The Panthers quietly finished fourth in the NFL in rushing yards last season, but the attack was paced statistically not by a running back, but by quarterback Cam Newton. The top running back in terms of yardage, Jonathan Stewart, is now with the Giants. The Panthers, however, added accomplished runner C.J. Anderson via free agency.
1) What will the running game look like with Anderson added to the mix?
Some say that 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the NFL aren’t that big of a deal, but in an era lacking in bell cow backs, just nine reached 1k in 2017. One of those was Anderson, released by the Broncos in a cost-cutting move in April. The Panthers, who had done much the same with Stewart a month-and-a-half before, signed Anderson after the NFL Draft.
Stewart, a veteran of 10 pro seasons, rushed for 680 yards in 2017. Anderson, now five seasons into his pro career, had 1,007 yards on the ground. Anderson can’t fully step into Stewart’s sizable shoes as a power back (he weighs about 15 pounds less). But while Anderson is a little smaller, he knows how to run strong between the tackles. He’s also a little more versatile, averaging about 50 percent more receptions per game than Stewart over their careers.
In other words, Anderson simply made too much sense for the Panthers not to pounce.
2) What will Christian McCaffrey’s role be in his second season?
The same question persisted this time last season, when McCaffrey was a rookie selected eighth overall in the draft. The answer in 2017 was that McCaffrey was a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses in the passing game but an inconsistent threat in the run game. McCaffrey caught 80 passes – the fourth most by a rookie running back in NFL history. He carried the ball only slightly more often (117 times).
In the eight games in which McCaffrey carried the ball seven or more times last season, he averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry five times. In the eight games with fewer than seven carries, he topped 4.0 yards per carry just once. When the Panthers parted ways with Stewart and didn’t draft a running back, talk that McCaffrey would get more carries in 2018 increased. But then Carolina added Anderson.
McCaffrey’s strength will continue to be his route-routing ability and explosiveness after the catch, but he also seems to get stronger the more time he carries the ball. So even with Anderson, expect an uptick in McCaffrey’s 7.3 carries per game as a rookie. In part because of the arrival of rookie receiver DJ Moore, who can work close to the line of scrimmage and who could curb McCaffrey’s reception totals. In part because the Panthers plan on being better on offense and thus having more first downs and thus more total snaps. And in part because he’s still a developing runner.
3) What’s the deal behind McCaffrey and Anderson?
Nine days after the NFL Draft, when Fozzy Whittaker suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the running back room was a quiet place, featuring only McCaffrey and Cameron Artis-Payne. Five days later it was bursting at the seams with the signings of Anderson and Kenjon Barner, the waiver claim of Elijah Hood and the addition of undrafted rookie Reggie Bonnafon.
Artis-Payne appeared to finally be in line for a much more significant role before the Panthers added Anderson. Artis-Payne stands at the ready to contribute but will again have to see how many chances come along. Barner, originally drafted by the Panthers in 2013, brings change-of-pace qualities of Whittaker. Hood is an intriguing young back, and don’t forget that the roster includes fullback Alex Armah, who saw some snaps at tight end in the spring.
There simply isn’t enough room for all the talent acquired late in the process. Keep in mind that Hood, Bonnafon - and Armah for that matter - will be eligible for practice squad consideration.