Jonathan Stewart’s departure means Christian McCaffrey is the number one running back in Carolina. The Panthers need McCaffrey to expand his game.
There’s been a lot of social media chatter this summer claiming Christian McCaffrey has gained a lot of muscle in the offseason. The Panthers running back swears that isn’t true, but it might be better if it were. McCaffrey will need to prove he can run between the tackles this year in Carolina.
Last season, the Panthers used McCaffrey more as a change of pace. Jonathan Stewart got the hard runs up the middle. That made the Carolina run game too predictable. It’s one of the reasons that Norv Turner is now entering his first season as the team’s offensive coordinator.
Fortunately for Panthers fans, McCaffrey does acknowledge that one of his offseason goals was to get stronger so he could break more tackles. The former Stanford back says he’s only put on five pounds of “good muscle” this summer. Time will tell if that is enough to make a real difference in his ability to run the ball up the middle.
If it’s not, look for C.J. Anderson to enjoy a much bigger role in this offense than anyone anticipated. He’s coming off a 1,000 yard season in Denver but free agent interest in him was tepid at best. Anderson signed a pretty pedestrian one-year deal with the Panthers in hopes of getting back on the market next offseason.
Anderson can be a solid back, but if the Panthers have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, they’ll need McCaffrey to be the guy. That means he’ll need to significantly improve his rushing output from last season. 435 yards on 3.7 yards per carry isn’t going to cut it this season.
In fairness, McCaffrey also added 651 yards receiving which is largely why the Panthers coaching staff is so high on him. Effectively running the ball between the tackles will only add to his danger as a receiver. It will prevent defenses from keying on him as a pass catcher on first and second down.
It could also open up a lot of routes for McCaffrey in the middle of field. Last year, most of his catches came out on the perimeter. That’s a productive strategy for McCaffrey given his ability to outmaneuver opposing defensive backs. Isolating him against linebackers or safeties down the seam could provide even better results for the Panthers offense.
Christian McCaffrey isn’t a rookie anymore and the Panthers offense can’t afford for him to play like one. He has to expand his game this season if Carolina is going to make noise in the playoffs.