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Carolina Panthers

Notebook: Christian McCaffrey likes new-look line

Christian McCaffrey

CHARLOTTE — It seems a little strange, considering where the Panthers were a year ago. But after nearly a month of camp, they have a more stable group of offensive linemen, and the guy they're opening holes for likes the looks of it.

Running back Christian McCaffrey said Tuesday it was "exciting" having so many new and talented players enter the mix.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said that it looks like they'll roll into the opener with the group working together now — rookie Ikem Ekwonu at left tackle, Brady Christensen at left guard, Pat Elflein at center, Austin Corbett at right guard and Taylor Moton at right tackle. With center Bradley Bozeman still a bit away after a recent ankle injury, that's likely the five who will be blocking for McCaffrey against the Browns on Sept. 11.

And with some experience behind that group (Cameron Erving and Michael Jordan were regulars last year), and with Bozeman (48 starts the last three years for the Ravens) coming back in a few weeks the Panthers have a better group up front. Last year, they used 14 different starting lineups in 17 games.

"A great problem to have is depth at the O-line position," McCaffrey said. "There are guys who played a lot of ball, who I don't know if they'll start. But I don't focus on who's in whatever position, but I know there's a lot of guys, more than five, who can play football. That's exciting as a running back, obviously."

And as that group settles in together, McCaffrey has been impressed with the way they're able to open lanes in the run game. Having a rookie with a reputation for being physical in that aspect like Ekwonu only makes him that much happier.

The veteran running back laughed and said he wouldn't pretend to be a scout, but that he was encouraged by Ekwonu from the moment he was drafted sixth overall.

"He's an exciting player, for sure," McCaffrey said. "We're all so ready to watch him grow, because he's a gift, and a special player. I think it's so good that he's got guys like Moton and Corbett and Elflein and Bozeman and all these veteran players right by his side to level him up to that next step. He's an exciting player, for sure."

McCaffrey met Ekwonu when he came in for his pre-draft visit, and the night of the draft, started looking more closely at his tape.

"I don't scout, and I don't know who we're going to pick," McCaffrey said. "I always hope it's O-linemen; I love O-linemen."

Especially now that there are more of them.

— Tuesday's practice presented another mixed bag of personnel, particularly at the receiver and tight end positions.

After practicing Monday, second-year wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. was out again with some hamstring soreness, though Rhule said he hoped to get Marshall back on the field Wednesday and in the game Friday against the Bills.

Veterans Robbie Anderson, Brandon Zylstra, and return man Andre Roberts were also out, though Rhule said none of those problems seemed to be serious.

That position remains one of the most competitive on the roster, especially since Rhule said the plan remained to carry Roberts for his return ability alone (he's a four-time Pro Bowler).

That position has gotten deeper with the emergence of Shi Smith, whom Rhule referred to as "one of the true bright spots of camp."

— Rashard Higgins is also part of that mix, and the former Browns wideout also has the benefit of familiarity with new quarterback Baker Mayfield from their Cleveland days.

And now that he's been declared the starter, Higgins said he expects more and more of Mayfield's personality to come through.

"He's starting to open up," Higgins said with a grin. "I mean, he's been here a couple of weeks; let him get everything down. He don't even know where he's living at yet, so let him get settled in.

"He'll get there though, I promise."

— The Panthers were down to three tight ends for practice Tuesday, with Stephen Sullivan out for personal reasons. With starter Ian Thomas and Colin Thompson working their way back from injuries, they were down to Tommy Tremble, Giovanni Ricci, and rookie Josh Babicz in practice.

— Punter Johnny Hekker is known for his throwing arm, and the Panthers continue to experiment with it in practice. For what it's worth, cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. made a nice catch when one came his way, and since certain players usually end up on defense for a reason, you can't always take sure hands for granted on special teams.

View photos from practice on Tuesday as the Panthers prepare for Friday's home game against Buffalo.

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