After they posted a 15-1 record en route to a Super Bowl 50 loss to the Denver Broncos, the Carolina Panthers‘ regression was arguably the most surprising development of the 2016 campaign. Critics noted their once-daunting offense looked completely out of sync as the Panthers slumped to a 6-10 record, finishing dead last in the NFC South.
When Carolina drafted multipurpose running back Christian McCaffrey with the No. 8 selection Thursday, though, the franchise made sure its window for Super Bowl contention remains wide open.
Two years ago, the Panthers trampled the competition, posting a blistering, league-best 31.3 points per game. Cam Newton spurred an offensive revolution with his increased poise in the pocket, working in tandem with his nearly unmatched ability to break contain and punish defenses on the ground. He captured MVP honors, Greg Olsen made a case to be considered as the best tight end in the NFL (non-Gronkowski category), and the Panthers appeared certain to contend for the Lombardi Trophy well into the decade.
Last season, the Panthers’ foundation appeared to crack – Olsen was the lone member of the offense who lived up to his potential. The Panthers averaged 23.1 points per game, the 15th-best total in the league, and needed to inject some life into the offense.
As a standalone rusher, he should receive the lion’s share of carries in an offense that’s always afforded its running backs equal opportunities. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera likes to use multiple rushers, but at 20, McCaffrey is young enough to shoulder most of the workload without consequences, which will allow Jonathan Stewart to get the most out of his game at age 30 after surpassing 215 carries in consecutive seasons.
More importantly, McCaffrey is an excellent receiver, and his ability to be lined up all over the field will restore the potency of the Panthers’ passing game. The Panthers can use him in motion to free up Kelvin Benjamin, who was remarkably inconsistent during the 2016 campaign despite nearing 1,000 yards. Olsen was Newton’s lone check-down option. Now that he’s been afforded another security blanket in the passing game, he can eventually work through his entire arsenal once again.
The Panthers’ core is still young enough to reliably contend for a Super Bowl. Newton is 28, Benjamin is 26, Devin Funchess is 22, and two-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner is 24; the cornerstones of the defense, Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short, are 26 and 28, respectively. McCaffrey provides the Panthers with more life, more options, and more virility as the franchise looks to make the 2016 season an anomaly in its upward trajectory.
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