SPARTANBURG, S.C. – There's a lot to like about Christian McCaffrey. He's productive. He's tough. He's durable. He's confident. He's arguably the funniest guy on the team.
His teammates have taken note of all these qualities since Tolbert came to Carolina as unrestricted free agent in 2012. And in that time, Tolbert has gone from a role player adjusting to a new environment, to one of the most vocal and respected players in the locker room.
"It's becoming more comfortable. Last year was my second year here, and I felt a lot more like it was other guys' team, other guys that needed to step up, and I was basically leading by example, not by my words," Tolbert said. "But I'm definitely going to try and be more vocal and push guys through. I'm here to support everybody."
Tolbert's presence as a leader in the locker room is boosted by his performance. In the last two seasons, he's played in every game and scored 14 touchdowns – the most by any Panthers player in that time span.
The former undrafted rookie free agent from Coastal Carolina was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2013 after starting 13 games at fullback and producing five rushing touchdowns to go along with two touchdown catches.
"It's gratifying, but it's not satisfying," Tolbert said. "It's gratifying, because I know that all the hard work I put in, everything I've done to this point, paid off last year. But I'm not satisfied by any means. I want to make it there and further beyond. I'm working even harder this year for more."
The Panthers are prepared to give him more, especially when the tough yards are needed in critical moments. Tolbert has lost 13 pounds as a result of an offseason boxing regiment and now weighs 250. Rest assured, he still packs a punch between the tackles.
"He's in great shape. He came in underweight and ready to go," head coach Ron Rivera. "It shows in his play right now. We want him to maintain that weight and maintain his effective play. We don't him to lose that nose for the goal line that he has. A lot of times he is our third down and crunch time guy. That's why it's important for him to be ready to go."
Said Tolbert: "I'm a pro. I trained hard this offseason and I got my body in tremendous shape. I'm ready to go. I can handle anything the coaches throw at me."
He's even shown a willingness to return kickoffs, but that's not quite Rivera's preference when Tolbert lines up at upback during kick return drills.
"If the ball comes to him, he is going to catch it and return it. That's the rule," Rivera said. "But I don't want to see him returning. I'd rather see him blocking.
"I will say this though: a couple times he has lined up as the primary (returner), and I told him that's only in extreme emergencies."
Tolbert understands his primary objective – provide the physicality needed to earn the hard yards and help the Panthers return to the postseason.
"We are going to go out every game with the intention that we are going to beat whoever is in front of us," Tolbert said. "At the end of the year, we'll see what the outcome is."