Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said on Tuesday that the staff would spend two weeks analyzing the team, looking to avoid hasty, emotional decisions. The Observer will do the same, position by position. First up: Running back.
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Three things to know
▪ About that offensive line ... : A run game ebbs and flows with the performance of the offensive line, and this season Carolina patched and re-patched theirs together after a flood of injuries prompted head coach Ron Rivera to call it “a position catastrophe.” Revamping the run game has to start up front.
▪ Stewart inconsistent: Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers’ feature back, showed he’s still capable of powerhouse running with an awe-inspiring and gritty performance against Washington. But Stewart was held to under 100 rushing yards in all but one game this season, though he was effective at scoring on short-yardage plays. The 29-year-old’s clock as a back in the NFL is ticking.
▪ Evolving the offense: “Evolve” may not be the right word in Gettleman’s mind, but it’s the one Rivera used to describe what his offense has to do this offseason. Carolina will still want to run between the tackles as is its preferred style, but also might be in the market for a short-route stud they can use in the slot. A runner with good hands might be key.
On the roster
▪ Jonathan Stewart: Stewart missed almost a month with a hamstring injury. However, he did score nine touchdowns, matching his scoring production from 2015. Stewart is on the final year of his five-year, $36.5 million contract and the Panthers would save about $4.5 million in cap space if he were cut, but it’s highly unlikely the team waives its feature back – especially one who is very serviceable when healthy.
▪ Fozzy Whittaker: Running back and return man Whittaker, 27, is Stewart’s backup but had his best season in 2016 with 265 yards on 57 carries. Whittaker is a free agent, but a great presence to have in the locker room – especially if the Panthers pick up a young back in the draft.
▪ Cameron Artis-Payne: Picked in the fifth round of the 2015 draft by the Panthers, Artis-Payne hasn’t played much since. He participated in only three games this year, when Stewart hurt his hamstring.
▪ Also: Mike Tolbert, a Pro Bowl fullback, is one of the NFL’s remaining few at his position and coming off one of the least-productive seasons in his career. Tolbert signed a two-year, $3.3 million contract with the Panthers in 2016.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Jacquizz Rogers: With Doug Martin benched (and then suspended) and Charles Sims out, Rogers got a chance to make the most out of his season with Tampa Bay before free agency. Rogers is a hard runner who averaged 4.3 yards per carry in 2016.
▪ Latavius Murray: The Oakland Raiders will probably try to get a deal done this offseason with Murray, who is in the final year of his rookie contract. Murray had a breakout year in 2015 and even made the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,066 yards as the team’s feature back. In 2016 his carries diminished but his scoring production doubled, and the 26-year-old seems to be hitting his prime.
▪ Le’Veon Bell: Bell is a risk, based on his history of failing two NFL drug tests and his knee injury. But, Steelers will likely try to avoid a big payday with that as leverage, and Bell, who has said he wants to be a Steeler, might just start looking elsewhere. If that happens and the Panthers believe Bell can stay healthy and make the most of a chance (i.e., stay clean), he certainly is a talent. He leads the NFL with an average of 157 yards from scrimmage per game, with 1,884 total yards and nine touchdowns.
▪ Dalvin Cook: Arguably one of the best running backs in the draft, Cook is coming off a stellar 2016 season in which he rushed for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns, including 145 yards and a touchdown in an Orange Bowl victory over one of the best defenses in the country, No. 6 Michigan. He especially fits the power-run style the Panthers have championed, and with most of the draft hype surrounding LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Cook could still be around at No. 8.
▪ Christian McCaffrey: To be clear, McCaffrey is not the best true running back in the draft. Instead, he is probably the best all-around offensive player available, and could be just what Carolina needs to evolve. He was used at Stanford both in pass protection and as an offensive weapon – one who is immensely difficult to defend because of his versatility and knack for making people miss – and had almost 4,000 rushing yards in just two seasons. He could be a part of the “evolution” the Panthers need in the slot, as a crafty, physical route-runner who had 645 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2015 and 310 receiving yards with three touchdowns in 2016. McCaffrey is a triple-threat who surpassed 400 yards in kickoff and punt returns in 2016. He’ll probably be overlooked by teams who are looking for power backs, but if a team wants to get creative quickly, McCaffrey is the playmaker to pick.
▪ D’onta Foreman: A junior early-entrant out of Texas, Foreman could be everything the Panthers are looking for in a back for the future. He rushed for 2,000 yards in his final season as a Longhorn and won the Doak Walker award, but based on the flashy names at his position he could fall to the second round – perfect if Carolina wants to pick up an edge rusher, safety or tackle early. Foreman is a big-bodied power runner with surprising burst for his larger size.
The bottom line
With a running back class this strong, general manager Dave Gettleman will have lots of chances, and it’s clear the Panthers need a spark on offense. He is more likely to look for an answer in the draft over exploring free agency, and while the Panthers may not use their first pick on a back, it’s a deep class, and plenty of talent will fall to the second and third round.