Summer Scouting: NFC South running backs

After starting this summer series with linebackers, this week we go to the offensive side of the ball to take a look at the running backs of the NFC South. Last season, the division's backs ranked last in the NFL in cumulative rush attempts and rushing yards. Let's find out why as we go team-by-team through the backfields.

Carolina Panthers

Christian McCaffrey came close to 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in 2018. Could he pull it off in 2019?
Christian McCaffrey came close to 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in 2018. Could he pull it off in 2019?

THE SKINNY: Carolina's ground game has ranked inside the top four in three of the last four seasons. Since 2008, the Panthers have the most total rush yards in the NFL. The run game has always been important in Carolina, and that will continue with running back Christian McCaffrey entering his third season.

WHAT WORKED IN 2018: McCaffrey set an NFL record with 107 receptions, the most by a running back in a single season. He also became just the third player in NFL history to go over 100 receptions and 1,000 rushing yards in one season.

WHAT DIDN'T WORK IN 2018: The Panthers didn't have a supporting rushing game. It was all McCaffrey, all the time. With quarterback Cam Newton banged up in the second half of the season and C.J. Anderson released, the Panthers went without multiple 500-yard rushers in a season for only the third time since 2004.

WHO'S BACK FOR 2019: McCaffrey's spent the offseason getting ready for another huge workload. Cameron Artis-Payne also returns after seeing limited action his first four seasons.

WHO'S NEW FOR 2019: Carolina drafted Jordan Scarlett out of Florida in the fifth round, and signed Elijah Holyfield out of Georgia as an undrafted free agent.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARKS: Will Carolina spread out McCaffrey's reps? Last season, he played over 90 percent of the offensive snaps and head coach Ron Rivera has said he wants to lower that number. If that actually happens, who will get those snaps?

Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) runs with the ball during an NFL game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Thursday Sept. 6, 2018, Philadelphia. The Eagles defeated the Falcons 18-12. (Al Tielemans via AP)
Devonta Freeman will look to return to form after missing most of the 2018 season with injuries.

THE SKINNY: Atlanta ranked 27th in rushing in 2018 as running back Devonta Freeman played in only two games before knee and groin injuries ended his season. Atlanta is counting on him to be fully healthy in 2019.

WHAT WORKED IN 2018: With Freeman out, Tevin Coleman rushed for a career-high 800 yards.

WHAT DIDN'T WORK IN 2018: Injuries. There was Freeman, but starting offensive linemen Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco also missed significant time. The Falcons had a significant 1-2 punch with Freeman and Coleman in 2017, but were made one-dimensional in 2018.

WHO'S BACK FOR 2019: Freeman comes back from injury, and Ito Smith returns for his sophomore season after tallying just 3.5 yards a carry as a rookie. The Falcons allowed Coleman to leave as a free agent, and he will be suiting up with the 49ers this season.

WHO'S NEW FOR 2019: The Falcons drafted Qadree Ollison (Pittsburgh) in the fifth round and Marcus Green (Louisiana-Monroe) in the sixth. They also signed former Panthers running back Kenjon Barner.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARKS: Can Freeman return to full strength? Will Smith's production increase in year two?

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (44) runs upfield against the Los Angeles Rams during the NFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. The Rams defeated the Saints 26-23 in overtime. (Kevin Terrell via AP)
Alvin Kamara is one of the league's best young dual-threat running backs.

THE SKINNY: Over the last two years, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara totaled 5,501 scrimmage yards, the most of any running back duo in the NFL. That combo helped lead the Saints to back-to-back NFC South titles.

WHAT WORKED IN 2018: Kamara found the end zone. He totaled 14 rushing touchdowns and another four through the air for the second-most scores of any running back. As a team, the Saints led the league with 26 rushing touchdowns.

WHAT DIDN'T WORK IN 2018: Very little. The Saints running game was a strong complement to the passing game, keeping opponents off-balance. New Orleans finished sixth in rushing despite Ingram missing the first four games with a PED suspension.

WHO'S BACK FOR 2019: Kamara returns for his third season. His statistics have tracked very close to McCaffrey in terms of rushing, receiving and scoring, and the two have raced to rewrite NFL records for dual-threat running backs.

Ingram will be a big loss as he heads to Baltimore as a free agent. A 2011 first round pick for New Orleans, Ingram finished his Saints career just 89 rushing yards short of Deuce McAllister's franchise record.

WHO'S NEW FOR 2019: The Saints signed former Vikings and Raiders running back Latavius Murray, who's averaged 818.5 rushing yards per year over the last four seasons. They also signed former Ravens running back Javorius Allen.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARKS: What sort of role will Murray play as the new addition to the backfield? Does Kamara play more than the 62 percent of snaps he saw in 2018?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Peyton Barber (25) runs against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Peyton Barber looks to improve the Bucs' running game and get into the end zone in 2019.

THE SKINNY: The Buccaneers finished 29th in rushing last season, so they've fallen far since they were a top-five rushing team in 2015.

WHAT WORKED IN 2018: Peyton Barber has improved in each of his three seasons, tallying a career-best 871 rushing yards in 2018.

WHAT DIDN'T WORK IN 2018: Tampa Bay couldn't convert runs into touchdowns. The backs only scored seven rushing touchdowns, tied for 26th in the NFL.

WHO'S BACK FOR 2019: Barber will enter his fourth season as the Bucs' primary running back, and Ronald Jones, a 2018 second-round draft pick, returns after just 23 carries in 2018. Backup Jacquizz Rodgers wasn't re-signed in the spring.

WHO'S NEW FOR 2019: The Bucs signed former Texans and Cardinals back Andre Ellington, a sixth-year player out of Clemson. Ellington played for new Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians when Arians was at Arizona between 2013-16.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARKS: Can Barber become an elite running back? Who will the Buccaneers turn to in the red zone?


Finally, here are some superlatives for the NFC South running backs:

BEST NEWCOMER: Murray is a veteran player with a history of production, and the Saints have shown they want to utilize multiple backs in their system.

MOST UNDERRATED: Smith is young and played in a tough situation last season with Atlanta. But he showed some flashes and could be a nice complement to a healthy Freeman.

CAN'T MISS ON TV: McCaffrey accounted for some of Carolina's most memorable plays in 2018: throwing a 50-yard touchdown pass, leaping a Buccaneers defender, catching a deflected pass in the end zone, stiff-arming multiple defenders, making one-handed catches. He also scored 12 total touchdowns in the season's final 10 weeks, more than any other NFL player in that span. McCaffrey is must-see TV.

MOST WELL-ROUNDED: With the addition of Murray, the Saints edge the Panthers in this category. McCaffrey and Kamara are nearly identical in terms of production, but Carolina doesn't have a proven backup running back.