Through the first six years of Cam Newton's career, the Carolina Panthers set their offense with a few consistent building blocks. They were going to use bigger backs to run between the tackles, use that power running game to establish play action and the deep pass, and use Newton's mobility and escapability to add another level of dynamism, especially in the red zone.
It's worked for the most part, but serious questions popped up last season regarding that approach.
Those power backs weren't as effective—Jonathan Stewart led the team with 824 yards on 215 carries—and the deep ball wasn't working as well. Per Pro Football Focus, he completed just 20 of 71 passes in which the ball went over 20 yards in the air for a 28.2 completion percentage that's far down from his 37 percent completion rate on such passes in 2015.
Moreover, Newton wasn't nearly as productive in the play-action game as he'd been the year before, throwing just five touchdowns on play-action passes in 2016. Compare that to his 13 play-action touchdowns in 2015, and you start to see the extent of the problem, especially when you combine that with an offensive line that has degraded in quality. The Panthers no longer have the personnel to run the old ideal of their offensive philosophy.
When this happens, a team has two choices: It can either restock with the same kinds of players it's had before and hope for the best, or it can throw out the old playbook and try something new. And with the additions of Stanford running back
And with the additions of Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey in the first round of the 2017 draft and the follow-up selection of Ohio State receiver Curtis Samuel, the Panthers are absolutely going with a new paradigm.
In McCaffrey, the Panthers give Newton a weapon he's never had before—a running back with great outside speed and some inside power as well as the versatility of a true receiver to line up everywhere from the slot to the outside. But the real magic with McCaffrey, and the problems for defenses, comes when he starts in the backfield and then motions out as a receiver.
As we see in this 56-yard touchdown against USC in 2016, McCaffrey can take a simple wheel route to the house in a hurry, especially when the complexity of the offense puts defenders in bad positions. The Cardinal have USC spread out in a nickel defense against a three-wide set, and McCaffrey is the left-sided back in a two-back set.
The backfield formation indicates that it could be a power run, but at the snap, McCaffrey (No. 5) heads out on his route and goes upfield after catching the ball in stride from Ryan Burns. Of note here is the inefficient movement from USC free safety Marvell Tell III (No. 7). The Trojans appear to be playing man coverage outside and zone with their inside reads. Tell is taking the underneath coverage and somebody isn't where they should be, because McCaffrey is able to drive the route all the way.
Most backs would take the simple short backfield route and attain yards after the catch, but McCaffrey is a real receiver—I would have given him a second- or third-round grade as a receiver alone.
As a runner, McCaffrey has the talent and total skill set to be a franchise guy, but he's not a power back. At 5'11" and 202 pounds, he doesn't really fit that profile. Yes, he can run inside, but a lot of the tackles he broke in college were arm tackles by bad Pac-12 defenses that would be stops in the NFL. Washington had the best defense Stanford faced in 2016, and he gained
Washington, in the above clip, had the best defense Stanford faced in 2016, and he gained a respectable 49 yards on 12 carries on the ground in that game. The Huskies had the strength along their front seven to counter Stanford's advanced blocking concepts, and they often bottled McCaffrey up in the backfield.
When McCaffrey was able to break free for short gains, it was based on a running style that's more LeSean McCoy and less LeGarrette Blount. Here, he uses his patience to let the blocks develop and an easy acceleration to get to the second level. For him, it's more about finding open space and using speed through the hole than driving his legs and casting tacklers aside.
But again, the Panthers' interest in adding McCaffrey as a major cog in their offense isn't about any one thing—it's about the whole package and what he does do defenses. He led the FBS in all-purpose yards per game in each of the last two seasons, and he set the NCAA's record for all-purpose yards in 2015 with 3,864. The old record-holder? Some guy named Barry Sanders.
As a runner, receiver and returner, McCaffrey is practically an offense unto himself. Anyone questioning his ability to carry a high-volume offense as a back need only look to his 2015 season, when he gained 2,019 yards and scored eight touchdowns on 337 carries.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of McCaffrey said after the pick was made:
It's going to be about position flexibility more so than anything else. He's going to be used a lot in a way of how they used him at Stanford. When you watch the tape, break the tape down, you see him line up sometimes in the backfield as a running back. Sometimes he's a quarterback in their wildcat offense. Sometimes they motion him out and put him out to the slot. Sometimes they motion him out and put him wide. So, we’re looking at opportunities to create opportunities for him to make plays for us.
And that will help Newton most of all. The Panthers didn't throw to their backs a lot in 2016 (44 receptions by their backs in 2016), and the lack of easy outlet targets, combined with a porous offensive line, led Newton to get hit—and hurt—a lot.
