McCaffrey expected to play huge role in Carolina offense

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Cam Newton is welcoming the idea of sharing the spotlight in Carolina.

Newton has been the focal point of the Panthers’ offense for the past seven seasons, but that’s about to change — at least to some degree.

Sure, Newton will still be running the show and remain a dual-threat QB, but coach Ron Rivera has made it clear Christian McCaffrey will play a much larger role this season, saying that it would be “ideal” to get the second-year running back 25 to 30 touches per game.

That’s a lot.

McCaffrey averaged less than half that amount of touches as a rookie and still managed 1,086 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns, so there’s potential for him to have a big season.

Most of McCaffrey’s production came as a receiver in 2017, where he set a franchise rookie record with 80 receptions and five TD catches. But after releasing all-time leading rusher Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers are eager to feature McCaffrey more in the running game — similar to how new Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner used LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego.

“I could see Christian, especially if he continues to develop the way we think he can, being a very integral part of what we want to do,” Rivera said.

And it’s all part of the overall design to take some of the pressure off Newton, who led the team in rushing as well as passing last season.

One of the reasons Turner was brought in was to find new and creative ways to get McCaffrey the ball, particularly in open space where he’s difficult to tackle because of his speed and shiftiness.

McCaffrey has been featured extensively in the preseason, touching the ball 10 times for 51 yards on Carolina’s opening 16-play drive against the New England Patriots in the third preseason game.

Here are some other things to know about the Panthers:

CAM AND NORV

As for Newton, all eyes will be on how well he adapts to Turner’s offense.

Newton worked in a similar scheme with Turner understudy Rob Chudzinski early in his career, so there is some familiarity there.

But while Newton said he’s “extremely comfortable” with Turner, players say this system is more intricate than what former offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran.

Under Turner, Newton will be asked to look past his first and second options more often and take what the defense gives him, relying heavily on McCaffrey and new speedy receivers Jarius Wright, Torrey Smith and rookie D.J. Moore to make plays.

“That has to be my mentality,” Newton said. “We have a lot of guys who can take 2 yards and turn it into 20 yards, or more. But it starts with me and I have to trust those guys and get the ball to them.”

SPREADING IT AROUND

Rivera also wants to see Newton get back to doing the things that earned him the league MVP honor in 2015 and helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl — spreading the ball around to his several different receivers.

He certainly has the options to do that with the additions at wide receiver and tight end Greg Olsen.

“Norv gets guys a lot of different guys in a lot of different places,” Wright said. “There are some quick throws here and there and he basically gives the quarterback places to go with the ball.”

REPLACING DAVIS

It is Shaq Thompson time in Carolina.

Thompson has been groomed for the past three seasons to take over for Thomas Davis at weakside linebacker. With Davis suspended four games to open the season for testing positive for a banned substance, Thompson gets his shot.

“Thomas is the leader of our room, he’s the leader of this team,” middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “We are going to miss having him around. Shaq will do an excellent job, but when Thomas gets back, he’s going to be hungry and he’s going to be fresh.”

ACTION JACKSON

The Panthers will be counting on second-round pick Donte Jackson to step in and start right away at cornerback.

Jackson is not big, but he was one of the fastest players in college football last season. He still struggles at times taking the correct angle on tackles, but the Panthers love his swagger and playmaking ability.

O-LINE INJURIES

Three starters on the offensive line went down with knee injuries during the preseason leaving the Panthers in a potentially precarious situation. Rivera said he’s not sure if 2017 All-Pro second-team right tackle Daryl Williams, left tackle Matt Kalil or left guard Amini Silatolu will be back on the field for Carolina’s Sept. 9 regular-season opener against Dallas.

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