C.J. Anderson: Christian McCaffrey is home run threat 'we've got to feed'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- C.J. Anderson had an interesting perspective on the 71-yard touchdown run Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey logged between the right tackle and guard in Friday night's 27-20 preseason win over Miami.

Interesting in that how often Anderson touches the ball this season depends in large part on how well McCaffrey performs.

"I was telling people, if it was me, it would be a 50-yard gain," said the Pro Bowl running back, signed as a free agent out of Denver during the offseason to back up McCaffrey. "With him, he has the ability to finish runs. He's a home run threat. That's what we've got to feed."

Anderson was used to being "the guy" in Denver, where he was fed the ball an average of 15.3 times per game last season en route to a career-best 1,007 yards. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton insisted after Friday night that Anderson still is "the guy." Then, in the same breath, Newton said the sixth-year player out of California "understands his role."

This brings us to the mathematical dilemma coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Norv Turner created when they said it's realistic for McCaffrey to get 25-30 touches per game.

Let me explain.

The Panthers averaged 64 plays per game last season. Newton averaged 31 pass attempts and eight rushes, giving him 39 touches per game.

That leaves 25 touches for everyone else.

Assuming that McCaffrey gets five catches per game, as he did last season when he led Carolina in receptions with 80, that brings the total for everyone else to 30.

Still, for McCaffrey to get to 25 touches, he'll need to average 20 rushes.

That leaves five for everyone else in what appears to be a loaded backfield with Anderson, Cameron Artis-Payne, Kenjon Barner and Elijah Hood behind McCaffrey.

Even if you count a punt return or two in McCaffrey's touches, even if Newton's rushes per game drop to four or five (which is realistic in Turner's offense), the total for Anderson and the rest won't be much.

You also have to figure that wide receiver Curtis Samuel and perhaps Damiere Byrd -- if he makes the final roster -- will get a carry or two on end arounds. That also cuts into the mix.

To Anderson's credit, he's OK with his reduced role because he recognizes McCaffrey's potential greatness.

"My accolades and numbers speak for themselves," Anderson said. "I'm just here proving myself every day. Whether [McCaffrey] gets 25 carries or not, I'm in full support, and when my number is called, I'll be ready to go."

The bottom line in this is look for Newton to run less and spend more time getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers. He has completed 71 percent of his passes in two preseason games, well above his career average of 58.5.

And that completion percentage could have been higher. McCaffrey dropped a pass against Miami, and Newton overthrew wide-open tight end Greg Olsen twice in the preseason opener at Buffalo.

Newton also had open receivers underneath when he was sacked twice by the Dolphins. Left tackle Matt Kalil, who struggled at times last season in pass protection, was responsible for both.

Newton was trying to get the ball to McCaffrey on one when the defensive end forced him to tuck the ball at the last second.

McCaffrey still finished with four catches on five targets for 28 yards. He had five rushes for 92 yards.

On McCaffrey's 17 snaps, he touched the ball 58.8 percent of the time. He was on the field for 70.8 percent of Newton's 24 snaps, which is about where he was a year ago. He just didn't get the ball as much a year ago because Jonathan Stewart averaged 13.2 carries per game.

Stewart was considered the between-the-tackles back. McCaffrey was the change-of-pace back.

Now Anderson is the change-of-pace back, and McCaffrey is the featured back -- the same as he was at Stanford, where he averaged 23.6 rushes per game in his final two seasons.

Anderson accepts these roles.

Newton needs that to be the case so he can be the kind of quarterback Turner wants.

"He's a dynamic player," Newton said of McCaffrey. "People say,' Where would he play?' We always laugh and tease about it, but he's a prime-time player that you just have to find ways to get him the football."

What Newton likes most about McCaffrey is that he's never satisfied.

"Also, he's extremely physical, and I don't think he gets that much credit for that," the 2015 NFL MVP said. "He's comfortable with the football in his hands. I have to find ways to make sure that not only do I get him the football but that I get him an accurate ball so he can do something with it."

A prime example came Friday, when Newton threw the ball off McCaffrey's back shoulder on a short pass over the middle that netted 18 yards. McCaffrey made the catch look easy. Had he been hit in stride, he might have doubled that total or even taken it to the end zone.

McCaffrey also showed on the long touchdown, 31 yards longer than any run he had last season, that he is capable of running between the tackles. That run should quiet, at least for now, the critics who say the 5-foot-11, 210-pound back isn't stout enough, even though he did it at Stanford.

"He's getting better at it," Anderson said. "The only difference is the holes are not as wide [as in college]. C-Mac has been doing a helluva job with that."

That's why Anderson said the Panthers have to feed McCaffrey. That's why Newton said the Panthers had a "quiet" 405 yards of total offense against Miami. That's why Newton has high praise for McCaffrey and Olsen.

"Those guys are extremely special," he said. "I blushed at times knowing that these guys are special with the ball outside of their hands when getting open, but it's even more exciting when they get the ball in their hands."

Olsen, by the way, averaged eight targets per game in 2015 and '16 before a foot injury sidelined him for much of the past season. So as talented as the receivers around Newton are, he'll still get his fair share of touches.

That leads to more math. Rivera wants Newton to spread the ball around, as he did in 2015, when the Panthers led the league in scoring. If Newton averages 31 pass attempts and completes at least 65 percent of them, as Turner wants, that's 20 completions per game.

If Olsen and McCaffrey average 13 of those based on past averages, that leaves seven for Devin Funchess, first-round pick D.J. Moore, Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright and Samuel.

The receiving corps, like the running backs, have more quality depth than Newton has had in years.

It's a nice problem to have.

"We've got a strong room," Anderson said. "We know that and understand that. Our goal is not to have a one-two punch. It's whoever is in the game we don't want to miss a beat."