No team in the NFL last year received a better lesson on the importance of having a dependable backup running back than the Carolina Panthers. With Christian McCaffrey missing 13 games due to three different injuries, help was needed in a way that could not have been anticipated coming into the year.
Mike Davis started 12 games in his place and undrafted rookie Rodney Smith started in Week 17 with both Davis and McCaffrey sitting out due to injuries. Health was clearly an issue at the position in 2020 beyond McCaffrey, as backup Reggie Bonnafon also missed an opportunity to contribute due injuries of his own that kept him out most of the year.
The Panthers finished 2020 ranked 21st in rushing yards per game (106.5), 22nd in yards per carry (4.2) and tied for 10th in rushing touchdowns (19). Joe Brady’s first year as offensive coordinator involved being without the team’s best offensive player, which limited the team’s explosiveness on the ground.
But Davis filled in well, finishing with 1,015 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns. As he heads into free agency, the Panthers will be left to address a potential void at backup running back. Fullback Alex Armah is also scheduled to become a free agent but had a limited role in 2020 as a blocker and rusher.
Running back coach Jeff Nixon said he will be looking for someone who can play all three downs to play behind McCaffrey. Who could work and what players are still on the roster? Here is the first of a position-by-position look at the Panthers’ 2021 roster.
ON THE ROSTER
▪ Christian McCaffrey: Playing three games in 2020 following his 1,000-1,000 season the year prior, expectations will high be for the All Pro’s return to the field.
While his name has been tossed around in hypothetical trade packages for a potential new quarterback like Deshaun Watson, trading McCaffrey prior to June 1 this year would leave the Panthers with $17.2 million in dead money, almost $5 million more than his $12.5 million cap hit this year if he’s on the roster, per Over the Cap. The dead money goes down to $4.3 if he is traded post-June 1.
McCaffrey, 24, is the face of the franchise, part of why he received an extension to become the NFL’s highest-paid running back last offseason. Trading him seems less likely with potential defensive cornerstones on the roster, but it would be a significant loss for the offense and not the most financially logical situation, especially as the Panthers have cleared cap space recently, but that talk has been hypothetical up to this point.
▪ Reggie Bonnafon: After losing the backup job to Davis in training camp, Bonnafon appeared in two games in 2020 and was placed on season-ending injured reserved in November. Also a contributor on special teams, Bonnafon has shown potential but hasn’t proved whether he can be a three-down back behind McCaffrey.
Bonnafon played quarterback, wide receiver and running back at Louisville and could be an interesting contributor to Brady’s offense, even if he’s not the No. 2, when healthy.
▪ Rodney Smith: On and off the roster at the start of the season, Smith finished his rookie year on a positive note, scoring his first career touchdown in his only start. He could compete for the backup job in 2021.
Nixon views the experience from his first year in the NFL as a positive and was encouraged going into Year 2.
“Rodney was somebody that we were very high on going into the draft,” Nixon said. “We were very fortunate to sign Rodney as a free agent and I thought he played excellently, lived up to his billing. He’s a three-down guy, and he got valuable experience playing his rookie year, he really did a nice job when he got his opportunity to play.”
▪ Trenton Cannon: Cannon was signed by the Panthers mostly because of his ability on special teams. He took over kick return duty from Pharoh Cooper and was used briefly on offense due to the mounting injuries. Penalties were an issue with Cannon getting three unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness calls during the season.
Depending on how the Panthers address the returner job, he could find a roster spot in 2021 on special teams.
RE-SIGNING MIKE DAVIS
▪ Mike Davis: In an ideal world, it could make a lot of sense to bring back Davis to pair with McCaffrey. He proved that he can fill in when necessary and be a solid weapon as a rusher and receiver. Davis led all running backs with 22 forced missed tackles on receptions last year, per Pro Football Focus.
After the season he put together, there will be multiple teams interested his services. He may get better compensation and a chance to make an impact elsewhere. If Davis and the Panthers part ways, they will need someone who the team is confident can fill in similarly.
Other intriguing fits:
▪ Mark Ingram: The Baltimore Ravens sat him at the end of the year due to the emergence of younger backs, but Ingram still has abilities at 31-years old. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2019 and still averaged 4.2 yards per carry last season. With the needs on Carolina’s roster, they aren’t likely to overspend at backup running back and Ingram may be compensated well, but another veteran back would be valuable on the roster.
▪ James White: White isn’t the three-down back the Panthers need as a No. 2, but he was used by the New England Patriots primarily for his skills as a receiver. He would be an interesting fit in Carolina’s offense.
With the needs on the Panthers’ roster, it is unlikely that they would select a running back prior to Day 3 of the draft, if then. Signing a player as an undrafted rookie worked well with Smith last year, and that could be something the team does again in 2021.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Running back remains far from the Panthers’ biggest position of need, but the team needs a reliable backup to McCaffrey. Smith will be in the mix no matter what, but he still has some development ahead. It’s not a position that Carolina is going to invest a significant amount of money in. Re-signing Davis at the right price, bringing in a cheaper veteran free agent or taking someone late in the draft should all be on the table. As long as McCaffrey’s on the team, which he is most likely for the foreseeable future, it’s all about building around and supporting him at running back.
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