When the Carolina Panthers drafted RB Kenjon Barner in the 2013 NFL draft, there was a collective groan across the internet from Panthers fans. Another running back? What about our offensive line? The fans were upset, and some would say rightfully so.
However, it appears that this draft day gamble is paying off. Kenjon Barner is quickly rising in the ranks of the Panthers crowded offensive backfield. A crowded backfield is nothing new to him...
At college, I had LaGarrett Blount, LeMichael James, Andre Crenshaw, a lot of guys when I first moved to that position. Everyone has been asking how I feel about the crowded backfield. I don’t feel any way about it. I’m just going to continue to work hard and continue to show these coaches I can play and that I deserve to be here. At the end of the day, I’ll look up and see where I’m at. As far as the backfield being crowded, it doesn’t mean anything to me. You can’t worry about it.
On the first day of training camp, Barner saw time mainly with the 3rd and 4th string units. More recently he has been running with the second string unit led by Derrick Anderson. It appears Barner's stock is rising.
The transition from college to pros may not be as difficult for Barner than players from other systems. Having played under Chip Kelly in Oregon, Barner is accustomed to a higher paced pro style offense.
Barner has also shown to be a highly coachable player.
Kenjon's biggest concern coming out of college was his propensity to run upright, not staying low to the ground. Unlike Eric Shelton (who never corrected this problem), Barner has changed and now runs as low as any player on the roster. Running low gives defensive players less to wrap up and keeps the runner's center of gravity low, allowing for better balance.
The next concern about Barner was his pass protection ability. Again, Kenjon has shown great improvement in less than a week of camp. While pass protection is not his strength, he has shown the ability to at least hold off a defender should Cam Newton audible to a passing play from a run formation.
So what does all of this mean?
First, it means if Kenjon can continue to improve and prove himself throughout training camp and preseason, he may see real time this year. If that happens, the heavy financial load of a Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart backfield becomes a tempting target for GM David Gettleman. If Barner does have a solid year on a sixth round rookie salary, this will be the last year for either Williams or Stewart as a Panther.
Secondly, it could be the spark the Panthers running game has been missing. Barner has a quicker first step than any back on the roster. Behind an average offensive line, he may have more ability to hit a quickly closing hole where the other backs do not.
I have not been this excited about a rookie running back since the drafting of Jonathan Stewart. Is Barner a definite contributor? Not yet, but if he keeps rising he soon will be.