short down even once last year. And being a team that is predicated on ball control, being physical, and dominating at the point of attack, having a back that can work in between tackles is what is really lacking.
And take a wild guess at what Gaffney is good at.
Gaffney has his limitations; he won’t be confused for Barry Sanders and he probably will not take a hand-off or short pass to the house like DeAngelo Williams. He will not elude defenders, and will not burst through the hole. He is a patient, decisive runner that needs blocking and will simply use one cut to gain yards.
The bottom line
While it is understandable that Panthers fans are initially infuriated by this pick, especially with the lack of talent at offensive tackle, it was the right one.
Quite frankly, Williams and Stewart do not "fit" this offense. Everything about this team screams big and physical at every position. Except at running back. And which position is swallowing a lot of cap space? Running back.
It is the hope that after the 2014 season, Gaffney can slide right into the role of a bruising back that can get the tough yards when needed. Ideally, he can develop into a Stephen Davis or even an Alfred Morris type: one that is not going to be routinely featured on SportsCenter, but is instead a reliable, steady weapon on a playoff team.
Based on his combine performance and two-sport experience, Gaffney has the potential to be the dynamic, tough running back that the current Panthers offense requires. And if he ends up being a journeyman, Jackie Battle type, he was a 6th round pick anyway.