What to do with the Panthers’ Backfield

With the addition of CJ Anderson, the Carolina Panthers have a decision to make this offseason regarding their starting tail back. Anderson and second-year running back out of Stanford, Christian McCaffrey, will compete for the starting role during training camp in the coming months. McCaffrey was drafted eighth overall by the Panthers in the 2017 NFL draft, while Anderson was acquired in free agency following his release from the Denver Broncos in mid-April.

Anderson is coming off of his best season with the Broncos, in which he rushed for 1,007 yards, three touchdowns, and accumulated 4.1 yards per attempt (Y/A). Although his numbers skyrocketed last season compared to previous ones, his productiveness was mediocre at best. His 4.1 Y/A is the worst average he has compiled in a full season. In his other 16-game seasons, 2014 and 2015, he gained 4.7 Y/A respectively. His efficiency rating has gone down enormously in the past two years, however, it is unclear to many why that is.

Anderson is entering his prime at the age of 27, and he started all 16 games last season, indicating that he was healthy. For me, his lack of efficiency is about the system he played in. The Broncos have had very little stability at the quarterback position since Peyton Manning retired, and last year, throughout the season, they had three players battling for the starting role. This can take a toll on the running game. With a weak quarterback, the defense is able to focus on stopping the run, which is what opposing defenses did against Anderson. This is evident for many players including the NFL’s best, such as Todd Gurley; his 2016 season was horrendous because of the awful passing attack, which lead defenses to stack the box and stuff Gurley at the line for minimal gain repeatedly. This was a similar situation to that of Anderson’s last season, although not to the same extent. Although Anderson has been declining productively, I believe that he can return to his prior form because the Panthers’ offense offers a lot more than the Broncos’ did. The Panthers have assembled an elite passing game this offseason by regaining Greg Olsen from injury, and acquiring Torrey Smith from free agency and DJ Moore in the first round of the draft. With Cam Newton at quarterback, this offense has the potential to be explosive, giving Anderson more than enough room to run. It will be interesting to see how they balance him and McCaffrey.

Christian McCaffrey was one of the best and most consistent players in college football during his two years starting at Stanford. He broke Barry Sanders’ record for most all-purpose yards in a single season (rushing, receiving, and return yards combined), thus showing his versatility. He averaged 6.0 Y/A in his sophomore season, in which he was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. In his junior year, he did not have as many yards, but averaged 6.3 Y/A and gathered far more touchdowns. The Panthers drafted him with high expectations because of his unnatural speed and great athleticism. His results in the NFL last year, however, were merely decent. He averaged 3.7 Y/A but gained 1,081 yards from scrimmage. His stats were underwhelming, but he was still able to help the offense immensely just through his presence on the field. One example of this that comes to mind is a play in the beginning of the season against the New England Patriots. Fozzy Whittaker and Christian McCaffrey both lined up in the backfield beside Cam Newton. McCaffrey ran a little bubble screen with blockers ahead of him, and Newton faked the throw. Once he did, the whole defense was already on that side of the field, prepared for McCaffrey to get the ball. However, when Newton turned and threw to Whittaker, the defense was all on McCaffrey’s tail, and Whittaker basically walked into the endzone for a 28 yard touchdown. This illustrates just how much defenses respect McCaffrey, and how he draws away the focus of the defense from other player, posing as an amazing allurement. McCaffrey did not get nearly as many opportunities as Jonathan Stewart, however, opposing defenses were forced to account for him wherever he went on the field due to his freakish athletic ability. He is a big play waiting to happen, as the expression goes. Last year, he was overwhelmed with pressure of the extremely high expectations for him to live up to. McCaffrey made a public statement after their playoff loss to the Saints, that he was going to come back better and stronger than ever, and he delivered from my outside perspective. He came into training camp looking ripped, having added several pounds of pure muscle. This will help him run between the tackles, something he had a bit of trouble with last year. He is 22 years old, and still learning to play in the NFL, but the changes in the organization and to his physical appearance suggest an upsurge in production from the young star.

With new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the Panthers are looking to utilize, to the fullest extent, the abilities of Newton, Anderson, and McCaffrey in the running game. McCaffrey may not have gotten the ball as much as Stewart last season, but defenses worked hard to keep him in their sites at all times. This is likely to happen again this season, and I think the Panthers should use him more in this respect. Opposing defenses respect McCaffrey’s natural abilities, and the Panthers will hopefully use it to their advantage. To best exploit the full range of McCaffrey’s abilities, the Panthers should incorporate sets where he and Anderson are both on the field, using McCaffrey as a decoy, giving Anderson running room. These schemes were used by the Panthers minimally at the beginning of the 2017 season, and as the year went on, they incorporated McCaffrey more in this way. They should consider keeping McCaffrey on the field for longer periods of time this season, as he has matured greatly both mentally and physically since last year. Also, I believe that McCaffrey is just as valuable as a running back as he is as a wideout. He has unmatched route-running ability and speed, evidenced by his 56-yard touchdown reception in the second half of their playoff game against the Saints. He should be on the field as much as he physically can muster, because that is how special he can be to this offense. He also provides a weapon for Cam Newton in both the running and passing game. In the rushing attack, they feed off of each other because they both have so many physical gifts and it is too difficult to account for both of them, one using the other to get room to run. In the passing game, McCaffrey is always open, as running backs are usually guarded by linebackers in man-to-man coverage, McCaffrey has no problem shaking a big man and getting open.

Although McCaffrey had an extremely mediocre season, all the evidence points toward a better campaign this year, and for him to be the lead back going into week one. As mentioned before, he is more experienced, stronger, and heavier, which should help him in the run game. Alternately, Anderson has years of reading NFL schemes and defensive plays, something McCaffrey can learn from him. This is also one reason that Anderson should get some playing time with his new team. The Panthers should let both have carries and reps during games and ride the hot hand. They should not rule McCaffrey the every-down starter just yet, as many expect them to, because people overlook the experience that Anderson has in the league, and how valuable that is for a running back. McCaffrey can benefit from Anderson’s experience and teaching, while Anderson can gain from the attention McCaffrey draws away from him on the field. McCaffrey has proved to underperform under pressure before, so I would keep a steady hand toward the beginning of the season, and give both tail backs some in-game competition.