Carolina Panthers: Better or worse at running back in 2020?

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 15: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers after their game against the Seattle Seahawks at Bank of America Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 15: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers after their game against the Seattle Seahawks at Bank of America Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images) /

Despite all the turnover the Carolina Panthers have faced this offseason, they will return the NFL’s best running back in 2020.

While the Carolina Panthers have seen several franchise mainstays depart this offseason, one player they will have back in the fold in 2020 is All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey. Now entering his fourth year in the league, McCaffrey has proven to be the best all-purpose back in the NFL and was rewarded last month with a massive contract extension. His new deal keeps him with Carolina through the end of the 2025 season and pays him an average of $16 million per year–making him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. The Panthers will also return Reggie Bonnafon and Jordan Scarlett as well as two other returners.

McCaffrey is coming off of one of the best seasons for any running back in NFL history.

Perhaps no player in the NFL had as impressive a season as McCaffrey did in 2019. Lamar Jackson and Michael Thomas are the only players who were really close; however, they did it on loaded playoff-caliber teams. All McCaffrey did was post almost 1,400 rushing yards to go along with more than 1,000 receiving yards. By doing so he became just the third player in league history to have at least 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same year, joining only Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and three-time Super Bowl champion Roger Craig.

McCaffrey finished the season with 2,392 yards from scrimmage, good enough for third all-time and only 117 off Chris Johnson’s record. The 23-year-old also finished tied for the league lead in total touchdowns with 19. Had the Panthers found more success as a team, CMC likely would have remained in the MVP conversation, as well as would have been a frontrunner for Offensive Player of the Year.

Ultimately, McCaffrey proved in 2019 that he is the best all-purpose player in the NFL. He finished third in the league in rushing yards and touchdowns and second in receptions. On top of all that, it’s important to remember how durable Carolina’s stud running back has been in his first three years in the league. He hasn’t missed a single game in his professional career and has played at least 93% of the team’s snaps in each of the past two seasons. No other running back has played more than 90% of their team’s offensive plays even once during that span.

Although McCaffrey has proven to be ultra-durable, the Panthers need the reserves to step up in 2020.

Despite McCaffrey dominating the league in total touches over the past two seasons, the Panthers need other options in the backfield. It’s a bit shocking that he hasn’t missed any games considering the workload he has had, but at the same time it’s worth noting that Cam Newton was just as durable over his first several seasons in the NFL. With that being said, Panther fans know how his health turned out, and they won’t want McCaffrey’s fate to end up the same.

As a result, Carolina needs one of their backup running backs to step up in 2020. Reggie Bonnafon showed promise in limited action in 2019, but had only 16 rushing attempts all year. Jordan Scarlett was drafted to be the Panthers’ second back this past season, but he had just four touches for a total of nine yards as a rookie in 2019. Mike Davis is another interesting name on Carolina’s current roster. Davis was a fourth-round pick back in 2015 and was Seattle’s second-leading rusher in 2018; however, he has yet to find a steady home in the NFL. Barring a strong camp and preseason though, it’s more likely he’ll get cut than have much of an impact in 2020.

The Panthers will also have fourth-year man Alex Armah back at fullback for the upcoming season. Armah’s impact on the stat sheet has been limited during his time in the league, and he too will likely remain on the roster bubble heading into 2020. Armah is nothing more than a traditional fullback, so the need for players of his type simply aren’t as necessary as they once were. It is worth noting though that three of his 15 career rushes have gone for touchdowns. Carolina also signed Rodney Smith as a free agent after he went undrafted last month. Smith finished third in the Big Ten in rushing in 2019, although he is undoubtedly a longshot to make the team.

Overall, the Panthers’ running back room is virtually the same as last year’s, so it’s hard to say they got better or worse.

While the Panthers have seen massive turnover at pretty much all other position groups, the team’s running backs have remained virtually the same as last season. McCaffrey obviously was with Carolina last season, as were Bonnafon, Scarlett, and Davis (who was acquired off waivers in November. Smith is the only new face in the running back room, and as mentioned above, he’s unlikely to make the final cut.

Barring injury, McCaffrey will once again be the undisputed lead back in 2020; however, it is critical that someone step up and take some of the pressure off of him. Bonnafon was the primary backup last season, and at this point figures to be in the same role this year as well. Scarlett could wind up playing some fullback if the Panthers decide to move on from Armah, and depending on how many backs the team elects to keep, Davis could be on the outs as well.

Overall, the Panthers’ running back situation is shaping up to be mostly the same in 2020. It will be hard for McCaffrey to replicate his impressive numbers from last season, but if Carolina can find another reliable backfield contributor, it would be safe to say this group improved from 2019. Seemingly the only way this unit can take a significant step backwards this season is if McCaffrey misses any extended amount of time. The Panthers have a ton of potential in their backfield; they just need for that potential to turn into proven talent. If any one of the reserves can do that, it’s possible that Carolina will in fact be better at running back in 2020.