A full season and offseason in the NFL can make a big difference for any young player, but the payoff for Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey could be particularly bountiful this season.
During his rookie season in 2017, McCaffrey was only able to spend the last part of the spring workouts with his teammates because of an NCAA rule.
He couldn’t travel with quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers receivers to Baltimore for their annual trip, a rite of passage that establishes camaraderie on the offense and builds trust. (Of course, Newton was also rehabilitating a surgically repaired shoulder and couldn’t throw much anyway.)
When McCaffrey ran through his playbook last spring, it was usually solo. He’d FaceTime with running backs coach John Skipper within the NCAA regulations, and essentially practiced against shadows and ghosts until training camp started.
But this year, McCaffrey has had a full year of work in his playbook and with his teammates. He had a full slate of NFL games, plus a solid wild-card playoff appearance. He had a full offseason program with the team. He went to Baltimore.
“That was a blast,” he said. “Such a beautiful area, just being able to get together with the guys one time before camp was extremely helpful.”
He also followed an NFL training program and put on 6 pounds of muscle, going from 202 to 208.
“I’m still feeling fast,” he said as he and his teammates moved into the dorms at Wofford College on Wednesday morning.
“I think even just not being there with the guys was big. I think that plays a big part of it. Also, the plays as well. You can study the playbook as much as you can but if you’re not reppin’ them, it’s a little different. And I could rep them on my own, but doing it in a game-like setting, in a practice-like setting is different.
“It’s like learning how to drive a car and then actually driving the car.”
Still, it’s not like he looked unprepared in 2017. In some areas he really impressed, particularly with his versatility as a receiver.
He had 80 catches for 651 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 8.1 yards per catch while lining up as a slot receiver and out wide.
In the run game, however, McCaffrey craved consistency and rhythm. He carried the ball 117 times in tandem with power back Jonathan Stewart, rushing for 435 yards, 3.7 yards per carry.
This year, McCaffrey said he wants to be more consistent and more of a complete back. He also replied, “That would be great,” when asked about head coach Ron Rivera’s statement earlier this month that he could see the second-year back get 200 carries in 2018.
Rivera doubled down on increasing McCaffrey’s workload on Wednesday.
“He can be a guy who gets the ball somewhere between 25 and 30 times a game,” said Rivera. “That would be ideal.”
That doesn’t mean that under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner the Panthers will stop using a complementary back system similar to what they did last year with Stewart as the thunder, and McCaffrey as the lightning.
“As we go through it, we will get a better sense and feel of what Norv wants to do with (power back C.J. Anderson and McCaffrey),” said Rivera, citing Turner’s tenured utilization of complementary backs in a two-back system.
“Again, I was very fortunate to be there in San Diego and watch how (Turner) used Darren Sproles, watched the way he used LaDanian Tomlinson. I could see him doing some of those things with (McCaffrey).
“I could see Christian, especially if he continues to develop the way we think he can, be a really integral part of everything we do.”