Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked after the season about the need for Carolina’s offense to evolve.
He feels like the Panthers now have the player to make that happen.
The Panthers selected versatile running back from Stanford with the No. 8 pick in the NFL draft, giving former league MVP Cam Newton some needed help on offense.
Along with his ability to run the ball, the 5-foot-10, 202-pound McCaffrey has the ability to play slot receiver and will also return punts, Rivera said. McCaffrey set an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015, rushing for 2,019 yards along with 645 yards receiving and 1,070 on returns.
Rivera said McCaffrey’s position versatility will allow the Panthers to use him in “many different ways” and create mismatches for opposing defenses.
“He can make an impact very early for us,” Rivera said.
McCaffrey refuses to pigeonhole himself into a particular position and said he’ll play wherever the Panthers need him.
“I’m a football player,” McCaffrey said. “I don’t put a title on what I am. If you need me to go to wideout, I can go to wideout. If you need me to run between the tackles I can do that as well. There are such a variety of different things I can do and that is something I pride myself on.”
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman called McCaffrey the best “tackle box runner” he’s seen since Curtis Martin, referring to his ability to run between the offensive tackles.
The Panthers don’t share some critics’ view that McCaffrey’s size doesn’t translate to him being an every down running back in the NFL. They believe the fact that McCaffrey averaged more than 30 touches per game over the last two seasons — more than any player in college football — is proof enough that he’s durable.
But McCaffrey won’t have to carry the load in Carolina anyway — at least not right away.
He’s expected to split time with nine-year veteran Jonathan Stewart, who signed a two-year contract extension earlier this offseason.
“To be able to line up in the backfield with him, I’m hoping we can do some special things,” McCaffrey said.
In terms of the bigger picture, Rivera believes McCaffrey will be a huge help to Newton, who struggled last season after an MVP season in 2015. Newton completed a career-low 52.9 percent of his passes last season as the Panthers failed to make the playoffs.
McCaffrey can serve as an outlet for Newton on short slant routes and dump downs because of his abilities as a receiver. Gettleman said McCaffrey has “suction cups” for hands. Only the Green Bay Packers had fewer catches out of the backfield than the Panthers last season.
“He will take a lot of pressure off Cam,” Rivera said.
The Panthers were also last in the NFL in yards after the catch, an area the big play McCaffrey excelled at with Stanford.
The Panthers are impressed with McCaffrey’s football IQ, which he comes by naturally. He’s the son of former Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist and won a Super Bowl ring in Denver.
“He’s been around the NFL his whole life and he gets it,” Rivera said. “And that is huge. His dad was a pro and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
The Panthers had inside information on McCaffrey.
Lance Taylor, his position coach at Stanford, was hired by the Panthers earlier this offseason as Carolina’s new wide receivers coach.
Rivera said one comment Taylor made to him stuck with him throughout the draft process.
“He told me he has Luke Kuechly’s DNA,” Rivera said of the team’s intense and hard-nosed two-time All-Pro middle linebacker. “He’s all about football.”
The Panthers have two selections in the second round (No. 40 and 64) and one in the third (No. 98) on Friday night and could address at defensive end with one of those picks.