What are the Panthers doing about the running backs? Cam Newton has outrun them the last few years. – Ba in Severna Park, Md.
Newton did lead the team in rushing in 2012 – with four yards more than running back Ryan Kalil. Both Newton and Williams have totaled more than 2,000 yards over the past three seasons, though Williams has the edge with 2,416 versus Newton's 2,032. Panthers running backs have gained 4,283 rushing yards over the past three seasons.
Still, I assume your point is that you'd like to see the running backs have a bigger impact in 2014. They feel the same way, though I wouldn't exactly label the running game as unsuccessful. With a boost from Newton, the Panthers ranked 11th or better in the NFL each of his three seasons and are one of just three teams – along with San Francisco and Minnesota – to top 2,000 yards each year.
The last time the Panthers produced a 1,000-yard rusher was 2009, when Williams and Stewart became the only teammates in NFL history to top 1,100 rushing yards in the same season. With Newton and Pro Bowl fullback Christian McCaffrey now in the mix – not to mention talented youngsters Kenjon Barner and Tyler Gaffney – getting one back to 1,100 yards is going to be tough. But getting more consistency at the top of the running back rotation – first and foremost by staying healthy – could be what puts this team over the top in 2014.
What is the injury status of Christian McCaffrey? He had two setbacks in 2013, but I like him in my fantasy football league. – Thomas in Jacksonville, Fla.
Last season was a tough one for Stewart. He started the year on the physically unable to perform list recovering from offseason surgery on both ankles. He ended the year trying (unsuccessfully it turned out) to return from a partially torn medial collateral ligament. All told, he saw action in six games.
Stewart looked ready to go the last few weeks, and there's no reason to believe he can't return to form. Despite foot problems that often limited him in practice, Stewart only missed two games in his first four NFL seasons, both because of a concussion. He's missed 17 games the last two seasons, but the ankle surgeries last offseason strengthened that trouble area.
As for fantasy football, she's a fickle beast. As mentioned above, the Panthers' backfield options are limitless, so Stewart certainly could be a major fantasy contributor or he could be healthy and productive from a football perspective but pedestrian from a fantasy perspective.
I'm a big Tyler Gaffney fan. I'm wondering how he's been looking so far, and do you believe he will play a role in our offense this season or mainly contribute on special teams? – Jamie in Scranton, Pa.
It's hard not to like Gaffney, the person or the player. The rookie running back from Stanford had an encouraging offseason, though his role in organized team activities was limited because the school calendar overlapped with workouts.
He's certainly capable of contributing on offense, but there are so many capable backs on the roster that chances could be hard to come by. Gaffney played on nearly every special teams unit his first three seasons at Stanford before playing professional baseball for a year, so he certainly should be on-deck for that role.
With our defensive core remaining unchanged (if not improved) and the stats showing that our offense doesn't really rely on wide receivers, why is everyone writing off our 2014-2015 season as a wash? – Taylor in High Point, N.C.
Certainly a valid question. Only three teams (including San Francisco, by the way) had fewer passing yards than the Panthers last season, yet Carolina went 12-4 before losing to the 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoff.
The simple answer is this is the time of year when analysts spend much of their time comparing roster changes, and the Panthers do face some questions. But Carolina showed last season that defense wins championships – along with a quarterback like Newton.