CHARLOTTE --- It's starting to become normal to see running back Christian McCaffrey line up next to quarterback Cam Newton instead of behind him. In the loss against Atlanta, McCaffrey reeled in a career-high 14 receptions on 15 targets for 102 yards to lead the team in receiving yards for the second straight week. The number marked a big milestone in the running back's young career but, if you ask McCaffrey, it didn't hit him right away.
"It moves so fast. You kind of just let the game go to you. It's really a next play mentality," he said.
In addition to notching a personal benchmark, McCaffrey's receptions also tied a franchise record set by legendary wide receiver Steve Smith for catches in a game. "It's an honor for me. That was one of my favorite players, so it's definitely a huge honor," McCaffrey said.
After ending the 2017 season with 80 receptions and five receiving touchdowns, tying a 13-year old record in the second game of his second season doesn't feel like an abnormality for McCaffrey. Being able to impact the game multiple ways is an aspect of McCaffrey's game that he says he works on every time he steps onto the field.
"Football is such a versatile game, and I'm always trying to be the most complete back I can be," he said.
Against both Dallas and Atlanta, McCaffrey racked up positive yards on a series of rushes and check-down passes from Newton, a testament to his skill set as a pass catcher out of the backfield. And although his number of targets (24) currently exceeds his carries (18), McCaffrey sees no issue with how he's being used in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's offense.
"Whatever's working. That's what I prefer. Whatever's making us go," he said.
His primary function as a receiver so far this season doesn't match with the preseason narrative that he'd get more carries in 2018. But short passes have served as a safe extension of the running game, and don't forget that his ability as a pass catcher helped make him one of the most coveted prospects coming out of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Just ask head coach Ron Rivera.
During his weekly press conference, Rivera discussed how important wide receivers coach Lance Taylor's insight was in assessing McCaffrey, noting that his catching ability ranked "very high". Taylor served as the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014-16 - all three years of McCaffrey's collegiate career.
"I know that we went and we spent a lot of time watching him catch the ball, " Rivera said about scouting McCaffrey. "The biggest thing that we had to our benefit was we had Lance on our staff and Lance was able to say, 'This guy is a receiver coming out of the backfield. He's tremendous.'"
Heading into Week 3 against Cincinnati, McCaffrey will have the chance to build on his strong start and he's ready for whatever his role will be, whether it's receiving handoffs or passes from his quarterback.
"Once again I'm all for it," he said. "Wherever I can get the ball in my hands and be most versatile, I'll do it."