Don't sell Panthers' Christian McCaffrey short after injury-plagued 2020

Christian McCaffrey missed 13 games in 2020 with multiple injuries but said he’s now "back to 100 percent." Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Stephania Bell chuckled when told durability and size were factors in the Carolina PanthersChristian McCaffrey falling to No. 5 in ESPN’s recent ranking of the NFL’s top running backs based on input from league executives, coaches, scouts and players.

Bell, ESPN’s football injury analyst, understands the Panthers star missed 13 games in 2020 because of multiple injuries -- high ankle sprain, shoulder, quadriceps. She also understands none were serious enough to justify surgery or indicate a trend for the 5-foot-11, 205-pound McCaffrey.

“When you put it all together in the context of what he’s done in his career, college and pro, and his ability to stay on the field and play the position he does, I’m not really worried about him," Bell said.

Bell called each of McCaffrey’s injuries “unlucky" and not an indication the 25-year-old is on the decline as happens to many backs on their second contract.

“Combine his talent and utilization and what he can do and how much he can touch the ball and how much of a threat he can be," Bell said. "I don’t know if there’s anybody else that I want."

The rankings had McCaffrey behind Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and Cleveland’s Nick Chubb.

McCaffrey, who in 2019 became the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season, dropped from second heading into last year.

Bell reminded Chubb has to share carries with Kareem Hunt and Cook (5-10, 209) has a history of injuries going back to college, including an ACL injury as a rookie in 2017.

“Nobody’s taking the ball away from Christian McCaffrey," Bell said of McCaffrey, whose 926 touches during his first three seasons without injuries ranked second in the league. “If you’re looking at productivity ... I would probably put him at the top."

Despite missing most of last season, McCaffrey’s average of 1,456.5 yards from scrimmage per season since entering the league ranks second to Kamara’s 1,541 and his 114.1 scrimmage yards per game ranks first. McCaffrey has three fewer touchdowns than Kamara’s 48, and Kamara has missed four games in four seasons. Despite playing three games in 2020, McCaffrey became the third player in NFL history with at least 3,000 career rushing yards and 2,500 receiving in his fourth season.

In terms of durability, McCaffrey hadn’t missed a game before last season. He’s been the same reliable player for the Panthers he was at Stanford, where in 2015 he broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA record for all-purpose yards with 3,864. He accounted for a whopping 44% of Carolina's yards from scrimmage in 2019, by far the highest in the league, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Still, an NFL offensive coach told Fowler: “If you value durability as far as criteria, then I’m not sure he’ll hold up. Love the player, but at that size with the injuries, I’m just not sure."

No offense to the coach, but Bell finds it “funny" the notion that Cook and others could be considered less of an injury risk than McCaffrey.

“I wonder if any of those GMs or coaches or whoever would really take all those guys over McCaffrey if they had a choice," she said.

In terms of touches, don’t expect last season to impact the 364 McCaffrey averaged in 2018 and ’19.

“My mindset has not changed with Christian McCaffrey," offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. “You can obviously see the difference when Christian McCaffrey is on the football field. You can see the production of it.

“I told Christian I don’t want Christian to be anything more than Christian McCaffrey. He doesn’t have anything to prove to me, to prove to anybody else."

McCaffrey takes his durability seriously. He spends countless hours working out so he can handle the heavy load. He’s even come to grips with taking time off during the week during the season to let his body recover.

So when McCaffrey says he’s “back to 100%" it’s not wishful thinking. And he’s not changing his workout program that takes in many fundamentals of a track athlete because of the injuries. He continues to work with Colorado-based trainer Brian Kula, who has worked with him since the 2018 offseason. He’s developed a trust in Kula that he calls a “powerful feeling."

Some of McCaffrey’s workout routines seen on Instagram are as amazing as his feats on the field.

“The last thing you should do whenever bad stuff happens is overcomplicate and overthink," McCaffrey said during offseason workouts. “I’ve been playing football since I was seven. I’ve had a lot of success in my career."

McCaffrey looks at least season almost as though it didn’t happen, reminding “sometimes freak stuff happens." He doesn’t think about the injuries because he’s moved forward. He says football is a “meditation" for him and he believes the more you think the worse you play.

“I know how to play this game at a high level," he said. "I know how to train. I know how to take care of myself. Sometimes, you just get unlucky.

“My mind is good. My body’s even better, and I’m fired up."