Call it “shake,” call it “quicks,” call it straight-up speed.
Whatever it is, rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has it.
Whatever it is, it caused second-year corner James Bradberry – not known for being the most vocal player on the field – to allow an “Ooh-AAH” to escape his lips from the opposite side of the field after McCaffrey used a slick little double-cut to shake linebacker Luke Kuechly during the Panthers’ first practice in full pads on Friday morning.
You know, that same Kuechly who has a reputation as one of the best linebackers in the NFL, who is big and fast and intimidating for a rookie to even stare at across the locker room let alone take on in full contact ... THAT Kuechly.
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He’s quick, he’s got shake, he’s fast.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly, on running back Christian McCaffrey
“He’s quick, he’s got shake, he’s fast. He got me today on one run,” Kuechly said, grinning and shaking his head. “Luckily, Thomas (Davis) was right next to me. ... The way he runs, you can tell he’s done it a few times. He’s very precise with his movements, he’s in and out of breaks quick.”
McCaffrey’s bread and butter, specifically, is a sneaky style of cut during which he analyzes the space between himself and a linebacker or defensive back, and chooses the most efficient option – but sells it as if he’s not. He became a Heisman short-list star in college at Stanford by understanding how to extend a play by using the double moves often favored by receivers around the league, but as both a running back and a receiver.
His first movement toward that cut, especially, is something to behold. It’s kind of a feint-step, but it’s sold so well it almost looks as if McCaffrey will break in the direction of the cut – and then he doesn’t. Or maybe he does. Honestly, because of McCaffrey’s body control, it’s hard to tell until it happens.
“I think that first move is really to set you up, and then where he goes from there is up to him,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said with a grin after practice.
In the case of safety Collin Jones, that led to a mouthful of turf. In the case of Kuechly, it was a rare moment of exposure.
“It’s not a good feeling,” said Kuechly. “You hope that somebody is by him. ... You have to make sure you’re playing with good leverage, and hopefully some other guys on the team are running to help you out.”
There are a few players similar to McCaffrey in the NFC South (such as the Falcons’ Devonta Freeman, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and also had 462 receiving yards last season), and there is a marked trend in the league toward quick, shifty, versatile offensive players. So Kuechly sees the big picture after facing the rookie in practice.
“I think it’s good for us,” he said. “He can run a slant, he can run a seven (an out-breaking route toward the corner), he can run all kinds of different routes. I think when you have a running back who can do that, it poses problems.
“When they motion him out wide, he’s got a route tree he can run versus some other running backs that are only going to run a slant, or a go (a straight-line route up the field).
“You’ve got to know where he is. For us, as linebackers, you have to make sure you’re good. Because when he gets in space, it’s different than coming out of the backfield.
“When he’s in space, he’s got the whole field.”
I always catch (Christian McCaffrey) from another point of view, when I have to chase him down.
Cornerback James Bradberry
And McCaffrey has already shown he has a knack for finding that space.
“I always catch him from another point of view, when I have to chase him down,” Bradberry said. “I saw him make a move on Luke and another lineman. He made a pretty sharp cut, and it made me give a little ‘ooh-AAH’ when he did it. He looks pretty sharp.”
Rivera implied after practice that Kuechly was one of a few players who have approached him to tell him that McCaffrey is something special.
“I just know this, he’s a good football player,” Rivera said. “A lot of guys like what Christian is going to bring to the table. ...When guys come up to you and make comments about a guy’s abilities, that’s fun to watch. ...
“Guys come up to you and tell you, ‘This guy can be special, Coach.’”