Scott Fowler

Why this nearly forgotten running back is making case to keep Panthers’ roster spot

Carolina Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne (34) has had a very good preseason, including a run of 43 yards in the most recent exhibition. But with Christian McCaffrey having been added to the backfield and starter Jonathan Stewart still going strong, Carolina has a crowded house at tailback.
Carolina Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne (34) has had a very good preseason, including a run of 43 yards in the most recent exhibition. But with Christian McCaffrey having been added to the backfield and starter Jonathan Stewart still going strong, Carolina has a crowded house at tailback. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Who am I?

I have led the Carolina Panthers in rushing yards and rushing average this preseason, averaging an impressive 8.4 yards per carry. In the most recent exhibition, I had both a 43-yard run and a touchdown. At one point in that game, I juked an opposing player so badly that he simply fell down.

If you said “Christian McCaffrey,” that’s understandable.

It’s also wrong. The correct answer is Cameron Artis-Payne, the nearly forgotten third-year back who has been thrust further into the shadows by the pomp and circumstance of McCaffrey’s arrival.

Artis-Payne has had “a really good camp,” according to coach Ron Rivera, as he makes his case for a roster spot and more playing time in the Panthers’ crowded backfield. Although McCaffrey is the one who has generated all the headlines, it is Artis-Payne who leads the team in most rushing categories after two games and rushed for 70 yards in only five carries Saturday.

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Cameron Artis-Payne scored on this run against Tampa Bay in October 2016. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The player that many call “Cap” due to his initials should play a good bit once more Thursday night when Carolina takes on Jacksonville in the third preseason game. Although the former fifth-round draft pick out of Auburn has had limited action during his first two seasons as a Panther, he has never lacked for confidence. When I asked him what he believed his niche would be on the 2017 Panthers, Artis-Payne shrugged.

“I can pretty much do anything,” he said.

Carolina Panthers rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne talks about his playing abilities and his new nickname.

The problem for Artis-Payne in his first two seasons has been that he is a power runner very much in the mold of Jonathan Stewart, and Stewart is a respected veteran who has kept a firm grasp on the No.1 running back position.

“He’s a very productive back,” Rivera said of Artis-Payne, “and he’s done it ever since he’s been here. He’s just in a tough position because Jonathan has had three really good years for us as of late.”

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Carolina Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne breaks to the outside against the Atlanta Falcons during his rookie year of 2015. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Now Artis-Payne would appear to be in an even tougher position. McCaffrey is so different than Stewart – smaller, more elusive and capable of scoring on any play – that he appears to be a natural fit as the Panthers’ No. 2 back and also their third-down back.

Where does that leave Artis-Payne? Will he even make the team?

“Who knows?” Artis-Payne said. “I’m just focusing on one practice at a time and one game at a time. I can only control what I can control.”

Stewart has missed three games apiece in each of the past two years with injuries, and Artis-Payne has gotten the bulk of his playing time in those games. Artis-Payne has been solid in 81 career carries, averaging 4 yards per rush and scoring three career touchdowns (all against Tampa Bay, oddly enough).

Artis-Payne also plays special teams, which is part of the reason I think he will ultimately make Carolina’s 53-man roster once again. “That’s something you’ve got to do if you’re not the starter in this league,” he said.

But the next two preseason games will be important for Artis-Payne as he once again tries to prove his worth. “We’ve got a lot of pieces this year,” Rivera said, “and I do believe he fits in our puzzle. We’ll see how it goes.”

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