Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey has proven over his four seasons in the NFL that he is one of the league's most elite playmakers. The former No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft earned first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors after racking up over 1,000 yards both on the ground and through the air to go along with 19 total touchdowns in 2019, which is a big reason Carolina reset the running back market by signing McCaffrey to a four-year deal worth $16 million per season.
McCaffrey was more effective and more consistent than any Madden running back you could create, but he hit a bit of a speed bump in 2020. In Week 2, McCaffrey suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for the next six games. The former Stanford standout returned in Week 9 to face the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and racked up 151 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, but also suffered a shoulder injury that forced him back to the sideline. A month later, McCaffrey's thigh "tightened up" in practice -- which signaled the end of his season. The Pro Bowler played in just three games in 2020 while the Panthers went 5-11.
This week, McCaffrey spoke to CBS Sports about what it was like to miss his first-ever NFL games, what he learned about himself in recovery and what he's focused on moving forward. During our talk, it quickly became clear that McCaffrey is more than happy to have turned his attention to 2021. Injuries have never been something that have hampered him, and the 2020 campaign is not anything he wants to dwell on. McCaffrey told CBS Sports he has fully recovered from his three injuries and has been training hard for what fans hope is his best season yet.
"I feel great right now, all three of them are back healthy and ready to roll and I'm just excited to continue training my butt off for this offseason," said McCaffrey.
With The First Pick Newsletter
With The First Pick Newsletter
Prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft with the day’s big stories + mock drafts, big board updates and more.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Missing 13 games last season just added to McCaffrey's motivation. He says the previous campaign was just a part of what will be a long journey in the NFL for him, and that he will only grow from this experience.
"I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about resiliency and about just continuing to move forward," McCaffrey said. "You can feel like the world's on your shoulders at times like that. But you know ... I'm in this game for the long haul, I'm gonna play for a very long time and it's just part of the journey. I think the biggest thing I can do is learn from everything that happened and grow and get better.
"I think when you stick with that approach, you can be much more levelheaded and you don't have to ride the emotional rollercoaster."
It's never easy to sit and watch your team from the sidelines, but McCaffrey did say the experience was beneficial in some ways. Taking a step back and getting some perspective on your situation and the team's situation as a whole was something McCaffrey said helped him as a leader.
"Anytime you get to see something from the outside in you get to better view the dynamic of the game, speed of the game and you really get to learn more about the game," McCaffrey said. "That's the first time I've ever missed a game in my life. So for me, being able to have that outside perspective and feel the flow of the game and watch a lot of my teammates step up and worry more about my teammates and be a leader from the outside -- that's something I'll grow off of and it definitely made me better."
McCaffrey is continuing to work as a leader off of the field this offseason. Recently, he partnered with USAA to connect with Jonathan Yeagley, a military veteran who was selected as one of the five grand prize winners of USAA's Salute to Service Sweepstakes.
Working with @USAA, I had the opportunity to speak with @USMC veteran and football fan Jonathan for a virtual visit to talk about his time as a Marine. Jonathan is one of five winners of USAA's #SaluteToService sweepstakes! pic.twitter.com/1YkgFPPmXH— Christian McCaffrey (@CMC_22) March 9, 2021
"It was an absolute blast. I have a huge passion for all things military so for me, I was definitely really excited to do that," said McCaffrey. "For me, I always enjoy just talking to them, picking their brain, seeing what their mindset is. That's the fun part."
The Panthers as a team are going through a bit of a change in 2021. Matt Rhule is entering his second season as head coach, Carolina's young defense which has legitimate playmakers is continuing to evolve and then a potential quarterback change could be on the way as well. But the Panthers have hitched their wagon to McCaffrey, which is a smart decision considering the kind of person he is. McCaffrey says training, having fun with his teammates and going out and playing ball is really what he wants out of life.
"I'm just going to continue to work my butt off this offseason and just be me," said McCaffrey. "I think that's the biggest thing that I can do is just be me. Don't try to be anybody else, don't try to push or press just because I got hurt and then all these people are talking about that. At the end of the day, you got guys around the league who have missed full seasons with knee replacements and have had this and that, and they come back and ball out. So for me, again, that's just part of the journey. I had a season that wasn't ideal and sometimes you're going to have that and I'm going to continue to move on from here and be me."
"Be me" is probably the best advice McCaffrey can follow. A true dual-threat weapon, he has proven just as dangerous as a pass catcher as a traditional ball-carrier, breaking the NFL record for receptions by a running back in back-to-back seasons. McCaffrey racked up 2,392 yards from scrimmage in 2019, and he's more than ready for a return to form in 2021.