The Carolina Panthers want to have fun with Christian McCaffrey, but not too much fun.
In his regular season NFL debut, the rookie running back was in on 70 percent of the offensive snaps, which was longer than every other player on the team besides quarterback Cam Newton and the offensive line. The Panthers had so much fun with their new toy they didn’t even consider the snap count.
They were running McCaffrey like a Game Boy in the 1990s. The main hope is that he doesn’t run out of batteries.
“It’s like getting that new toy at Christmas,” Panther head coach Ron Rivera told ESPN’s David Newton. “You open up the box and there’s what you’d hoped for. But you also have to be wise and smart about when you play with it and when you don’t, because you don’t want to wear the batteries out. You don’t want to break it. What you want to do is utilize it and have fun with it.”
Running back is a position where players typically don’t sustain a long shelf life in the NFL. The Panthers should definitely try to maximize McCaffrey’s skills while also not overworking him. Overwork could lead to injuries and a significant drop in production.
That scenario with McCaffrey isn’t an immediate concern — he is just getting started in the NFL. However, it does make sense why the coaching staff would err on the side of caution rather than risk the health of a player they selected with a top-10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
The expectation is for McCaffrey to grow in the offense and develop into a security blanket for Newton, much as Tom Brady deploys his running backs in New England.
Things got off to a hot start in the Panthers’ Week 1 win over the San Francisco 49ers. McCaffrey finished the game with 13 carries for 47 yards, along with five receptions for 38 yards. He was deployed all over the field as a tailback, fullback, wide receiver and slot receiver. The Panthers showed more creative formations in one game than they showed all season in 2016.
It’ll continue to be an early Christmas for the Panthers as long as they take care of McCaffrey. They need to be mindful of his snap count and avoid running him into the ground. Newton has other high-volume targets, Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen. The Panthers could also lean more on Jonathan Stewart in running situations, while putting a greater restriction on McCaffrey’s carries and more emphasis on his work as a receiver. Even the most dependable Swiss Army knife can go dull from overuse.
McCaffrey is too valuable to let that happen.
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