Rivera compared McCaffrey to Reggie Bush when Bush was the Saints' multiposition weapon from 2006 through 2010, and I like the comparison a lot, though I think McCaffrey has far more potential as a running back. In head coach Sean Payton's offense, Bush would often flare into the slot from the backfield, causing three-linebacker defenses to put more defensive backs on the field.
Also, Rivera knows all too well about the brilliant offense Kyle Shanahan put together for the Falcons in 2015 and 2016, and Shanahan loved to move running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and fullback Patrick DiMarco all along the formation pre-snap—very similar to what the Saints did with Bush back in the day. The Falcons scored 48 and 33 points against Carolina's defense last year in two losses for Carolina, and Matt Ryan completed 78.6 percent of his passes for 780 yards, six touchdowns and one interception.
Samuel is a different breed of cat, though just as versatile.
At 5'11" and 196 pounds, he's listed as a receiver on the Panthers official roster, but he's more of an overall offensive weapon. He played everywhere from wideout to the slot to H-back to the backfield for the Buckeyes, and he's the only player in Ohio State history to gain more than 1,000 yards each rushing and receiving in his career. He averaged 7.5 yards per rush with 15 rushing touchdowns over three seasons, adding nine touchdowns as a receiver, including seven last season.
Some have compared Samuel to Percy Harvin, though I think Samuel is a less explosive, more well-developed pure football player. He was used on a ton of jet sweeps and short passes, primarily in the slot, though he also motioned around the field.
This play against Clemson shows one thing I really like about Samuel (No. 4) that will transition well to Carolina's offense—watch how he aligns himself and adjusts his route to stay open for quarterback J.T. Barrett. When the play breaks down and mobile quarterbacks start to move, they need to know that their receivers will move outside structure with them.
Ohio State was blown out in a 31-0 shutout in this Fiesta Bowl, but Samuel was one of the highlight players on the ground, gaining 67 yards on six carries. Like McCaffrey, Samuel gets his rushing yards more through patience, agility and speed than pure power.
Watch this run against the Tigers to see what he can find space—he's breaking tackles, but he's primarily looking for gaps and making some pretty amazing cuts. And check out the second gear in the open field. He'll have his share of negative plays as a runner, but if you keep him away from the bigger defenders inside, he's a highlight play waiting to happen.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said of Samuel, citing his "oh my gosh" speed:
He's been bounced between running back and wide, and he's shown the ability to catch the ball down the field over his head and all that stuff. He's got really good quickness in and out of his routes. He's got really good inside run skills. He's got the speed to cross the formation. He's got the speed to go the distance.
Here's how I think both players will be used in Carolina's new offense.
McCaffrey ran a lot of two types of plays for the Cardinal: sweeps and stretch plays to the outside from a pistol formation behind slide blocking, and "power" plays with two backs in which a guard might pull or an extra tight end might provide more blocking.
The key to the power game for any back on Stanford's offense is to have the patience to wait for second-level blocks to happen. Both concepts are already common to the Panthers. I think McCaffrey will be a vital factor in an offense that has much more pre-snap motion, and passing plays off that motion from backfield to outside in which he's the primary target.
As I said before, the Falcons have had a ton of success with these concepts, and I think the Panthers are going with the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" ethos.
Samuel will see his share of backfield stuff where he's either taking a little sweep or getting a dump pass behind the line of scrimmage, but I rate him pretty highly as a slot receiver. He has a nice understanding of routes that can be further developed, he has a good sense of how to sink into zones and fake his way out of coverage, and he's pretty fearless about going over the middle.
He said in his post-draft phone conference that he expects to be used primarily in the slot, but that doesn't mean he'll always stay there—he took some of his sweeps from the slot.
Remember the touchdown pass to McCaffrey, in which there were two backs flanking the quarterback in a pistol set? It's the same base formation as in Samuel's long run, with Samuel motioning from the slot. I think you'll see a lot of this from the Panthers this upcoming season, because it allows the play-designers to do so much.
Imagine a backfield with Newton taking the snap three yards behind the center, McCaffrey on his right, Samuel on his left, and one or both of the rookies motioning to receiver depth pre-snap. Then, imagine Stewart coming onto the field, either McCaffrey or Samuel moving to the slot. Now, you have a combination of power running and receiver versatility that few NFL teams can match and few can stop.
"This is a matchup league," Gettleman said at the end of the draft. "Is my guy better than your guy? These two guys can give us matchup advantages from a variety of positions, and that ain't bad."
It ain't bad at all, and Gettleman is exactly right. The NFL has become a matchup league, and the Panthers have come two very big steps closer to mastering that reality.