There’s no point in sugarcoating it: The Carolina Panthers’ running backs underwhelmed in 2017.
The tandem of Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey combined for 1,115 rushing yards (with 680 and 435, respectively) and the team’s leading rusher was quarterback Cam Newton (754 yards).
In fact, Newton also led the Panthers in yards per carry at 5.4, and Stewart averaged just 3.4 yards on 198 attempts. McCaffrey averaged 3.7 yards on 117 attempts.
Stewart was released in the spring, and the Panthers brought in another powerful downhill runner to complement McCaffrey’s shifty style: former Denver Bronco C.J. Anderson, who joined Carolina fresh off a 1,000-yard rushing season.
McCaffrey’s ability as a receiver was a tool the Panthers relied on heavily during his rookie season. He caught 80 passes for 651 yards and five touchdowns. In Norv Turner’s offense, McCaffrey might see those numbers rise.
He’s also eager to show his ability as a runner after struggling to find a rhythm in limited carries last season. However, he’ll have to capitalize on the carries he gets, since it appears that Anderson will take the lead in the traditional running back role.
To be decided in camp
UNC and Charlotte Catholic product Elijah Hood wants to show he can be a staple in the Panthers’ running backs room. He’s competing to provide depth to Anderson and McCaffrey, against Cameron Artis-Payne, who is the current option, former Eagles running back Kenjon Barner and rookie Reggie Bonnafon.
Barner is a little slighter and shiftier than Anderson or Artis-Payne, so could provide depth behind McCaffrey and be a return man/special teams contributor.
Underdog to watch
There was a moment when it looked as if Artis-Payne would replace Stewart, before the Panthers’ signed Anderson. Artis-Payne, in his fourth season, made the most of his limited touches last fall and will still compete for the lead job.
Also keep an eye on...
How will the loss of All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell affect the run game? And will Turner’s use of Anderson and McCaffrey bring back flashbacks of his powerful Chargers offense with LaDanian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles? These are the two most pressing items to watch through training camp and the preseason.
Three bold predictions
▪ McCaffrey’s carries won’t go up by much, but he’ll have 900 receiving yards this season. Look out for “that wheel route.”
▪ Artis-Payne won’t get edged out by Hood, and Barner will make the 53-man roster and contribute on special teams with Fozzy Whittaker rehabilitating from an ACL tear.
▪ Anderson will wear his signature sweatsuit in the Spartanburg heat, much to the amazement of those present (and perspiring).