Panthers: running game will feature versatility, ‘targets’

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31: Cameron Artis-Payne
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31: Cameron Artis-Payne /

Expect the Carolina Panthers running game to be versatile in 2018….

Carolina Panther fans can expect a very different ball control offense in 2018. The Panthers will be minus Jonathan Stewart’s contribution (198 carries 680 yards, six touchdowns) and any significant cut in Newton’s 139 carries for 754  yards will mean needing every bit of new RB C.J. Anderson’s 1,007 rushing yards to finish 4th in team rushing again.

The good news statistically for Panther fans is, the difference in team stats for rushing yardage between 2015 Super Bowl season and 2017 aren’t that dramatic. In 2015 they ran the ball 526 times for 2,282 yards. Last year, the Panthers ran the ball 490 times for 2,102 yards a 4.3 average for both years. In 2015, they had 136 first downs rushing the ball compared to 121 in 2017, which is less than one per game.

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Recognizing that the difference between a 15-1 season and 11-5 is that small, it’s reasonable to believe that Norv Turner’s offensive scheme– predicated on getting the ball out of Cam Newton’s hand quickly—will frequently utilize the Carolina backfield as ‘targets’ than just straight ahead runners. Between Cameron Artis-Payne (5’10”, 215), Christian McCaffrey  (5’11”, 205) and C.J. Anderson (5’8”, 224), free agent Anderson is considered the big back. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2014 after an 849 yard rushing/324 yard-receiving rookie year.

Anderson is also considered a bargain, with a one year, $1.75 million contract. He’s expected to handle the carries inside that salary capped-out, 10-year veteran and Panther career rushing leader, Jonathan Stewart was known for.

Coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers wish they’d used Artis-Payne more last year (18 carries,95 yards, 1 touchdown), and free agent Kenjon Barner (Eagles) was even more lightly used in Philly. Artis-Payne has looked good in the last two pre-seasons, and this could be a break-out year for the Auburn– by way of Allan Hancock College (Santa Maria, CA)– running back. Artis-Payne was 1st team All-SEC with 1,608 and 13 TDs before joining the Panthers in 2015.

Of interest to many, Scholastic running star, Elijah Hood (Charlotte Catholic/UNC), was signed as a free agent last week by the Panthers. Hood played sparingly on kick return coverage with Oakland last year, but locals recall his ‘pads straight and go!’ dominance at Charlotte Catholic.

The Panthers were fourth in the NFL in rushing last year.  Comparing output around the league, Jacksonville was #1 (527 carries , 2,262 yards,18 touchdowns, 141.4 yards per game), conference rival New Orleans was 5th— with an amazing 23 touchdowns– including eight from rookie sensation Alvin Kamara. New England was #10, and Detroit was the leagues worst, with a measly 76.3 yards per game. Kareem Hunt (KC) was the rushing champ with  272 carries, 1,327 yards and eight touchdowns.

The ball control offense Rivera has favored was almost identical in both 2015 (32:03 min.) and last year (32:17), but Charlotte hasn’t had a 1,000 producer since both Stewart and DeAngelo Williams did it in 2009.

Turner’s offense has plenty of weapons, and McCaffrey will undoubtedly contribute considerably more yardage running—he seems destined to catch 100+ passes—because he produced at a Heisman-hopeful level by running well inside his last two years at Stanford. Turner feels Newton’s size and speed are a unique physicality he’s never had as a QB guru before, and difficult for defenses to handle. Newton has averaged 614 yards over his seven year in Charlotte, so expect more than just a few zone-read plays.

As a baseline for watching what Turner’s tweaks might mean for Newton, his career stats  are average: 58.5% completions, 85.3 rating, 230 yards/game, and comparing with his MVP season: 31 pass/game both years, 59.8%, 3,837 yards, 99.4. Expectations for better than MVP year stats will be high– Turner has already mentioned low-mid 60s in terms of completion percentage.

Next: Three players headed for bounce back 2018 seasons

The loss of All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell— who originally came to Charlotte undrafted–to Jacksonville in free agency (5 yr./$66.5MM) can hopefully be mitigated with the development of Moton, Larsen, Van Roten et al  Panthers O-line during training camp.