Carolina Panthers

McCaffrey-Stewart-Samuel running back trio a nightmare for opposing defenses

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart should have an easier time staying healthy in 2017 with Christian McCaffrey to share the load.
Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart should have an easier time staying healthy in 2017 with Christian McCaffrey to share the load. AP

With just a few days left until the Carolina Panthers head to Spartanburg for training camp (and a recent flurry of front-office activity), the largest questions left looming around the team are about the offense.

The task of Carolina’s running backs, in particular, is a tall one. The group – lead back Jonathan Stewart, rookie and No. 8 overall pick Christian McCaffrey and, at times, rookie and No. 40 overall pick Curtis Samuel, Cameron Artis-Payne and veteran Fozzy Whittaker – have two responsibilities this season: Provide a jolt for an offense that sagged last season, and take some of the pressure off of quarterback Cam Newton as a runner.

Questions about roles players will play within these tasks, especially in regards to how Stewart and McCaffrey will split carries, linger. But because McCaffrey and Samuel offer so much more than the traditional back, it’s better to loosen the definition of a “starting” running back and a “backup” in the coming months.

For example, Stewart, who missed three games last year because of injury but rushed for 824 yards and nine touchdowns, will still be the solid power-back option whose style exists to wear out a defensive line. McCaffrey is fleet, agile and known for his patience in finding gaps and extending plays by making linebackers miss.

The same is true for Samuel. It’s not so much one back taking away from another, but the group complementing each other.

Carolina Panthers' first-round pick Christian McCaffrey, after first rookie minicamp practice, says that the "best players try to not slow down when they put the pads on."

Breakout candidate

Because McCaffrey, Stewart, Samuel and Newton can all be dynamic as runners, don’t expect a 1,500-yard season from any one of them as they all should be used efficiently and at different times according to the situation and Carolina’s playbook.

Still, McCaffrey mania has overtaken Charlotte, and expectations are high. The do-it-all Stanford phenom has all the tools needed for a 500-yard rushing, 500-yard receiving season.

Christian McCaffrey(2)
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) could push for 1,000 yards combined rushing and receiving – or more – in 2017. He won’t have to carry the entire load. Alex Kormann

To be decided in camp ...

Backup running back Cameron Artis-Payne has not contributed much to Carolina’s offense, in part because of Stewart’s role as the feature back. Now Artis-Payne may be the odd man out.

Underdog to watch

Whittaker, a veteran pass-catching running back, has been in the league too long to really be an “underdog” – yet with two young, fast pass-catching backs now on the roster in McCaffrey and Samuel, seeing what’s left for Whittaker will be interesting. Will he be phased out, or will he be the guiding presence for the rookies?

Also keep an eye on ...

Carolina lost its veteran fullback, Mike Tolbert, in free agency and will work out newcomers Darrel Young and rookie Alex Armah at the position. How they are used – especially the versatile Armah, who played linebacker and tight end in high school and college – will be a focus point in camp.

Curtis Samuel(2)
Rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel, right, gives offensive coordinator Mike Shula, left, a versatile option to expand the offense this season. Jeff Siner

Three bold predictions

▪  McCaffrey’s first touchdown comes in Week 1 against San Francisco, in front of the fans who watched him at Stanford and former Cardinal teammate Solomon Thomas, the 49ers’ first-round draft pick.

▪  Stewart stays healthy in 2017 thanks to sharing the load with McCaffrey, and has a few outings reminiscent of his memorable “run-so-hard-his-facemask-came-off” game against Washington last season.

▪  McCaffrey, already a fan-favorite, will be asked to sign some odd things in Spartanburg. The two top guesses are a baby and a rarely public body part.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue