As the Panthers prepare for training camp, we're going to take a position-by-position look at what to expect when they get to Spartanburg. Today we're taking a look at the running backs.
CHARLOTTE — It's become trendy in recent years to devalue the running back position.
The Panthers were a perfect example last year of how much value the right running back can have.
With Christian McCaffrey, there were reasonable hopes the Panthers could be an excellent offense last year. Without Christian McCaffrey, a previously competent quarterback struggled, and an entire offense failed to find its footing.
When a series of injuries limited McCaffrey to three games last year, the Panthers failed to find an identity on offense, leading in part to the offseason change at quarterback (with the team trading for Sam Darnold and then sending Teddy Bridgewater to Denver).
It would be unfair and inaccurate to say McCaffrey's absence was the reason for that change, but it's also clear that his absence contributed to Bridgewater's struggles. And it's also fair to say that McCaffrey's return to health is part of the reason they felt good about changing to Darnold, who has never enjoyed this kind of skill position talent in his first three NFL seasons with the Jets.
McCaffrey proved in his last healthy season that he's the kind of player you can build an offense around. In 2019, he had 1,387 rushing yards and another 1,005 receiving, as he led the league with 2,392 yards from scrimmage.
Backup Mike Davis, now in Atlanta, did the best he could and got to a career-best 1,015 yards from scrimmage last year. It was a fine season; it just wasn't what they were banking on from the position.
But McCaffrey's back now and 100 percent healthy, which could be the single-most-important piece of news in a busy offseason for the Panthers.
What's new: With Davis leaving in free agency for his hometown Falcons, the Panthers needed a dependable backup.
They hope they found a possibility in the draft, choosing Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard in the fourth round. A former top sprinter in Canada, Hubbard showed game-breaking speed during the 2019 season (including 171 yards and two touchdowns against Matt Rhule's Baylor team).
Hubbard missed some time during the spring with a soft-tissue injury, limiting the amount of on-field work he could get in.
They also have a couple of new fullbacks in camp after Alex Armah left in free agency, with Mikey Daniel and Mason Stokke trying to carve a niche for themselves.
What's old: The Panthers still have some familiar faces in the backfield, with holdovers Rodney Smith, Trenton Cannon, and Reggie Bonnafon.
Each of them has shown a flash or two that could intrigue a team, but the door is open for someone to claim the top backup role.
Cannon has taken reps with the receivers during the spring, and provides a different element in the backfield.
What we know: McCaffrey is really good at football. They missed him an awful lot last year.
What we don't: Whether any of these backups is ready to be the guy if the worst-case scenario unfolds again.
Hubbard has been a high-volume rusher at least once in his career, but will need to stay available and be ready for a big workload in the preseason to prove himself trustworthy at this level.
What to expect: McCaffrey, all of 25 years old, qualifies as a veteran around here at this point. And even though he's back to full speed, the Panthers weren't going to overwork him this spring. During one minicamp practice, they even let him serve as a coach, calling the timeouts for the offense during situational work.
They know what he can do when he's well, so making sure they have enough reps to see what they have behind him will be a key during camp.
The Panthers were a good example last year of how much value the right running back can have.
Carolina returns to training camp at Wofford in 2021 after practicing in Charlotte in 2020. View photos of several current Panthers veterans from the 2019 training camp in Spartanburg, S.C.