What's next for Carolina at running back?

INDIANAPOLIS – What does the future hold for Carolina’s running back situation?

We know Christian McCaffrey, last year’s eighth overall pick, will be a huge part of the offense.

But following the release of veteran Jonathan Stewart we’re left to wonder who will share the workload in the backfield.

Days of the feature backs who touch the ball 25 times a game appear to be long gone, and that was never going to be in the cards for an undersized back like McCaffrey. The NFL has become a game that features a running back partnership, if not a committee.

“I think you do need to have that in the NFL today,” head coach Ron Rivera said Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “It’s tough to have one guy that just dominates a game for you.

“You have to have guys that have similar characteristics but also do something special that can separate them.”

Rivera’s first couple of years in Carolina featured the end of Stewart and DeAngelo Williams’ “Double Trouble” era. The duo, which is 1-2 in the team’s all-time rushing record book, famously became the first pair in NFL history to rush for over 1,100 yards in 2009.

So the Panthers know all about having a productive 1-2 punch in the backfield.

Their NFC South rivals know all about it, too.

This past season, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara of the Saints became the first NFL teammates to each surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

In 2016, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman of the Falcons combined for nearly 2,500 yards from scrimmage as Atlanta claimed the NFC Championship.

“New Orleans did a heck of a job this year showcasing their two guys, and we thought we did a heck of a job the year before doing that,” Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said Wednesday. “I think everyone realizes the importance of (having two dangerous backs) and what it can add to the offense. And people are now throwing to their running backs, and that’s a really, really important part to adding explosiveness to your game.

“Does it feel like it’s becoming more important? I believe so. Two contrasted running backs who present different things. We feel like we have that. In our mind, that keeps the defense on their toes a little bit.”

The Stewart-McCaffrey duo never really took off in 2017. Stewart, the powerful downhill runner, averaged 3.4 yards per carry in his 10th season, a career low. McCaffrey, playing the role of lightning to Stewart’s thunder, set a franchise record for catches by a running back with 80, but his 3.7-yard rushing average wasn’t much better than Stewart’s.

As a rookie, McCaffrey’s struggles as a ball-carrier weren’t all that unexpected. It takes time to adjust to the speed of the game at the NFL level. The Panthers believe he’ll take a major step forward in his second season, and he’s already proven how effective he can be as a pass-catcher.

On the other hand, the 30-year-old Stewart was trending in the wrong direction, which made general manager Marty Hurney’s decision to part ways an unsurprising one.

That said, Stewart’s departure leaves a hole that must be filled. As Hurney said in the days leading up to the combine, “That’s always going to be important to us, having that power type running game.”

“Jonathan has been the physical presence on the offensive side that sets the tone and tempo,” Rivera said. “A physical, downhill runner that at times has really set the tone during a game.

“You have to find a guy that has similar characteristics, hopefully, and is willing to do that for you.”

Similar, but not necessarily the same.

Yes, the Panthers need a between-the-tackles runner that can bring the much-needed power element. But ideally, that player would also be a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. Ingram, for instance, had 58 receptions last season, whereas Stewart had just eight.

“I think it’s huge because you can do so many things and put a lot of stress on the defense,” Rivera said of involving backs in the passing game. “There are a lot of problems created.”

So a year after using their first-round pick on a running back, the Panthers find themselves in the market for another. Perhaps Cameron Artis-Payne can emerge as a viable option in his fourth season. But this draft, which features a running back class that is arguably the deepest of all the position groups, just might provide the perfect option to pair with McCaffrey.

“There are several really good looking backs in this draft. I’m anxious to watch that group, because I think it’s a pretty dynamic group from top to bottom,” Rivera said. “I do think there is a guy who could potentially help us.”

Take a look back at current Panthers players in action at the NFL Scouting Combine.

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