Carolina Panthers

Which Panthers backup RB — if any — can ease the load on star Christian McCaffrey?

Ron Rivera talks about adding a running back

The Carolina Panthers love Christian McCaffrey and want a second running back possibly like him
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The Carolina Panthers love Christian McCaffrey and want a second running back possibly like him

No matter the metric you use, one thing is abundantly clear about Christian McCaffrey:

He’s absolutely capable of shouldering the offensive load for the Carolina Panthers — and then some.

Running the ball? McCaffrey racked up 1,098 rushing yards in 2018, his second season, and did so averaging 5 yards per carry. Catching the ball? He also had 861 receiving yards, courtesy of an NFL-record 107 receptions by a running back. Dependability? He played 91.3 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, more than any other running back in the league.

Heck, he even threw for a 50-yard touchdown.

McCaffrey, perhaps as much as Cam Newton, is what makes the Panthers offense go, from his rushing and receiving to just being a decoy on certain plays. But for as versatile and talented as he is, McCaffrey’s also not a machine.

So, which backup running back is prepared to help shoulder the load this season?

Coach Ron Rivera said this spring that adding a secondary runner behind McCaffrey was a goal for the offseason.

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

The team responded by re-signing free agents Cameron Artis-Payne and Elijah Hood, the latter of whom missed last season with a knee injury. Carolina then drafted Florida’s Jordan Scarlett in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. To round out their running back room, the Panthers scooped up undrafted rookie free-agent Elijah Holyfield from Georgia.

One of those players must emerge as a competent complement to McCaffrey this season. For as good as McCaffrey is, the Panthers don’t want to (literally) run one of their most talented players into the ground.

Breakout candidate

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Fifth-round draft pick Jordan Scarlett doesn’t offer much as a receiving option at running back, but the Panthers will still give the former Florida Gator a chance to help lighten the load on starter Christian McCaffrey. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Scarlett slipped to the fifth round of the draft due to character concerns from his time at Florida, but on the field, he might be Carolina’s best option to back up McCaffrey. He offers little to nothing in the receiving game, but his combination of speed (4.49 40-yard dash) and strength make him an interesting contender — how that translates with pads on in training camp is a different matter.

To be decided in camp

Who, if anyone, is capable of spelling McCaffrey. Norv Turner hasn’t been afraid to rely on one running back in years past — LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, anyone? — and if no one steps up, Carolina’s offensive coordinator might have his hands tied. Of course, that’s not the preferred course of action.

Underdog to watch

A slow 40-yard dash time kept Holyfield from getting selected, but he plays faster than he runs. The son of former boxing champion Evander Holyfield, he ran for over 1,000 yards last season at Georgia, combining his incredible physicality with a violent running style. If he can demonstrate that same ability to break tackles at the pro level and contribute on special teams, Holyfield might be able to steal a roster spot.

Also keep an eye on...

He’s not technically in the mix to back up McCaffrey, but fullback Alex Armah will be an interesting chess piece for this offense. He doesn’t have a ton of experience running the ball, but after practicing running routes in spring minicamp, Armah could become a more full-fledged part of the offense in his third season.

Three bold predictions

Backup aside, McCaffrey becomes the third player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. To date, only Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk have accomplished the feat.

Given his central role in the offense, Newton still finishes as the team’s second-leading rusher for the second straight season.

Scarlett sets himself apart as McCaffrey’s backup, but neither he, Artis-Payne nor Holyfield rushes for 300 yards.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.

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