SPARTANBURG — The NFL as a whole might not value running backs at the moment, but the Panthers and head coach Frank Reich still do.
That's why this offseason, they made it a priority to get the guy they thought was perfect for the project they were putting together, even if it ran counter to the current economic trends.
That's how important they think Miles Sanders will be to this offense.
Giving Sanders a four-year, $25 million contract made him one of the few veteran backs to earn a decent payday, as franchise-tagged runners, such as Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard, among others, have struggled to get what used to be considered market value.
For the Panthers, it seemed natural since they knew going into free agency they'd have a rookie quarterback, and they wanted to insulate him with a versatile talent like Sanders.
"All I can say is the way we look at it, and obviously, we still value the running back," Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said. "In Frank's offense, the running back is a very important position, not only a guy that can run the ball but a guy that can catch the ball. And you couple that with having a rookie quarterback, you need a good running back. We think we have three that can really support a quarterback.
"We still value the running back position."
Reich's track record underscores the need.
When he coached the Colts, he only had one season with a huge pass-run discrepancy, and that was his first year. Having Andrew Luck at quarterback was reason enough to throw it 644 times and run just 408 times as a team. By his final full year with the Colts, when he had a non-Luck at quarterback (Carson Wentz), the Colts threw it 521 times and ran it 499. That year, running back Jonathan Taylor had 332 carries for 1,811 yards.
Reich and Fitterer have also talked about using the entire backfield, as there are a few solid options behind Sanders.
While Chuba Hubbard and Raheem Blackshear have shown signs of being capable backs in their own right, they clearly brought Sanders here to be the guy. Fitterer compared it to adding Marshawn Lynch in Seattle, knowing they wanted a bell-cow back to help ease the load on an eventual rookie quarterback, and he helped carry Russell Wilson and the Seahawks to a Super Bowl title.
So as they went through their free agency meetings with a new coaching staff, Sanders quickly went to the top of the wish list.
Assistant head coach Duce Staley coached Sanders when he was a rookie with the Eagles. Sanders caught 50 passes that year, and even if he might not approach that kind of output, having a back who could catch was key to the notion of making life easier for Bryce Young — before they even knew for sure that it would be Young.
"I want him to be productive in this offense," Staley said Thursday. "That was a totally different offense back then. We threw to the back a lot. And I'm not saying we're not going to do that here. But throwing to the back was a main focus back when he was a rookie.
"I know he can do it. I know he will do it. And whatever the job is, when we call on him, he's going to do it."
It sounds a little like a demand from Staley as much as a suggestion, but that's just how he talks. For his part, Sanders said reuniting with his former coach was one of the main reasons he wanted to come here, along with the new running concepts offensive coordinator (and also a former NFL running back) Thomas Brown is bringing with him.
"Super excited. That's my guy, Duce," Sanders said. "It's been a long time coming. I told him I'd be back with him, and we made it happen. Thomas, I'm looking forward to what he's got planned for us; I'm liking the offense so far."
And he looks like a fit.
While the Eagles used to feature their backs as receivers, Sanders showed last year what he could do in the traditional running back role. With a career-high 259 carries, he responded with a career-high 1,269 yards.
So if you're trying to make life easier for your quarterback, that's what you want.
After making a Super Bowl run with Jalen Hurts last year in Philadelphia, Sanders said he's been impressed with what he's seen from Young so far — "That boy's sharp," he said — but knows that putting this offense together will be a gradual process over the course of camp.
"We've got to go through camp and see how we look," Sanders said. "We can't base it on OTAs; there's no pads or anything serious going on. We just have to take it day by day and see how everything turns out."
For his part, he's putting in the time. Sanders is generally the first player on the practice field each day, which gives him time to get extra work on the Jugs machine and go through a substantial stretching routine.
He's preparing for a big role here, and every minute counts. That's why all his focus is on camp.
While other backs around the league are trying to figure out ways to get them all paid — Chargers running back Austin Ekeler recently hosted a conference call for backs on the topic, which Sanders didn't participate in — Sanders has made his thoughts clear previously.
During an offseason appearance on The Rich Eisen Show, Sanders voiced the frustration of all his brethren at the position.
"It's nothing that we're doing wrong," Sanders said on the show. "We're doing everything that we have to do as far as on the field and stuff like that. For people and GMs or owners to think that running backs are not as valued as much is a lie because you've got to see how everything plays out. You've got to see what guys like Christian McCaffrey, the stuff he does, things that Saquon Barkley (does), the things that Josh Jacobs (does) consistently each year. ...
"You want to franchise tag and create a certain market for running backs just because you have this way of thinking that they only last three or four years. I think it's B.S., honestly. Almost every running back is underpaid right now. I don't know what it's going to take. That's a topic that needs to be brought up a little more because it sucks to be a running back right now, honestly."
When he arrived at camp, Sanders didn't back away from it; he just preferred to talk more about the here and now.
"I said my thoughts. They've heard my thoughts before, so I'm just focusing on football," he said. "That's how the market went; that's how difficult it is for running backs. But I'm here at training camp, and that's all I'm worried about."
And because they knew they wanted a guy with Sanders' ability — and his focus on fitting in — as part of this new offense, they didn't mind paying him.
The way Staley described it, it's further evidence of the aggressive nature of the organization, after stacking a coaching staff full of big names and then trading for the top pick in the draft to find that quarterback for Sanders to support.
"I mean, he fits what we do," Staley said of Sanders. "We turned the tape on; we liked what we saw. And on this coaching staff, Frank leads the charge; then he gets together with Scott and those guys.
"And when we see something we like, we go get it."
View photos from the second day of training camp at Wofford College.