Carolina Panthers

Panthers analysis: It’s Christian McCaffrey’s backfield, we’re all just living in it

Assessing the Carolina Panthers’ status and needs, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. Next up: Running Backs.

Three things to know

Christian McCaffrey might be the most versatile running back in the NFL: To the surprise of his many critics before his rookie season, McCaffrey is doing exactly the same thing in the NFL that he did at Stanford. He’s a three-down back who both eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark and broke the Panthers’ single-season reception record — in just his second season.

McCaffrey plays an insane percentage of the offense’s snaps — with no backup plan in place: McCaffrey played 91 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps, and played every snap in five straight games from Week 10 to Week 14. His usage rate as a runner isn’t as high as you’d think but there’s no concrete plan behind him if he were to miss time. The Panthers will likely address that this offseason.

Yes, Carolina cut C.J. Anderson — but for good reason: Anderson is the darling of the NFL over the past few weeks, rushing for 422 yards and four touchdowns in three games with the Los Angeles Rams. Panthers fans were understandably upset with the team for cutting him after he signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal with Carolina this past offseason. However, the Panthers’ staff was dead-set on McCaffrey being the focal point of the offense, and the necessity of his constant presence on the field made Anderson expendable.

On the roster

Christian McCaffrey: The re-incarnation of Marshall Faulk, McCaffrey is the most important offensive player in Carolina not named Cam Newton. Known for his insane work ethic, there’s little reason to believe he won’t improve in his third pro season. That being said, he could use a guy who can spell him throughout the season in 2019.

Cameron Artis-Payne: He’s never handled more than 45 carries in a season but the Panthers like Artis-Payne and there’s a reason they’ve kept him around. The fifth-year back out of Auburn never got the “honest look” coach Ron Rivera wanted to give him but he does fit the build of a chain-moving back at 5-foot-10, 215 pounds.

Travaris Cadet: The Panthers added Cadet after releasing Anderson mainly for depth. He only played in one game for Carolina — the season-finale against New Orleans. He is an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Also: Alex Armah is keeping the fullback position alive for the Panthers and Kenjon Barner operates as the team’s main return man — at least, he did before injuring his knee before the final game of the season.

Free agent possibilities

Mark Ingram, Saints: He’s already shown he can operate in a 1B role to Alvin Kamara’s 1A. The issue here, however, is whether he’d be willing to leave a proven winner for the same situation in Carolina.

Mike Davis, Seahawks: He’s the third-fiddle in Seattle and a virtual lock to leave this offseason. The former South Carolina Gamecock is a traditional north-south runner. He could thrive as a No. 2 back after averaging 4.6 yards per carry in 2018.

T.J. Yeldon, Jaguars: Some team might sign Yeldon by offering an opportunity to compete for the starting job. The Panthers are not one of those teams, but he is a good receiver out of the backfield and would make their offense less predictable if and when McCaffrey leaves the field.

Draft possibilities

Damien Harris, Alabama: Josh Jacobs is the Alabama running back the world can’t stop talking about but if Harris drops to the third round, Marty Hurney should do whatever he can to get him in Panther blue. Harris is not only a tough runner but a solid receiver out of the backfield and would offer little drop-off from McCaffrey once he gets settled.

Benny Snell, Kentucky: A hammer out of the backfield at 5-foot-10, 223 pounds, Snell would be an intriguing late-round prospect for the Panthers. He was highly productive at Kentucky and could both move the stick in short-yardage situations and pass block on third down.

David Montgomery, Iowa State: He’s a slippery runner at 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, who also offers value in the passing game as a precise route runner. He was once projected to be the first running back taken in the 2019 draft, so it’s difficult to nail down what his range will be. He’s worthy of mid-round consideration if he’s still on the board.

The bottom line

The Panthers’ running back position begins and ends with Christian McCaffrey but it’ll be interesting to see exactly how the team goes about building depth behind him. Snell could be a perfect fit to complement McCaffrey’s style and won’t be as expensive as signing a free agent to fill that role.

Everyone involved in the decision-making process has expressed confidence in McCaffrey’s ability to handle whatever workload he’s given — but conventional wisdom says Carolina will add a quality backup this offseason, or possibly a “1B” back a la what the Panthers had with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Either way, you should not be afraid to draft McCaffrey with a top-four pick in your fantasy football draft next year.

Marcel Louis-Jacques covers the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer, keeping you on top of Panthers news both on the field and behind the scenes. He is a 2014 graduate of Arizona State University and grew up in Sacramento, California.