CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Panthers are considering expanding All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey’s role to include punt returns, too.
McCaffrey saw more snaps than any running back in the league in 2019 and was extremely productive with the ball in his hands, becoming only the third player in NFL history to post 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.
Panthers first-year coach Matt Rhule says he’s been working McCaffrey some on punt returns during training camp and leaving open the possibility he could use him in certain game situations.
“Anytime you have the ability to get the ball in one of your best player's hands it is something you have to think about,” Rhule said. “Again, it's not something I am sitting here saying we are doing. It's something I was asked if I would consider, and obviously I would consider it. (But) it's not in our immediate plans."
The Panthers brought in 2017 Pro Bowl punt returner Pharoh Cooper to handle punt returns, but Rhule wants other options, too.
D.J. Moore, considered the team's No. 1 wide receiver, is also fielding punts in practice.
“We are repping Christian and we are repping D.J at times and if it's the right situation, if it's a punter who is giving us returnable balls, and the ball is backed up (in an opponent's territory), I think you would consider it just a little bit more.”
Rhule said it will be difficult to get a gauge on McCaffrey's return abilities since there is no preseason.
“I think it depends on how good he is compared to the next guy,” Rhule said. “If there is a significant upgrade by anyone (then) you would use them in the right situation.”
The Panthers gave McCaffrey a four-year, $64 million contract extension this offseason, making him the NFL's highest-paid running back following a 19-touchdown season. He caught a franchise-record 116 passes for 1,005 yards last season and ran 287 times for 1,387 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
As for the risk of injury to his best player, Rhule said, “anytime you step out on the football field there is a risk of injury.” He added that he thinks punt returns are safer than kick returns because of the ability of the player to call for a fair catch.
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