The Carolina Panthers need a hammer.

The Panthers are widely expected to draft a running back next month. A year after investing the eighth overall pick on Christian McCaffrey, the backfield overhaul remains incomplete; the newest addition will need to not only complement CMC, but most importantly, any running back the Panthers select high in this draft must be able to take some of the workload off of their quarterback, specifically in short yardage situations.

Cam Newton has carried the ball 140 times on third or fourth down and short (1-3 yards) in his 109 career games. That’s the most in the NFL during that time, 27 carries ahead of second place (LeSean McCoy – 113). Cam’s converted 79.3% of those for a first down and/or a touchdown; since the NFL started keeping play-by-play data, only two players have converted a higher percentage of those short yardage runs (minimum 100 carries). In second place, another brahma bull, Steve McNair (82.3% on 113 carries) and on top, Tom Brady (88.2% on 136 carries). Despite their success, note that both McNair (13 seasons) and Brady (17 seasons) have fewer short yardage carries than Cam does in his seven seasons.

Cam is going to run; he’s rushed more than 100 times in six of his seven seasons, last season breaking Michael Vick’s NFL record of five such seasons. We’ve seen the Panthers coaching staff periodically try to avoid using Cam the rusher, but despite playing with Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, three talented short-yardage running backs on veteran contracts, time and again, the responsibility to get the hardest yards has fallen to Cam.

Panthers Short Yardage Carries on Third or Fourth Down Since 2011

NameCarriesTouchdownFirst DownConversion Percentage
Cam Newton1401311179.3%
Jonathan Stewart4853164.6%
Mike Tolbert3922769.2%
DeAngelo Williams70457.1%
Cameron Artis-Payne61233%
Fozzy Whittaker50480%
Christian McCaffrey20150%

A large part of the Panthers success during the Newton era has been converting these exact short yardage situations, either on the ground or through the air, with only New England, New Orleans, Philadephia, and Green Bay converting more, and only the Eagles and Saints converting at a higher rate since 2011. Specifically looking at short yardage run plays, no one has done it better than the Panthers, who boast the third-most attempts and the second-highest rate of success (256 carries, 73.4% 1st down). The run game is always going to be a staple weapon for a team led by Cam Newton, but on third-and-one at midfield in the first half of game three of the season, you don’t necessarily want or need Cam to continue to take those hits.

This isn’t to suggest the Panthers are unaware. Cam’s short yardage carries have decreased every year since 2013, when they peaked at 28; the last two seasons are by far the most “balanced” the Panthers short-yardage rushing attack has been, with Cam getting 30 carries (25 first downs) carries to J-Stew’s 24 (19 first downs). With the lack of a veteran addition this offseason, the departure of the franchise’s all-time leading rusher and Cam less than two seasons away from his 1,000th career carry, the answer seemingly must come in the draft.

Best Short-Yardage Running Backs Since 1994

NameAttemptsFirst DownsConversion PercentageRound Drafted
DeMarco Murray1057773.3%3
Ahman Green15911572.3%3
Ronnie Brown1007272%1
Larry Johnson1037370.9%1
LeSean McCoy1399870.5%2
Stephen Davis1359469.6%4
Adrian Peterson14810369.6%1
Corey Dillon18012569.4%2
Edgerrin James19813769.2%1
Jerome Bettis20514168.8%1

Of the top short yardage backs shown, half were first round picks and nine were taken by round three. For the Panthers to find their hammer, they’ll likely need to invest high draft capital, they’ll need a guy who slots between CMC’s 202 pounds and Cam’s 260, and to have a guy on the field consistently on third down, he’s got to be able to pick up the blitz to allow Cam, Olsen and CMC to do what they do.


Next Up: 2018 Short-Yardage Draft Options

Colin Hoggard
Reformed Radio Host, part-time capologist, wannabe GM, scout and full-time defender of Steve Smith's Hall of Fame Candidacy.