More than any team in the South, the Carolina Panthers pride themselves on their willingness and ability to run the football. Running has been a staple of their offense for the entirety of the Cam Newton era, and for good reason: a quarterback like Cam Newton directly helps out your running game, just by his presence alone, as teams have to respect the possibility that he takes off on run-pass options. Behind Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart, and Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers finished 2017 as the fourth most productive rushing team in the NFL.
Enter 2018 and the Panthers have a slightly changed backfield dynamic, as they’ve swapped Jonathan Stewart for C.J. Anderson, who they landed as a free agent. The former Bronco will now work as the Panther’s lead back and handle most of their short-yardage and red zone situations. Anderson, age 27, has played five seasons in the NFL, but didn’t manage to break a thousand yards until last year, when he ran for 1007. His 245 carries were by far the most of his career and were evidence enough for the Panthers that he could be their new starter.
Christian McCaffrey is perhaps the most enigmatic running back in the NFC South. How do you value a runner who is dynamic through the air but ineffectual running as a traditional back? McCaffrey, like Kamara and Freeman, is an elite pass-catcher who simply can’t be covered in space. In his rookie season he tallied 80 catches, 651 receiving yards, and five touchdowns.
McCaffrey however doesn’t have the rushing yard upside that Kamara and Freeman do, as he ran for just 435 yards, two touchdowns, and a meager 3.7 yard-per-carry average. There’s hope for McCaffrey to become a more high volume runner as Devonta Freeman had just barely over 200 yards total as a rookie, but he may not get the opportunity as Carolina seems intent on splitting carries in their running back room.
This duo of Anderson and McCaffrey is largely unproven, but I have no doubt they’ll present problems for defenses next season.