Although he was a major contributor for Oregon throughout his 4-year career, Kenjon Barner had the luxury of sharing Carries with fellow Running Backs like LaMichael James, LaGarrette Blount, De’Anthony Thomas, and Quarterbacks like Darron Thomas, Bryan Bennett, and Marcus Mariota.
Because of his somewhat shared load, Barner only tallied 582 Carries during his time with the Ducks, and 278 of them came during his Senior campaign in 2012. Each year in Eugene, Barner received more touches, and each year he became a more integral part of the program’s explosive Offense.
Incredibly, Barner never averaged less than 6.0 Yards per Carry per season over his collegiate career! Kenjon’s Freshman campaign saw him register 366 Yards on 61 Carries, 551 Yards on on 91 Carries the season after, 939 Yards on 152 Carries in 2011, and 1,767 Yards on 278 Carries last year (including 321 Rushing Yards and 5 TD’s against Southern Cal).
While Barner does not possess the lightning type speed of other Oregon Backs like James or Thomas, he has more than enough straight-line speed, and agility to break-down Defenders and cut to translate well to the professional level. In addition to his work on the ground, Barner is more than capable as a pass-receiver, can create big plays in the passing game with his speed and elusiveness, and as a Returner on Special Teams to boot (1 Kick & 1 Punt Return for Touchdown during collegiate career). Although Kenjon was not targeted much as a receiver with the Ducks (54 career Receptions), he nevertheless scored 7 Touchdowns via the pass, and could be used in the slot on passing downs to create matchup issues in spread formations.
Barner however does have concerns surrounding him and his translation to the N.F.L., and most concern his overall size. At 5’9″ 188 lbs., Barner is by no means a large Running Back, let alone considered to be a bruiser. Furthermore, while he was used in a somewhat featured role at Oregon throughout his career, one must question whether or not his frame can withstand the rigors of an entire pro season. Barner sustained some injuries in college (here and here), and teams could question his ability to contribute outside of a part-time role.
In addition, because of the discipline of N.F.L. Defenders when it comes to gap integrity and overall endurance, Barner will have to be able to prove that he is speedy enough to burst through smaller holes and creases in the N.F.L., and tough enough to keep pounding the rock upwards of 20 times per game when the splash plays are not there. Furthermore, N.F.L. Defenders will not get as sloppy and tired by the 2nd Half of games like Pac-12 Defenses did against Oregon. Thus, the enormous running lanes which Barner enjoyed with the Ducks against winded opponents will be few and far between when he gets to the professional level. Finally, Kenjon will also have to prove that he can adjust to and run out of more non-Shotgun formations, and illustrate that he can pound the ball in near the Goal Line and in the Red Zone with his skinnier frame when he is asked to do so.
Of all the prospects I will mention on this list, Barner has the biggest “highlight play” potential and made a name for himself as a Touchdown machine for the high-scoring Ducks (41 career Rush TD’s). Of all the later-Round Backs, Barner reminds me the most of “Fast” Willie Parker, and he could evolve into a big-play Running Back in Pittsburgh’s new scheme like Parker was from 2005-2008.
The diminutive Dennis Johnson is one player who the Steelers might be able to select on Day 3, and I believe the Arkansas Running Back could be a late-Round “steal” of sorts in this year’s Draft Class.
Like Jamison, Johnson’s stock will likely take a hit due to his height, or lackthereof (5’8″). But like Jamison, Johnson possesses a “squat” and powerful frame, and even weighs more at 212 lbs.. Due to his dimensions, Johnson’s stumpy, yet powerful legs, and bowling ball frame make him a difficult player to tackle, and he has the toughness to carry the ball between the Tackles.
Although Johnson also had to split-time with Broderick Green, Ronnie Wingo Jr., Michael Smith, and Knile Davis with the Razorbacks, he was nevertheless a steady presence in Arkansas’ Backfield in 2011 and 2012. Overall, Johnson rushed for 670 Yards and 3 TD’s in 2011, and 757 Yards and 8 TD’s in 2012, so his best seasons could very well be in front of him, and the lack of “tread” on his tires is lower than most in this Draft Class.
Johnson also has some speed to his game, and emerged as one of the S.E.C.’s best Kickoff Return men during his collegiate career. During his Freshman and Sophomore seasons, Johnson racked up 81 Kick Returns for 1,936 Yards (23.9 YPR) and 2 Return Touchdowns, and even Returned another Return for a score in 2011 as well. While Johnson’s straight-line speed is not the caliber of a player like Barner’s, he still has enough speed and quickness to translate into an effective Running Back in the N.F.L., and be a threat to make splash-plays on the ground or via the pass (2011-2012: 49 Catches for 415 Yards and 4 TD’s).
The biggest thing which could hurt Johnson’s stock on Draft Weekend, is likely to be his issues with “putting the ball on the turf.” Over and over at Arkansas, Johnson struggled with Fumbles (here, here, and here), cost his team in some big games, and could be considered a risk to teams around the League if he cannot correct his apparent fumbling problem. With this in mind, Johnson could be considered more of a “project” to teams, like Pittsburgh, looking for more stability at such an important position.
Like Graham, Johnson could fall a bit due to an injury he sustained during his collegiate career. Johnson however did not sustain a knee injury. In fact, Johnson’s injury was a “freak accident” of sorts. When he was returning a Kickoff back in 2010, Johnson was blasted in the midsection on a legal hit by a defender in the 3rd game of the year, and suffered of all things a bowel injury (article plus video). The injury itself led to Johnson taking a medical Redshirt for the rest of the 2010 season to heal what was a devastating blow to his internal organs.
If Johnson runs well at The Combine, I could see his stock rising to make him more of an early Day 3 selection as opposed to a late Day 3 one. Without Rainey, the Steelers will need someone to step up and handle the Kickoff chores, and Johnson has the ability to help out there, and possibly down the road in Pittsburgh’s ground attack. That is, as long as he can prove that he can protect the football on a consistent basis, because the last thing the Steelers’ Offense needs is large amounts of Turnovers in 2013.
Look, I cannot speak for all of “Steeler Nation.” But I can at least assume that most of you would like to see the Running Game improve in 2013, and an “Every-Down Back” emerge as a full-time rock-toter as well. Even in today’s pass-happy N.F.L., 623 Yards is inexcusable total for any team’s Leading Rusher to have at the end of any regular season. So with Mendenhall likely gone via Free Agency, and Dwyer and Redman best suited for niche-roles, the Steelers must find a way to find an upgrade (or two) at the Running Back position in this April’s Draft.
If the Steelers take a Running Back on Day 1 or Day 2? Then I say “great,” and I hope that the player selected on either one of those days can emerge as the starter as early as possible. But as I alluded to before, the purpose of this post was to illustrate that there could be some viable Zone-scheme Backs on the board late for Pittsburgh to select. Moreover, because the franchise has so many needs which they must address through the Draft, they might be forced to find some later-Round gems to contribute and eventually start for them.
Whatever transpires though, I earnestly hope that the Steelers can find a capable Running Back to make their ground attack more effective than it was in 2012.
Readers: Who would you pick out of these 4 later Round prospects? Are there other potential Day 3 RB’s you like better? Zac Stacy? Cierre Wood? Theo Riddick? Share your thoughts below.
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