With C.J. Anderson in Town, It’s Time to Buy Both Panthers Backs

Running back C.J. Anderson recently joined the Carolina Panthers on a one-year contract worth $1.75 million. Prior to the signing, the only meaningful RB behind Christian McCaffrey was Cameron Artis-Payne. This was a clever pickup after the decision to move on from Jonathan Stewart and not select a back in the NFL draft.

The Panthers like to run the football – or do they?

The Panthers rushing attack has been very effective since Cam Newton has been under center. The team has posted only two seasons with negative rushing fantasy points over expectation. The Panthers finished last season ranked fourth in rushing yards per game after finishing 10th in 2016, but leaned heavily on Newton’s 754 rushing yards. The team ranked second in 2015 and seventh in 2014. This commitment to the run has resulted in Carolina leading the NFL in the average time of possession since 2013.

But when you subtract Newton’s rushing production and only focus on the RBs, the results are eye-opening.

Panthers Rushing Without Cam

Remove Newton and the Panthers are a poor running team. They ranked No. 21 a season ago in rushing expected points (200.5) and No. 25 in points over expectation (-23.7). In other words, there wasn’t a lot of fantasy opportunity for the RBs, and they underperformed that volume. This makes the Stewart decision easy to understand. But is Anderson a good replacement?

Anderson v Stewart

Anderson’s struggles matched those of Stewart last year, helping to explain why the Broncos also went in a different direction. But at bargain prices, Anderson can fill some of the vacated volume. He’s a good fit for the Panthers power running scheme and will help reduce Newton’s rushing attempts. Anderson has eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage in both of his healthy seasons and was a star in 2014 when he caught 34 passes, scored 10 touchdowns, and finished seventh in total fantasy points over expectation.

At 27, Anderson is moving into the range where fantasy production can start to fall off precipitously, but the failure rates are not nearly as high as those for a back the age of Stewart.

This decline in scoring for age-27 backs is due to a variety of factors – including injury – but losing high-leverage touches to younger players is a key element. This will be the case in Carolina where McCaffrey’s receiving ability caps Anderson’s upside. But can the two mostly coexist?

ANDERSON AND MCCAFFREY CAN COEXIST

McCaffrey had an excellent rookie season finishing as the RB10 in PPR formats. He was not very effective as a runner averaging 3.7 yards per carry, but was dynamic as a receiver out of the backfield. McCaffrey averaged 5.8 yards per target and 8.1 yards per reception.

Christian McCaffrey Screener

The perception is that Anderson’s signing is a deathblow for McCaffrey’s fantasy value in 2018, but that’s not the case. Anderson’s addition benefits the Panthers and fantasy owners alike.

The team has not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Stewart and DeAngelo Williams in 2009. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a history of maximizing backfield talent, including Darren Sproles who has a similar skill set to McCaffrey. Sproles averaged 4.6 yards per carry, 7.2 yards per target, 9.7 yards per reception, and scored 21 total TDs with Turner from 2007 to 2011. He will position both RBs to be successful.

Buy McCaffrey and Anderson

Anderson is now a threat to lead the Panthers in rushing attempts. Stewart averaged 10.4 attempts per game while splitting carries with Newton and DeAngelo Williams from 2011 to 2014 and averaged 13.2 attempts last year. Anderson should see the 10 carries a game and could earn additional touches if the Panthers limit Newton’s rushing attempts or McCaffrey fails to emerge.

On the other hand, McCaffrey is a threat for a much larger role. The No. 8 pick in the 2016 draft carried 590 times over his last two years at Stanford, and there’s plenty of precedent for elite RBs in this weight range to make a big jump in their second NFL seasons (Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy). Ray Rice was one of the most similar players to McCaffrey entering the NFL, and his second year may be instructive.

Rice v McCaffrey

Rice carried only 107 times and ceded 402 carries to Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee as a rookie, but then supplanted them with 254 attempts the following year.1 Rice went from RB49 in 2008 to RB3 in 2009. That was the beginning of a four-year run where he equaled Adrian Peterson in fantasy.

Rice v Peterson

All of which is to say, there are scenarios where Anderson is little more than a breather back, but fortunately, that’s currently factored into his price. Despite his almost unparalleled college career and solid rookie season, McCaffrey likely won’t reach the heights of Rice. That’s a ceiling outcome. But McCaffrey is priced as though Anderson will take most of Stewart’s touches. Anderson is priced as though McCaffrey will stay healthy and take most of the receptions. At costs that are near their floors, one or both of these runners should make fantasy owners very happy.

Remember that Carolina’s total rushing numbers are a Newton-fueled mirage and don’t reach. But add both of these backs when they fall to you at ADP.

  1. Rice also caught 78 passes. McGahee was a more decorated back than Anderson and was at a similar age, advancing the parallels, although injuries may have been a bigger factor for him.  (back)