CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Christian McCaffrey was watching when the Panthers played at Levi’s Stadium in February 2016—the last time that Carolina’s offense was thought to have a pulse. The Heisman finalist had a quick drive down the bay from Stanford to see his dad’s former team win Super Bowl 50 at the expense of his future team.
And now, after being selected by the Panthers with the eighth overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft on Thursday night, McCaffrey is officially tasked with helping resuscitate Carolina’s offense after a breathless ’16 season.
“I’d been watching that team play the whole year and what a special team,” McCaffrey told reporters on a teleconference Thursday night. “It’s an organization where winning is the standard and that’s what we’re going to get back—and I can’t wait to be a part of that.”
At that Super Bowl, McCaffrey watched an offense that had scored more points than any other squad that season. But the following year, the Panthers finished in the middle of the league in points scored, missing the playoffs.Offense had to be the priority for general manager Dave Gettleman, and the choice on who to draft was clear once the Jaguars scooped up Leonard Fournette with the No. 4 pick.
(As an aside, remember all the talk about players skipping bowl games and anonymous NFL types ripping them for it? Fournette skipped his bowl game and McCaffrey skipped his bowl game and declined all private workouts. They’ll make a combined $44.6 million in their rookie deals.)
McCaffrey came to Carolina in the pre-draft process and met with offensive coordinator Mike Shula about his possibilities in the offense. Though they only scratched the surface, according to McCaffrey, Carolina clearly communicated it wanted to use him much like he was at Stanford. He’ll line up in the backfield as a primary rusher and change-of-pace back to Jonathan Stewart, he’ll get motioned out of the backfield into the slot and even out wide, and he could even line up at quarterback in the wildcat.
“There are some matchup situations that can occur,” Rivera said. “He’s going to allow Greg Olsen to do what he does best. He’ll allow Jonathan Stewart to be a better runner. He’s going to help the receivers in the receiving game. The threat of him coming out underneath is going to create opportunities for other guys.”
Full-blown optimism in Carolina imagines McCaffrey being involved in the run, pass and punt-return games. But even at his least, the Panthers believe McCaffrey’s versatility (or at least the threat of it) will force defenses to tip their hand. His motion will unveil a man defense. His slot ability could help Olsen rub his defender and get free.
Those tells will help Cam Newton in year seven, Rivera said. Without McCaffrey or someone like him, Newton would have had three receiving targets without top-end speed (Kelvin Benjamin, Olsen and Devin Funchess) and no legitimate backup to Stewart in the backfield as the Panthers hurtled toward a repeat of 2016.
Carolina is competing in an NFC South that, in the past two years, has become an offensive arms race. Drew Brees can pass for more than 5,000 yards in New Orleans with ease. The Falcons are coming off a top-10 all-time offensive season. The Buccaneers have given their top-pick quarterback free agency’s best receiver (DeSean Jackson) and the draft’s top tight end (O.J. Howard) to team with Mike Evans in less than two months.
“I smile and I just knew this was going to make my job a whole lot easier,” McCaffrey said of Newton. “He’s the most talented QB in the whole NFL, hands down, and I just think to be able to line up in the backfield with him, I hope we can do some special things.”
The Panthers clearly think so. Rivera said McCaffrey reminded him of Reggie Bush coming out of college with some of Luke Kuechly’s DNA. Gettleman mentioned the rookie in the same sentence and similarly built running backs Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy. The general manager compared McCaffrey’s between-the-tackles running game to Hall of Famer Curtis Martin.
But running back will only be part of his job duties.
“Christian McCaffrey,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said as he announced the pick in Philadelphia, “wide receiver ... I meant! … running back. Stanford.”
Carolina is banking on McCaffrey confusing opposing linebackers with that, too.