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The right running back to complement Christian McCaffrey might look a lot like McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey showed at Stanford that he has the versatility to be an every-down running back. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Much has been debated about who will complement Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey after Jonathan Stewart was released last week.

There also has been a lot of debate over whether McCaffrey (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) has the size to be the every-down back. Perhaps a glimpse into new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's past will help. Specifically, a look into Turner’s time with Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the player McCaffrey was most often compared to coming out of Stanford a year ago.

Turner was Tomlinson’s offensive coordinator at San Diego in 2001 and his head coach with the Chargers from 2007 to 2009. Tomlinson (5-10, 215) was about the same size as McCaffrey and he finished his career ranked fifth on the NFL’s all-time leading rushing list with 13,684 yards.

Tomlinson’s complementary back in 2001 was Terrell Fletcher (5-8, 196). Tomlinson carried 339 times for 1,236 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Fletcher got 29 carries for 107 yards.

Tomlinson’s complementary backs in 2007 were Michael Turner (5-10, 237) and Darren Sproles (5-6, 181). Tomlinson had 317 carries for 1,474 yards while the other two combined for 108 carries for 480 yards.

Sproles was the lone complementary back in 2008. He had 61 carries for 330 yards while Tomlinson had 292 carries for 1,110 yards.

You get the picture.

Tomlinson, who had more than 300 carries in each of his first seven seasons, didn’t need a physical runner like Stewart to complement him. Turner didn’t need a physical runner like Stewart to orchestrate his offense.

“You go back and look at what Norv did with LaDainian, you look at Frank Gore when he was in San Francisco,’’ coach Ron Rivera said last week at the NFL combine when explaining how Stewart would be replaced. “You know, he’s had dynamic guys that are multifaceted -- that run the ball inside, outside, catch the ball well and pass-protect.

“That’s what you’re really looking for is that type of guy.”

In other words, the Panthers could be looking for another player like McCaffrey to complement the eighth pick of the 2017 draft.

Gore, by the way, rushed for a career-high 1,695 yards on 312 carries in his one season under Turner at San Francisco. He also caught 61 passes for 485 yards that season. Gore is 5-9, 215.

His complementary backs in 2016 were Michael Robinson (6-1, 226) and Maurice Hicks (5-11, 200), who combined for 67 carries.

So, don’t look for the complementary back to get a lot of carries, whether it’s a draft pick or current backs Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker.

General manager Marty Hurney told ESPN.com the day before Stewart was released that the Panthers wanted to see McCaffrey get more carries between the tackles. That didn’t happen last season in part because the Panthers had Stewart as the lead back and in part because McCaffrey had to fill the role as a receiver with injuries to second-round pick Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd.

But McCaffrey can be an every-down back. He proved it at Stanford, where he had 337 carries for 2,019 yards rushing and eight touchdowns in 14 games during his second season when he finished as a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. He also caught 45 passes for 645 yards and five touchdowns that season.

He followed that with 253 carries for 1,603 yards and 13 touchdowns in 11 games before turning pro. He did this despite being hampered by injury.

“He was a three-down back for us and would have been for any team he was on in the National Football League,’’ Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren told ESPN.com about McCaffrey before the 2017 draft.

Critics, by the way, had the same concerns with the size and durability of Tomlinson coming out of Texas Christian University. Bloomgren also worked with Tomlinson in 2010 when both were with the New York Jets. That late in his career, Tomlinson had 914 yards rushing and 52 catches for 368 yards.

Tomlinson proved critics wrong. Bloomgren believes McCaffrey will, too.

“Think about the challenge he creates for a defensive coordinator," Bloomgren said of McCaffrey last year. "On first down, he’s behind the fullback and he’s running power. On second down ... he’s the base-protecting back.

"Now you’re on third down. He’s in the slot. It’s completely different formations, but you never change personnel. For any defensive coordinator, he’s unsure what call to make."

Despite Stewart’s presence, McCaffrey rushed for 435 yards on 117 carries as a rookie in addition to catching a team-best 80 catches for 651 yards. His 3.7 yards per carry was only slightly below the 3.9 of Jacksonville rookie back Leonard Fournette, who had 1,040 yards and 268 carries as an every-down back.

Give McCaffrey the same amount of carries with his average of 3.7 yards and he finishes the season with 991.6 yards.

Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt (5-10, 216) isn’t a big back, either. He led all rookies with 1,327 yards rushing and was considered an every-down player.

This isn’t to suggest the Panthers shouldn’t take a back in the draft. Two backs are the norm and not the exception in the NFL.

Just look at Carolina’s top competition in the NFC South. The New Orleans Saints have the 1-2 punch of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, who combined for more than 2,000 yards rushing even though Ingram had 110 more carries.

The Atlanta Falcons have Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who combined for almost 1,500 yards rushing.

That running back arguably is the deepest position in this year’s draft gives Carolina flexibility as to when to make the pick. The Panthers could go early for a back like Georgia’s Sony Michel or Nick Chubb, projected to go between Rounds 1 and 3.

Or they could wait until Rounds 4 and 5 and potentially get TCU’s Kyle Hicks (5-10, 210) or N.C. State’s Nyheim Hines (5-9, 197).

But when you look at Turner’s history, one back tends to carry the main load.

“We’ve had success with backs like Christian, so we’re going to look at things we’ve done in the past and build on things he had success with this year,’’ Turner said after being hired.

And don’t forget the Panthers have a rare quarterback in Cam Newton, who led the team in rushing last season. There are only so many carries to go around no matter whom the Panthers select to complement McCaffrey.

“There are several really good-looking backs in this draft,’’ Rivera said. “... It’s a pretty dynamic group from top to bottom. I do think there is a guy who can potentially help us.”