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Panthers rookie Jordan Scarlett earns chance to be primary backup RB

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Stephania Bell is high on Christian McCaffrey (2:05)

Stephania Bell says Christian McCaffrey will be a huge part of the Panthers' offense because of his elusiveness, power and productivity. (2:05)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After a recent practice, a Carolina Panthers equipment manager was about to grab the helmet and pads of running back Cameron Artis-Payne for the long walk from the practice field to the stadium when Jordan Scarlett waved him off.

“Part of rookie duties," Scarlett said with a smile.

Such is life in the NFL, even when the most menial task involves toting the equipment of the player whose job you are trying to take -- and in Scarlett's case, succeeded in taking.

Artis-Payne was released Friday during the Panthers' final cuts. For the most part, he had been the backup running back since the Panthers selected him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. He’d staved off the competition each year, but other than veteran C.J. Anderson last season, the battle for the second or third back was against an undrafted player.

The Panthers upped the ante in April, selecting Scarlett (5-foot-10, 209 pounds) in the fifth round out of Florida with the hope he had the all-around skills to give starter Christian McCaffrey a break without losing much in terms of production. They also added undrafted back Elijah Holyfield out of Georgia (Update: Holyfield was released after initially making the 53-man roster.)

But even winning the backup job is like battling for table scraps. After McCaffrey and quarterback Cam Newton last season, the other backs had a total of 51 carries.

That’s 3.1 carries per game.

Scarlett isn’t concerned about the carries, understanding McCaffrey played 91.3% of the snaps last season. He’s just happy to make the roster.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else," he said.

Scarlett’s progress was slowed by a lower back injury that kept him out of the preseason opener. That allowed Artis-Payne and Holyfield to showcase their talent.

Holyfield, in particular, impressed early with two touchdowns -- one receiving and one rushing -- after an initial fumble in the preseason opener. He continued to impress in the final preseason game, leading the team in rushing with 36 yards on eight carries and catching an 8-yard touchdown pass on a play in which he made a nifty move to avoid a defender.

Holyfield’s 3.95 yards per carry during the preseason actually was better than that of Scarlett (2.79), who led the team in rushing with 81 yards on 29 attempts.

Reggie Bonnafon became the wild card; he averaged 4.64 yards per carry and led the team in preseason receptions with 13 for 139 yards, showing many of the skills McCaffrey does. He also can return kicks.

To truly be a backup to McCaffrey, Scarlett also will have to become an effective pass-catcher. The Florida offense didn’t call for him to be a receiver often, and when it did, his hands weren’t in the right position to consistently make plays. Scarlett had 15 catches for 108 yards in his college career.

Panthers running backs coach Jake Peetz has worked to get Scarlett’s hands closer together with his thumbs and forefingers in more of a triangle shape.

“When you watched the film ... all of the drop issues his hand placement was off," Peetz said. “It’s the fundamentals we can train that will allow you to do it.

“It’s not to say you’re going to catch every ball doing that. At some point it’s a little bit of confidence. He’s put in the work. He’s still out here doing that."

And he'll get that chance in the regular season.

“He’s done a really nice job of learning his assignments," Peetz said. “Now he just needs to express himself on the field."