Carolina Panthers Position Preview: Running Back

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 23: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers runs the ball against Damontae Kazee #27 of the Atlanta Falcons in the first quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 23: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers runs the ball against Damontae Kazee #27 of the Atlanta Falcons in the first quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

After Christian McCaffrey’s breakout season, Carolina looks to a boost the depth behind him.

With the start of Carolina Panthers training camp quickly approaching us, Old North Banter will be breaking down each position group on the team in the days leading up to camp. Training camp begins on July 25, and after breaking down the quarterback position on Sunday, we’ll be diving into the running back position this time around.

After a slightly underwhelming rookie season, Christian McCaffrey’s breakout sophomore campaign not only sealed his role as the No. 1 and workhorse back on the team, but put him on the map as a Pro Bowl-caliber running back, earning Second Team All-Pro honors for his efforts in 2018.

His improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 was noticeable, as he went from 117 carries for 435 yards and two touchdowns for just 3.7 yards per carry to 219 carries for 1,098 yards and five touchdowns for a stellar 5.0 yards per carry. His biggest impact as a rookie was as a receiver, when he caught 80 passes for 651 yards and five touchdowns, and he even improved on that, breaking the NFL record for receptions by a running back with a whopping 107 catches for 867 yards and six touchdowns. This also broke the franchise record for receptions in a season by any player and his 1,965 all-purpose yards was also a team record.

McCaffrey added some bulk between his first two seasons, which undoubtedly helped his rushing numbers as he ran with a lot more power and aggressiveness in his sophomore season. He has quickly blossomed into one of the most versatile playmakers in the league and is a big help to Cam Newton as an added reliable threat out of the backfield. This improvement as a runner led to him rarely coming off the field, as he accounted for 965 snaps, or 91 percent of total offensive snaps, both of which led NFL running backs in 2018. The increased usage ultimately led to C.J. Anderson being obsolete in the offense, leading to his mid-season release.

Expect McCaffrey to build off this strong season heading into 2019 as he continues to put in the work. An individual goal for him is to become just the third player in NFL history to get both 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a season, and he can do this if he continues to develop and gets used as much as he does. A retooled offensive line, which we will break down later this week, will obviously play a role in opening up running lanes, but he is set to have another strong season with Newton coming back healthy and other added weapons in the offense to take some of the pressure off him.

Just like at quarterback, the biggest competition at this position will be the No. 2 spot in backing up McCaffrey. As previously mentioned, if Carolina plans on using McCaffrey as much as they did last season, his backup won’t see the field much, but it never hurts to have some insurance. With that in mind, let’s look at the competition for the slot behind McCaffrey.

The most experienced running back on the roster is Cameron Artis-Payne, who enters his fifth season with the Panthers. He has been in a reserve role throughout his career, alternating between the No. 2 and No. 3 back with the team, showing promise in spurts but being mediocre in others. While he isn’t a bad option, he isn’t an exciting one either, and can ultimately be pushed by a handful of younger guys on the roster.

At the top of that list is Jordan Scarlett, who the Panthers selected in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. In three seasons with Florida, he rushed for 1,846 yards and 12 touchdowns, with his best season coming his sophomore year, where he rushed for 889 yards and six touchdowns. While these numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page, it’s worth noting that he was running against SEC-caliber defenses and he’s a guy who can potentially develop and push Artis-Payne for playing time.

Also on the roster are three free agents, two undrafted, acquired over the last two seasons. The biggest name of the three is probably former North Carolina standout Elijah Hood, who Carolina added in the 2018 offseason but sat out last season with a knee injury. They also have Reggie Bonnafon, who is the definition of versatile, playing quarterback, running back and wide receiver at Louisville and spent last season on Carolina’s practice squad after going undrafted. Following the most recent draft, the Panthers also added Elijah Holyfield as an undrafted free agent, who rushed for 1,018 yards and seven touchdowns in his final year at Georgia and is the son of boxing legend Evander Holyfield.

Teams generally keep three running backs on the roster, but the final two spots behind McCaffrey could truly end up being a toss up between the other five guys listed. While Artis-Payne has experience and longevity in the system on his side, he hasn’t actually proven that much, and could ultimately lose his hold on the backup job or even a roster spot if the team decides to go with a youth movement. Also, being as young as they are, none of the other backs have proven anything at this point either, so those roster spots could come down to whoever outperforms the others in training camp and preseason play

It is also worth noting that the team has Alex Armah at fullback, who isn’t necessarily a lock but is likely have a roster spot next season after playing in all 16 games in 2018 and having a presence on special teams. The team could decide to cut Armah in favor of a fourth running back or even to free up a spot at another position, but heading into camp, that seems unlikely given Armah’s expanded role last season, as well as his versatility as a fullback, tight end and special teams contributor.

Additionally, given McCaffrey’s high-volume usage in 2018, there really isn’t much of a point in the team keeping four running backs on the roster unless they bring value to another area, such as special teams. Instead, expect the team to slip one or two of those guys onto the practice squad to give them a chance to develop in the system.