Look Ahead — 2019 Player of the Year: McCaffrey emerges as Panthers’ top offensive weapon

Considered undersized in his draft year, Carolina’s do-everything running back is primed to be a superstar

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey became the third player in NFL history with more than 1,000 rushing yards and at least 100 receptions in a season. (Ron Schwane / AP Photo)

In recent years, the Carolina Panthers have bid farewell to running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Kelvin Benjamin.

They haven’t missed them all that much, thanks to Christian McCaffrey, our early pick for the 2019 North State Journal Player of the Year.

The speedy back was the first-round pick of Carolina in 2017 and was considered by critics too small to be an every-down back in the NFL.

McCaffrey showed he was sturdy enough for the job, starting the year as a change of pace for Stewart and gaining 435 yards on 117 carries while becoming the first rookie back to catch 70 passes and five touchdowns. The performance convinced the Panthers they could give McCaffrey the full-time job, allowing Stewart to leave in the offseason.

This year, McCaffrey took the next step, from promising rookie to top player, likely earning himself a cover spot on next season’s Fantasy Football preview magazines. He became the third player in history to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes in a year. He also broke the NFL mark for catches by a running back (102, by Matt Forte).

McCaffrey isn’t just a good receiving running back, though. He’s one of the league’s best receivers. His 106 catches are more than his father, longtime NFL wide receiver Ed, ever had in a season.

“He’s got a comeback (in him),” the younger McCaffrey joked. “He’s got three Super Bowls. So he’s got me there, but it’s good. I got lucky they threw me the ball a lot. It’s my job to make those catches.”

McCaffrey also set the Panthers’ single-season receptions record, topping wide receiver Steve Smith’s 103 catches in 2005.

He’s not a tiny scat back, though. McCaffrey entered the final week of the season fourth in the NFL in rushing and 10th in most rushing attempts.

McCaffrey even took some of quarterback Cam Newton’s thunder, throwing a touchdown pass on a trick play. He became the first running back in franchise history to complete a pass and first non-quarterback to throw a touchdown for the Panthers, further cementing himself as one of the most versatile players in the league.  He’s second in the league in all-purpose yards and yards from scrimmage and third in touches.

“We expected him to be a playmaker and make plays, and that is what he has done for us,” coach Ron Rivera said. “Whatever the numbers are, they are. But for the most part, he is the type of guy that we thought he was. We felt he could carry a good load. We are asking a lot of him.”

McCaffrey was originally expected to be an additional weapon available to Newton. Heading into his third year, however, the Panthers are looking more and more like they might become McCaffrey’s show, with the front office and staff looking for ways to upgrade the weapons available to him.

“The young man is a tremendous football player, and we have to make sure we shore up a lot of things,” Rivera said. “There are some things that we could do most certainly on the offensive side to help him out, and to help our quarterbacks out as well. We have some young wide receivers that have to continue to learn and grow as football players. Those guys are dynamic. They’re playmakers, but we have to continue to help them grow so they can become playmakers down the field. We have to be able to put the ball where they can go after it as well. There are some things we have to grow into, and we are most certainly going to work that way. … I think, going into next season, we’ll have to take a look at some of the things we can do to help him take a little bit of the load off of him.”

McCaffrey doesn’t care about records and numbers. He’s more concerned about wins and losses, something that eluded the Panthers for the second half of this season.

“I mean, at the end of the day. I just want to win,” he said. “All that other stuff is great, but there’s nothing like winning. Losing sucks. But man, the only thing you can do is fight. It’s a tough sport and it’s not always good to you but you’ve got to stay poised through the good and bad.”