Christian McCaffrey is ready to kick off his 2019 season


CHARLOTTE – It's been nearly eight months since running back Christian McCaffrey has been tackled.

That'll change Thursday night in Foxboro, try as he might to avoid it.

"I don't know if I'm looking forward to getting hit. But I'm looking forward to trying not to get hit," McCaffrey said with a laugh. "But yeah, it's different when it's live contact and those bullets are flying. You really start to get that adrenaline going and get back in your comfort zone. I'm excited for that."

Panthers fans are excited for that, too.

The third-year running back looks stronger and faster coming off a monster season in which he recorded 1,098 rushing yards, 867 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns. Coaches and teammates have all taken note of McCaffrey's steady rise.

Not that this is something he pays close attention to, but he's entering 2019 as the No. 2 overall player in ESPN's fantasy football rankings. So yeah, expectations are high.

He had an outstanding training camp, but guys don't get taken to the ground during practices. The Panthers didn't want to take any chances with McCaffrey – or Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and Greg Olsen for that matter – during the first two preseason games, so he's was a merely spectator against Chicago and Buffalo (McCaffrey played in the first three preseason games each of his first two years).

"I definitely understand," McCaffrey said. "I obviously want to be out there as much as possible, but I completely understand. Our coaches do such a good job taking care of us. For me, when they tell me I'm up I'll be ready to go."

Well, he's up this week. And he can't wait.

McCaffrey, who goes about his business with a quiet intensity, has taken it upon himself to step up as a leader in 2019, and that starts with making plays when the ball is in his hands -- what he does best.

"For me, it's upholding a standard I set for myself individually," McCaffrey said. "I don't have to do as much talking, guys are bought in. I just go as hard as a I can all the time and if I see any corrections here or there you have to let somebody know."

This Panthers offense is full of playmakers.

Of course there's McCaffrey carrying the load at running back, and we all know he's lethal as a receiver with 187 career catches on his resume already. Newton, the former league MVP, is healthy and looking like his old self. Ditto for Olsen, the Pro Bowl tight end. And those young wideouts, DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, they've clearly elevated their games.

It all makes for a lot of firepower that will soon be on display.

"I'm really excited. We have the guys to do it. You're seeing guys step up," McCaffrey said. "There is really no excuse."

View some of the best photos of running back Christian McCaffrey from Carolina's 2019 training camp at Wofford.