He’s also fun to design plays for, as offensive coordinator Mike Shula admitted Monday.
Arguably, no player has been used in more ways than McCaffrey was in Sunday’s 23-3 season-opening victory at San Francisco since Ron Rivera was hired as the Panthers' head coach in 2011.
Maybe in team history.
“It’s like getting that new toy at Christmas," Rivera said. “You open up the box and there’s what you’d hoped for. But you also have to be wise and smart about when you play with it and when you don’t, because you don’t want to wear the batteries out. You don’t want to break it.
“What you want to do is utilize it and have fun with it."
Shula and the Panthers had plenty of fun Sunday with the eighth pick of the draft out of Stanford. McCaffrey played 70 percent of the snaps (47 of 67 plays), which was more than any offensive player outside of quarterback Cam Newton and his offensive line.
McCaffrey lined up at fullback, at tailback in the I-formation, at tailback in the shotgun, as a slot receiver, and as a wide receiver. He probably logged more yards going in motion than many of the Carolina receivers did running routes.
He rushed 13 times for 47 yards, second to teammate Jonathan Stewart's 65 yards on 18 carries. McCaffrey was the leading rusher before Stewart got seven carries for 30 yards on Carolina’s final drive that ate up the final 8:48 on the clock.
McCaffrey led the team with five catches on seven targets for 38 yards. No other receiver had more than two catches.
McCaffrey’s presence as a decoy also set up two touchdown catches, Russell Shepard's 40-yarder and Stewart’s 9-yarder. If Newton hadn't gotten excited over how open tight end Ed Dickson was, McCaffrey’s presence would have set up another 21-yard touchdown catch.
The play actually was designed to go to McCaffrey.
“He got excited,” Rivera said of Newton. “You see him ... he shifts his feet to throw the ball and he threw it too quickly.”
It’s easy to get excited when McCaffrey is on the field. He offers versatility that few others offer in the NFL.
“He’s just so fun to watch," Shula said. “You can do different things with him. He’s so smart, so instinctive."
McCaffrey gives Shula a toy like none he’s had before.
“It is fun, and you’d like to think that, ‘Yeah, you can be real creative and it’s all about what you’re going to do coaching-wise,’" Shula said. “No. You want to get those guys the ball and get them comfortable doing what they do best, and he can do a lot of things really well, and give him a chance to go make somebody miss or run somebody over."
But again, Shula doesn’t want to overuse McCaffrey to the point the Panthers become predictable. He understands the value of old toys such as Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and Stewart.
“We talked a lot during the offseason about teams trying to take away Greg and Kelvin," Shula said. “If they do that, then we feel like [McCaffrey] could be a guy that gets some either matchups underneath in the shorter areas, or if teams are dropping soft zone, then you can get him the ball in soft space.
“With him being a factor like that is going to be very helpful for Cam, but also for those other guys."
“He’s an explosive-type player," he said of McCaffrey. “He’s got great quicks and is very football savvy. You also see sometimes when he doesn’t have the ball the benefits of having him on the field.
“He goes one way and Jonathan goes the other way. The next thing you know, Jonathan has the ball and he dives over the middle for a touchdown."
But like any new toy you get for Christmas, it’s easy to play with it too much. The Panthers still want to maintain their identity as a physical, power team led by Stewart.
“When you have some guys that have talent and can help you move the football ... there’s only one ball," Shula said. “There’s only a certain amount of plays."
But that won’t keep Shula from finding plenty of plays for McCaffrey.
“He’s still scratching the surface," he said. “He’s a piece to the puzzle that hopefully we’ll present each week that ultimately will help our football team win games."