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Christian McCaffrey, suddenly an elder

Christian McCaffrey

CHARLOTTE — Christian McCaffrey has always been a versatile back, the kind of guy who can help an offense in many ways.

This offseason, he's added a few unexpected roles — sometimes-coach, and suddenly old guy.

Having just turned 25 and entering his fifth season, he does have a certain veteran presence around this place now. But that was confirmed during minicamp and through the offseason. During the last practice, head coach Matt Rhule let McCaffrey and linebacker Shaq Thompson work as surrogate coaches, calling timeouts and directing traffic during situational drills.

But that wasn't the only time he began to feel his age, as he was able to play the veteran card, and get through some of the testing procedures faster than others.

"It was weird in physicals the other day," McCaffrey said with a laugh. "Veterans go first when you're doing heart rate tests and that stuff; if there's a big line you get to go first. And I found myself skipping every line.

"I don't know if our team's just ridiculously young or I'm getting old. I was happy to skip the lines."

Christian McCaffrey

They're happy to let him, if it means he's back in the fold.

Among the problems last year was the absence of the All-Pro back because of a series of injuries. While some Panthers stacked up some stats last year, the lack of a guy who can top 1,000 yards as both a rusher and receiver (as he did in 2019) was clear to see, and the trickle-down effects without their best player were obvious.

This spring, he's been out there the whole time — and generally one of the first few guys on the practice field — and having him set the tone is important.

"You can obviously feel the difference when Christian is out on the football field," offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. "You see the production of it. But I told Christian, I don't need Christian to be anything more than Christian McCaffrey. I think that's important for him to know, that he doesn't have anything to prove to me, to prove to anybody else — he just needs to be Christian McCaffrey.

"When he's coming out here, the work ethic that he's putting into it, it's impressive. Every day, there's examples that he's putting on tape that I want everybody to be like, 'Hey, we've got to play like this.'"

McCaffrey noted that he was fortunate to learn the lessons he needed as a rookie; he had a room including Jonathan Stewart, Fozzy Whittaker, and Cameron Artis-Payne around to teach him the differences in life as a pro.

In that same vein, he's happy to mentor all of the kids around him now; and even pick up a thing or two from them in the process.

"And I'm always learning too. There's a lot of young talented guys on this team," he said. "Just the other day, (undrafted rookie) Spencer Brown made a move that I'll definitely try to put in my arsenal. Not that I've never seen it, but when you see it live, I mean those guys are here for a reason too.

"As a vet, I'm always learning and picking stuff up from those guys as well."

Christian McCaffrey

So last Wednesday as they wrapped up their work for the spring on some of the finer details of the game, brushing up on late-game particulars, McCaffrey was on the sidelines helping instruct. He knows the importance of those things, and said they could easily be the difference in "four or five wins a year."

That's an elder's approach, which is why it was appropriate he was sharing his knowledge instead of handling the entire burden on his own.

But the work never stops, even as they begin the final break before training camp.

"There's always something to work on," he said. "You always try focus on being a complete player, working on your pass protection, making sure my eyes are right on run plays, making sure my routes are very crisp and consistent. There's never a time when you're not working on everything. And you're always working on getting faster, getting bigger, getting stronger, getting quicker.

"And after that, just making sure I'm mentally where I need to be so when I go out I don't let my teammates down."

There's very little chance of that, as long as he's there.

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