Most of the offseason talk surrounding the Carolina Panthers offense has focused on new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, quarterback Cam Newton and the arsenal of receivers at their disposal.
But what about running back?
The team released Jonathan Stewart, its all-time leading rusher and primary between-the-tackles runner, in March. Then the Panthers opted not to select a replacement in April's NFL draft, opting instead to sign veterans C.J. Anderson and Kenjon Barner. Elijah Hood, a former Charlotte Catholic and UNC standout, was also signed.
Other than those three, Christian McCaffrey and Cameron Artis-Payne are the two holdovers at running back. Everyone saw in McCaffrey's rookie season the kind of versatile, do-everything weapon he could be.
So where does that leave Artis-Payne?
"I feel good out here," Artis-Payne said after Tuesday's OTAs. "I'm getting acclimated again, getting used to football and the competition, and just trying to continuously improve.
My plan is to do the same thing I've done every year since I've been here — outplay everybody — and see where we'll fall after that."
No more excuses for 'messing up out there'
When the Panthers drafted Artis-Payne in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, he'd only been a starter at Auburn for one season.
No matter. That long season as the lead back, CAP registered over 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground in the highly competitive SEC. It may not have been the biggest sample size, but that year alone proved Artis-Payne had the talent to succeed in the NFL.
But since he's been in Carolina, Artis-Payne has been more a developmental piece than a true ball carrier. His rookie season, he had 45 carries for 183 yards and one score. Each of the past two seasons, those numbers have steadily dwindled. Even given Stewart's ineffectiveness in 2017, CAP only received 18 carries over 13 games.
That trend seemed poised to reverse itself this season, though, following Stewart's departure. Artis-Payne said he hasn't changed the way he approaches practice or conditioning now that he is the team's longest-tenured back, but did note that his situation is different.
"Yeah, it feels a little bit strange," Artis-Payne said. "It's different being a guy that's considered a veteran versus being a young guy. You don't get a pass for messing up out there, since I've been here before (laughs).
"But all in all, football is football, man."
'I wish we had ... given him more exposure'
With Stewart out of the equation, CAP was poised to assume a larger share of the carries this season. Given McCaffrey's pass-catching proficiency out of the backfield — he had only 435 yards rushing last season, compared to 80 catches for 651 yards — and chance-of-pace ability as a runner, the team still needed a back capable of running between the tackles.
Despite already having Artis-Payne on the roster, the team opted to sign Anderson (5-foot-8, 224 pounds) after the draft. Anderson figures to be Artis-Payne's primary competition for early-down and goal-line carries throughout the summer.
"It's just healthy competition," Artis-Payne said. "We all are trying to make each other better at the end of the day. Trying to increase our productivity in the running back room, that's our only goal."
And while competition is always the mantra this time of year, coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday that Artis-Payne has impressed so far this offseason.
"I tell you, he's got a tremendous work ethic going. His attitude has been great, just like it was last year in training camp," Rivera said. "One of the things I wish we had done was given him more exposure, just so we know what we've got.
"It's a little bit of a learning process for him and for us about him, as well, so we're excited for him to get this opportunity."
With the rest of the summer still up for grabs, there's plenty of time for CAP to showcase his talents and earn a larger work share. That's what he's asking for, after all — the chance to prove himself in live action.
The chance to play.
"Since I've been here, I always could run the ball, so that's not really the issue," Artis-Payne said. "(It's about opportunity) pretty much."