The Carolina Panthers weren’t messing around with this whole evolving the offense thing.
In fact, Ron Rivera might need a stronger word.
In Thursday’s first round of the NFL draft, the Panthers selected a small, fast athletic playmaker who fills more positions than a temp agency.
Then in Friday’s second round, general manager Dave Gettleman did it again.
Christian McCaffrey, the multi-purpose athlete from Stanford drafted No. 8 overall, is a running back who can play slot receiver.
Curtis Samuel, the multi-purpose athlete from Ohio State drafted No. 40 overall, is a slot receiver who can play running back.
Doubling down has become Gettleman’s calling card during the first two nights of the draft. But when he has done it before, it’s been out of necessity (the run on cornerbacks last year after he cut ties with Josh Norman) or his affinity for big dudes (the defensive tackle duo of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in Gettleman’s first draft in Charlotte).
This time the splurge on two players with remarkably similar skill sets was done with Cam Newton’s future in mind.
Late last year, while Newton was getting banged around and knocked down last fall during the worst season of his career, Rivera first mentioned the idea of evolving the offense to take some of the pressure off his franchise quarterback.
Gettleman later said he didn’t really like the word, “evolve.” But he clearly is on board with the concept.
In Newton’s first six seasons, the Panthers ran a lot of deep pass sets for Newton, giving him time to air out 60-yard bombs to the likes of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr., who occasionally caught them.
But those slow developing plays provided defenses with a lot of time to come after Newton, who at 27 was in danger of getting old in a hurry. Since the end of the 2013 season, Newton has had ankle surgery, cracked ribs, a fracture in his back following a car wreck, his first concussion and, most recently, a partially torn rotator cuff.
Newton is still recovering from the shoulder surgery that will sideline him for OTAs and minicamp. But if he comes back as scheduled for the start of training camp, he’ll be returning to an offense that has gotten quicker and decidedly more diverse.
In those early conversations about evolving – sorry, Dave – the offense, Rivera talked about using more quick-hitting passes and rolling Newton out of the pocket to limit the number of hits on him.
But there was a problem: The Panthers lacked quick pass-catchers – out of the backfield or otherwise.
After the speedy Ginn and slot receiver Philly Brown left in free agency, the Panthers were left with what NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock called a pair of “plodding” receivers in Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess.
Enter McCaffrey and Samuel ... or, McSamuel.
All McCaffrey did at Stanford was break Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yardage record, while Samuel has what Gettleman referred to as “Oh, my gosh speed.”
Samuel’s 4.31-second clocking in the 40 was the second fastest among receivers behind Washington’s John Ross, who set a combine record at 4.22 seconds.
Rivera said the one thing the Panthers wanted to emphasize in the draft was vertical speed.
Mission accomplished. Times two.
“It’s definitely going to be a great offense,” Samuel said shortly after the Panthers picked him.
“I’ve seen what (McCaffrey) can do. I feel like he’s a terrific player, a great player. He can line up in the slot sometimes. He can run the ball out of the backfield.
“We both do similar things. But we complement each other well. I feel like we’ll do a great job there and it’ll be a terrific time playing there. I’m excited.”
When he visited the Panthers during the pre-draft process, Samuel said coaches talked to him about the direction the offense was heading. Samuel, a high school running back from Brooklyn, N.Y., who played mostly H-back at Ohio State, was just the kind of multidimensional athlete the Panthers were looking for.
“They want a slot receiver guy that can also line up in the backfield and do multiple things. Just go in the slot and do a bunch of things there, too,” Samuel said. “What they were telling me, I feel like I was the perfect fit.”
Not all of the scheme changes are new. Rivera said the Panthers want to utilize one of their wrinkles from the Super Bowl season in 2015, when slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery sometimes would line up in the backfield and offensive coordinator Mike Shula would run option plays out of that look.
It remains to be seen how all these new and returning pieces will fit in Shula, and whether Shula can find innovative ways to get the ball to everyone.
Newton posted a career-worst 52.9 completion percentage in 2016. But that figure is almost certain to improve now that he’ll have the option of throwing shorter passes and letting the new guys do the rest.
“We have so many great backs on this team. I think all of us can help him in different ways. I think we all bring different skill sets to the table,” McCaffrey said.
More outlets, fewer hits
McCaffrey then expanded on an area where he can be of use to the 2015 league MVP.
“Just to be an outlet for him, so he doesn’t have to take hits,” he said. “And not just be a dump-down, 2- or 3-yard pass. But make some of these runs and these passes into big plays and put a lot of points on the board.”
The Panthers envision McCaffrey and Samuel causing matchup issues for nickel backs and linebackers. Matchup problems in space can result in big plays.
“These guys have the ability to take the ball and go any time,” Rivera said.
The Panthers still have the option to grind it out with power back Jonathan Stewart. And Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen is certain to continue to play a big role in the offense, while the hope is the light will come on and stay on for Benjamin and Funchess.
In the meantime, the Panthers got younger – McCaffrey and Samuel are still not of legal drinking age – faster and more dynamic.
Let the evolution begin.