Carolina Panthers

The Panthers’ ideal complement to Christian McCaffrey might surprise you

You won’t find running backs like Christian McCaffrey in bulk at Costco. He’s a rarity at every level he’s played on.

Twenty-six running backs since 2000 finished their collegiate careers with 3,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 career receiving yards — none had more scrimmage yards in fewer games than McCaffrey. He’s one of six running backs since 1999 with 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in his first two NFL seasons — joining Edgerrin James, Reggie Bush, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson and Alvin Kamara.

Especially after his breakout 2018 season, McCaffrey is a Ferrari among Dodge Chargers. But as much as the Carolina Panthers enjoy their Ferrari, it’s in their best interest to get a second car.

That’s why adding a running back behind him is one of their priorities this offseason.

“Very much so, and that’s the intent, is to find that guy (to take some of the load off McCaffrey),” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “And understanding what Christian did last year, how many reps he played, that’s something we do have to be concerned with.

“Him touching the ball was no concern. It was just the extra plays. So we have to look at that and find a way to take that load from him.”

McCaffrey played 91 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps last season, even with three other active running backs on the roster. Elijah Hood re-signed with the team this week after missing the 2018 season with a knee injury, but Cameron Artis-Payne, Fozzy Whitaker, Kenjon Barner and Travaris Cadet are all set to hit free agency this offseason.

There are 27 potential candidates at the NFL scouting combine this week, including several who fit offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system.

That short list isn’t limited to the bruising backs in this draft class, like Michigan State’s L.J. Scott or Kentucky’s Benny Snell. While traditionally, a two-back offense featured a smaller, faster running back paired with a between-the-tackles back, that’s not quite the case in today’s NFL.

Now it’s all about versatility.

Arguably the three best “tandem” backfields in the NFL feature running backs who are effective in both the running and passing games — New Orleans’ Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler.

McCaffrey might be better than any of those aforementioned players and the Panthers aren’t interested in a timeshare at running back. Still, adding a back with a similar skill set would keep Carolina from becoming too predictable when McCaffrey leaves the field.

Read Next

“I think Christian shows you that he can carry the load no matter where he is,” Rivera said. “No matter where we run him — inside or outside, we run him out of the backfield as a receiver, that type of stuff. So really, (the Panthers’ second running back) would be a guy who has, I would say, an almost similar type of skill set, that’s probably what we are looking for.”

When the running backs take the field at the combine on Friday, keep an eye on a few players who showcased similar talents as McCaffrey in college — specifically the two Memphis backs, Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard.

Henderson left Memphis as the NCAA’s leader in career yards per carry since 1956 at 8.2 yards and despite his 3,545 career rushing yards, he only carried the ball 431 times in three seasons. He’s also an established receiver out of the backfield, catching 63 passes for 758 yards and eight touchdowns.

While Henderson (5-foot-8, 208 pounds) garnered most of the national acclaim, Pollard could be the better fit for the Panthers. As a hybrid running back and wide receiver, his rushing totals were modest — 941 career yards, albeit on just 139 carries. But he finished his career with 1,294 receiving yards on 104 catches, which is five more catches than McCaffrey had at Stanford for 86 more yards in the same number of seasons.

Pollard (6-foot, 210 pounds) is not a proven between-the-tackles runner, which is one reason why he won’t be taken as high as McCaffrey, or probably even Henderson. But he did rush for a game-high 60 yards on eight carries at the Senior Bowl in January, including a 21-yard score — and he was a nightmare for opponents as a kick returner, returning an NCAA-record seven kickoffs for touchdowns in his three-year career.

Wake Forest native and former Stanford back Bryce Love (5-foot-9, 200 pounds) is another option, although the torn right ACL he suffered in 2018 will hurt his draft stock.

While the Panthers recognize running back as a team need, improving their offensive and defensive lines remain their top priorities — so they likely won’t take a back until the mid- to late rounds.

But don’t be surprised if the one who ends up in Carolina looks familiar.

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.