The Fantasy Football Implications of Jonathon Brooks as a Carolina Panther

May 02, 2024
The Fantasy Football Implications of Jonathon Brooks as a Carolina Panther

With the 46th overall selection of the 2024 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers took the first running back off the board in Texas product Jonathon Brooks. The post-Christian-McCaffrey era of Chuba Hubbard, Miles Sanders, and fellow Longhorn D'Onta Foreman has been unconvincing, and the new regime in Charlotte hopes Brooks can be the solution.

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Jonathon Brooks' Prospect Profile

At just 20 years old and after two years behind Bijan Robinson (and Roschon Johnson), Brooks entered the NFL draft with just 238 carries and 1,479 rushing yards in his collegiate career. For context, Robinson — the eighth overall pick in the 2023 Draft — topped both those numbers in his junior year alone (as did the aforementioned Foreman in 2016.) In fact, Brooks is the only running back in the last 15 drafts to be selected in the first two rounds despite having fewer than 250 carries and 1,500 rushing yards on his college resume.

To further muddy the waters, Brooks suffered a torn ACL in November, missing the final two games of the season. Fortunately, as Ian Rapoport reported during the Draft, Brooks is expected to recover by training camp and should be a full-go by the season opener in Atlanta. All told, the abnormally low wear on Brooks' tires might help offset the injury concern heading into his rookie year, but his total production simply does not inspire the confidence of a Jonathan Taylor or Breece Hall.

The rate metrics are a little more encouraging for Brooks and begin to offer some explanation for his solid draft capital — according to PFF, his 0.34 missed tackles forced per attempt ranked fifth out of 45 FBS running backs with 100+ carries, while his 6.1 yards per carry ranked 12th in that same group. His 1.50 yards per route run is also extremely encouraging, outstripping all the other relevant rookie backs and hinting at significant upside as a receiver at the NFL level.

But ultimately, the tape tells the most complete story for this one-year starter. As a redshirt sophomore in 2023, Brooks put together quite the highlight reel, punctuated by more than a few "made defender look silly" moments.

He is smooth, shifty, and a terrifying tackle one-on-one in space. If you give me Brooks, the ball, and five yards of daylight versus just about any defender at any level, I'm taking the youngster. He has an arsenal of shake-and-bake moves, deadly stop-start ability, and the acceleration to turn a successfully evaded tackle into a big gain in a hurry. The word that came to mind most when watching Brooks on film was "fluid" — there is a consistent flow to his movement behind the line, through the gaps, and even into contact, all of which contribute to a quick, slick running style. Additionally, he is an extremely natural pass-catcher with smooth, secure hands, and PFF graded him as one of the best pass-blocking backs in this class. That combination should have him in the conversation for three-down usage right out of the gate.

Still, Brooks has plenty of room to grow (literally) to realize his maximum upside as an NFL talent. An extra 10 pounds could solidify his somewhat lean frame and bring a physicality and run-finishing strength that was often missing on film. While he showed creative vision and plenty of patience behind the line, he needs to improve his decisiveness and instinct to find, choose, and exploit run lanes when they materialize. Also, his power and balance through contact are a little hit-and-miss — he'd sometimes bounce off upper-body bumps but seemed to go down by the shoestrings more often than I'd like.

Many have compared Brooks to Aaron Jones, and some have drawn connections to Jamaal Charles (also a Longhorn) or Dalvin Cook. With his limited production profile in mind, I think the fairer comparison could be Dalvin's little brother James (though Brooks has better size). Regardless, the consistent thread is evident: he's a smooth, versatile home-run hitter with a ton of upside.

How Jonathon Brooks Fits With the Panthers

This inquiry is best answered by new head coach Dave Canales and his mouth-watering monologue on Brooks' "versatility" shortly after snagging him:

"How can we get this player in space?" is the best possible line of thinking for Brooks, and Canales is already scheming away — perimeter screens, check downs, "a really cool empty package where we use the backs" ... it's like he's laying out a vision board for fantasy RB1s. Remember, this is the same Coach Canales who expressed excitement about a "stubborn" commitment to the run game. And the same Coach Canales responsible for coordinating a Tampa Bay offense that funneled 336 touches (including 70 targets) to Rachaad White and made him the RB7 in 2023. Brooks is the same size as White, with more polish, a more complete skillset, and better draft capital. Hand, meet glove.

Neither Miles "Oops, Overpaid" Sanders (3.8 yards per touch in 2023) nor Chuba "Change of Pace" Hubbard (4.1) are the right fit for what Canales is building around Bryce Young. The Brooks pick, which they traded up with the Colts to make, confirmed that notion. In fact, draft fans might have been reminded of a similar Jonath(a)n trade early on Day 2, involving the Colts, back in 2020 ... when Indy moved up to snag Mr. Taylor 41st overall. He was the RB4 as a rookie. Just saying.

Projecting the Panthers Backfield in Fantasy Football

While Sanders cannot be realistically cut until after this season, he was essentially an afterthought in this offense in 2023 following a Week 6 inactive and the emergence of Hubbard. And while Hubbard did average 17 carries a game after becoming the starter, he also averaged 3.7 yards per carry, crested 100 yards on the ground just once, and had little impact as a pass-catcher. He was an admirable waiver-wire hero on what was literally the worst offense in the league, but he's not meant for RB1 duties and Carolina knows that.

Enter Jonathon Brooks. Will he be the starter in Week 1? Maybe not, but it's entirely possible. Will it happen by October? I'd bet on it. If so, the end-of-season volume could optimistically near the numbers posted by fellow Longhorn Bijan Robinson as a rookie in Atlanta: 214 carries and 58 catches. Remember, that was also on a bad offense, with an 186-carry change-of-pace back in Tyler Allgeier and an abysmal 67% catch rate (league average is a full 10 points higher).

The range of outcomes is wide for Brooks and we should temper expectations for the first month or so of the 2024 season. That said, he has RB2 upside if he can win the job early and is a perfect target for zero-RB strategists or as a high-ceiling stash in best ball drafts. Much like with Trey Benson, Brooks is also a decent bet for the post-bye rookie bump, and for dynasty leagues, where his value should increase as the Panthers continue their rebuild around their young offensive backfield. In the meantime, Sanders is essentially undraftable and Hubbard is a low-upside bench piece who will likely lose value as the season progresses.

Bottom Line

  • Jonathon Brooks has a limited production profile and is coming off a November ACL injury, but he's a smooth, evasive runner with an extremely versatile skillset that could make him a three-down back sooner rather than later.
  • The Panthers' rebuild is still in its early stages, but head coach Dave Canales and GM Dan Morgan are starting to assemble the puzzle around 2023 first-overall pick Bryce Young, and Brooks appears to be one of the bigger pieces.
  • Brooks is the best bet to lead the Carolina backfield in touches in 2024, though it may take some time for him to reach true three-down status with the lingering presences of Chuba Hubbard and Miles Sanders.
  • According to current Underdog best ball drafts, Brooks is coming off the board as the RB31 (103.6 ADP), slightly behind fellow rookie Trey Benson and in the realm of other volatile names like Nick Chubb, Zack Moss, and Austin Ekeler. The floor is undeniably low, especially with the uncertain state of the offense, but Brooks could be a solid value at that ADP if he reaches double-digit touch-per-game territory early in the year
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