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Why Carolina Panthers rookie RB Jonathon Brooks calls his knee injury ‘a blessing’

Carolina Panthers rookie running back Jonathon Brooks was streaking through a breakout season with the Texas Longhorns when the 20-year-old running back sustained one of the most notable injuries in sports.

He tore his right ACL in a win over the TCU Horned Frogs in November of last year, sidelining him for the remainder of his final college season in Austin.

After producing 1,139 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in his third season at Texas, it appeared that Brooks was headed to the NFL with a ton of momentum. But the late-season knee injury, which led to surgery, ultimately felt like a major roadblock on his path to the draft.

“When I got injured, I’d be lying if I said my mind didn’t go everywhere,” Brooks said. “I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. And instantly by a day or two after, my mind got right.”

Texas Longhorns running back Jonathon Brooks (24) fights for yardage against Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Jaren Kanak (7) in a 2023 game.
Texas Longhorns running back Jonathon Brooks (24) fights for yardage against Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Jaren Kanak (7) in a 2023 game.

Brooks, listed as 6-foot and 216 pounds, wasn’t able to take part in drills at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. He wasn’t cleared to cut ahead of his college program’s pro day in March. And with just one season of major production in college, there would almost certainly be questions about his sustainability as a three-down back.

But, as it turns out, that adversity meant little to the Panthers, as GM Dan Morgan still made Brooks the first running back off the board on Day 2 of this past weekend’s draft.

The Panthers were so intrigued by the playmaker that they actually traded two fifth-round selections — acquired in prior offseason swaps — to move up and select Brooks with the 46th overall pick.

“We thought he was the best running back in the class,” Morgan said Friday. “The person, player, everything about him we really like. So really excited to get him.”

‘Progressing well’

Brooks, a Hallettsville, Texas, native, has already begun running as part of his surgery rehabilitation. He plans to start cutting — demonstrating his trademark shiftiness — in short order.

The Panthers made sure to take a deep dive into Brooks’ recovery outlook during a “30” visit ahead of the draft. It was that recheck of his medical history that made Carolina feel comfortable with betting on Brooks.

“I think any time you’re dealing with an injury like that we have to do our homework and have the full workup,” head coach Dave Canales said. “We had great help with that information to say we feel like this is a guy who is on track with this type of injury.”

According to the Panthers and the rookie running back, everything is going as planned with his recovery. Both parties say Brooks is on track to be cleared to participate in training camp, which will begin shortly after his 21st birthday in July.

“I’m progressing well — I’m right on track on where I need to be,” Brooks said. “For me to get back to camp, you know that’s also just a blessing. You know I feel like this injury is a blessing from God just being that it gives me a chance to focus on a lot of other things . . . As bad as it is, it’s the best-case scenario.

“I just only tore my ACL, and it was a complete tear. So, it’s great. I can’t wait to get back out there and just can’t wait to keep playing football.”

Versatility is the key

The Panthers felt that Brooks separated himself from the rest of the draft class with his ability to do multiple things well. During his time at Texas, he was able to make plays in both the run and pass game.

While he spent his first two seasons behind Atlanta Falcons star running back Bijan Robinson — the eighth overall pick in last year’s draft — Brooks showed he can more than carry the load last season with the Longhorns.

“There is so much that he brings from a versatility standpoint,” Canales said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that stood out. Then just vision, patience, contact balance, acceleration — like he’s got it all. Best back in this class.”

Texas Longhorns running back Jonathon Brooks in a 2023 game against TCU.
Texas Longhorns running back Jonathon Brooks in a 2023 game against TCU.

Brooks’ versatility is something the Panthers plan to exploit right away. While the team is likely to ease him into the fold during the summer as he recovers from knee surgery, the rookie — who had 25 catches for 286 receiving yards and a touchdown last season — should get every opportunity possible to make an impact in Canales’ offense.

“Our system calls for a back that can be used, of course, in a traditional way — hand it to him,” Canales said. “Then how can we get this player in space, being able to get him in perimeter screens, check downs? We’ve got a really cool empty package where we use the backs, flex them out to get matchups, things like that. He’s a bigger back. He’s got range.”

Creating competition

Brooks will enter a running back room that features a trio of returning playmakers.

Chuba Hubbard is the presumed favorite to lead the backfield following a breakout campaign in 2023. He produced 902 rushing yards, 233 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

Along with Hubbard, Miles Sanders — a pricey free-agent addition from last year — will also look to earn the top job. Sanders led the backfield during the first five games of last season, but his production was underwhelming, and his frustrating performance ultimately led to his benching in favor of Hubbard, who took advantage of his touches down the stretch.

“Those are two good running backs for me to go in there and learn off of,” Brooks said. “They have been in the league for some years, so that helps me ask them (questions) because they have knowledge of the game of how it’s going to be, and it will just be a great learning experience for me as well.”

Hubbard is in a contract year, while Sanders is trying to live up to his lofty salary. Both veterans will want their touches, as will returning gadget weapon, Raheem Blackshear, who was used sparingly on offense under the previous staff.

Brooks will need to compete and outperform all three of those players for the starting job. At minimum, he’ll need to show his value within a rotation by one-upping at least two of those combatants in specific packages.

“What I would say is we got a really good running back room right now,” Morgan said. “When Dave and I took this job, we said that we were going to create competition in every position group.

“Just so happened Jonathon was there. We took the opportunity to draft him. I think it’s going to be a really competitive group and I’m excited to see them all compete during training camp and OTAs. It’s going to be fun.”

Pressure is a privilege

Along with creating competition, Morgan and Canales have been in search of players with a “dawg” mentality this offseason. Brooks, who is itching to get back on the field after injury, appears to fit that mold.

“Especially for a running back, you have to have that ‘dawg’ mentality where you don’t want to get stopped and run to people’s face,” Brooks said. “Be able to pass protect, hit somebody in their mouth, and have a little talk smack after, too.”

Texas running back Jonathon Brooks during a 2023 game against Houston.
Texas running back Jonathon Brooks during a 2023 game against Houston.

Along with a little smack talk, Brooks is also prepared to endure the burden of being the top running back in his draft class and the pressure that comes with that selection.

Even with the added notion that the Panthers committed three draft picks of value — the second rounder plus the fifth-round picks — Brooks isn’t blinking over the scrutiny he is likely to face locally and nationally this season and beyond.

“There is pressure with every down of football that you play on whatever level it is,” Brooks said. “For me, (being the first running back selected) really means a lot. . . . I appreciate the level of confidence and trust they have in me to trade up those picks to get me. I can’t wait to get there and it’s a blessing to be where I’m at.”