SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The soft pedal on the Christian McCaffrey hype machine is broken. Doesn't work. Ron Rivera tries it, but the Carolina Panthers' coach gives up almost immediately after one tap when asked about his first-round pick.
"I think it's early," Rivera said in his office here after practice Thursday. "But I think that anybody watching is anxiously awaiting his opportunity to play in the preseason and the regular season."
McCaffrey has been the talk of Panthers camp so far. (Well, other than the talk about Cam Newton's recovery from shoulder surgery.) Veteran players and coaches use words like "dynamic" and "exciting" to discuss what they're seeing in McCaffrey. They marvel that a guy who had to miss almost the entire offseason program because of Stanford University's schedule and the NFL's rules about rookie practice eligibility could know the offense as well as he already does.
"The nice thing about that was, during that little period he was in purgatory, he was able to communicate with [running backs coach Jim] Skipper, so at the end of the day they would get together and FaceTime and they would go over the playbook and what the installations were," Rivera said. "So we come out for the first ... let me see if I can find it."
Rivera has turned to the computer screen on the left side of his desk and is clicking a mouse.
"Let me see if I can find it. [click] I hope I still have it. [click-click] He comes out for the first minicamp, his only minicamp practice, I should say, and we were in a zero blitz and he picked it up. [click] I hope we have it. Let's see. [click] Here we go. Minicamp. Red zone. [click-click] I think it's on this one."
A few more clicks, and the play is on the TV screen across from Rivera's desk. Lined up next to quarterback Derek Anderson in the shotgun, with the ball on the 4-yard line, McCaffrey reads the blitz package the Panthers' defense is in and wiggles his way between the line to get into the flat.
"Steps up inside, gets to the outside, gets out," Rivera says. "He saw that he had to get out. OK, here's another one. Let me see if I can find the other one. There's a better one. [click] There's a really good one. [click-click]"
This goes on a while, and some more plays get called up, but not the one Rivera really wants. So, he takes out a paper and pen and draws the best one -- a play where McCaffrey read two linebackers, figured out the one on the inside was bluffing and moved out to block the one coming off the edge.
"He steps up and he looks inside-to-out," Rivera says. "And his first step up, as soon as he recognizes that this guy's in coverage, he goes to work outside, OK? Well, if the outside guy is blitzing, he's got to pick him up. If the outside guy is in coverage, he's got to release. A lot of times, a guy would release, just thinking, 'No, he's got me,' and the guy gets to the quarterback, because you never expect the second guy to make the play. Well, he saw it and he picked the guy up. And I thought, 'Wow, that just shows you that he's studying it and preparing for it.' You can tell there's a way he sees it, and that's what his development has been. And it's been fun to watch."
Fun for everyone but the veteran Carolina linebackers who have to track McCaffrey in team drills.
"The McCaffrey hype is most certainly legit," Thomas Davis said. "The kid is a special talent, man, and I'm definitely happy we've got him on our team. He's a guy that, it's not all about just lining up and running the route with him. He does a really good job of selling it, of making you think he's going to do a certain thing and then ending up doing something totally different than what he sold you. A great job of really selling his routes."
Christian McCaffrey -- a rookie to make football X's-and-O's nerds swoon over practice film.
Here are some other notes from the Falcons/Panthers/Texans legs of my 11-team camp tour:
Dontari Poe is in a good place mentally. Poe took a one-year deal with the Falcons after five years with the Chiefs and says he's finally in the defense of his dreams.
"My mindset was a little different from the defense I was playing in," the veteran defensive tackle said, meaning he always has been asked to eat up blockers instead of attacking downfield and disrupting things in the backfield. "It wasn't so aggressive and attacking. I never did this before, so it's fun for me."
So that means ... what? Sacking quarterbacks?
How many? Poe has 13 in his career, including six in 2014.
Man of few words.
The Texans are excited to have center Nick Martin back. Martin missed his entire rookie season because of injury. And while they have some things to sort out at tackle with Duane Brown still holding out, the interior of the line should benefit from Martin's return to the middle.
"That was tough. He's a very good player," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "Now, [Greg] Mancz came in there and filled in pretty well. We ran the ball OK and he protected pretty well. But just having Nick back in there, he's a very good player, so I think if we can keep him healthy, that'll help us."
The current No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart agrees.
"Oh, it's awesome," Tom Savage said. "He's one of my best friends on the team. He's a smart guy. He's a grizzly bear out there. He does a great job. Everyone had a tremendous amount of confidence in Mancz. He did a great job, he still does an awesome job, but Nick's just, like I said, he's a grizzly bear out there and it's good to have him."
Sure. Nothing against ol' Mancz, but any time you can throw a grizzly bear in there, you've got to do it.
Speaking of offensive linemen, the Kalil brothers are an interesting story in Carolina. The Panthers signed Matt Kalil to play left tackle two spots over from center Ryan Kalil, who is his older brother.
"A little strange, first time being on a team together," Ryan Kalil said. "Obviously, no one's more excited than my parents. But it’s nerve-wracking, too. The relationship changes a little bit. There's a certain way I talk to my teammates, and there's a certain expectation I have with my teammates, so sometimes I worry that that gets lost in translation of older teammate versus big brother. I'm not sure how he translates that. We've gotten a little bit of an early preview of that, so it's been good. He's been very receptive of my criticisms. It's the easy part right now. When the season gets going, the criticisms and the being more critical picks up a bit."
As someone with two younger brothers, I totally get this. Overall, the Panthers say they're much happier with their offensive line depth than they were a year ago. Rivera called last year's spate of offensive line injuries "one of the position catastrophes we had."
Don't sleep on Carolina's young cornerbacks. Throwing James Bradberry and Daryl Worley into the fire as rookies last year created another "position catastrophe" and badly damaged the Panthers' chances to repeat as NFC champs. But the pair improved as the year went on and enter this season with high hopes.
"I think midway through the season, you could really start to see the confidence grow in those young guys," Davis said. "You know, Bradberry, he had a foot injury that he had to deal with that I think really kind of set him back and didn't allow everyone to see what he was capable of until later in the season. And you could see those guys just continue to show up on film, continue to make plays, continue to be in the right spots, and that's what it's all about -- being able to be trusted and understanding that they're going to be where they need to be. That really started to develop as the season went on."
A weak spot in 2016, cornerback shouldn't be one for Carolina in 2017. Trial by fire might have worked.
Game day will be the test for the new Falcons' offensive coordinator. Steve Sarkisian replaces Kyle Shanahan, who left to coach the 49ers. Shanahan is regarded as one of the game's best offensive playcallers, so some of the talk in Falcons camp has been about how Sarkisian will function in that game-day role. Backup quarterback Matt Schaub said "there's some terminology that we've been able to tighten up, things we've been able to change as far as the way we call things to cut down the verbiage. Because for Sark, he's been in this type of offense, but we wanted to make the verbiage easier for him to understand in a short period of time where he can not flinch and call things and spit it out in the heat of battle."
They're drilling it in practice, obviously, but they'll really get a sense of the play-to-play communication once preseason games start.
"I think it's about the timing of calls and having a bead on what a team is doing," Schaub said. "And you know, so much of what we did last year was no-huddle. And Kyle put that together himself, so the terminology was something he could just see and go to, and that's what he did for four or five years. So I think that's Sark's thing, just getting into the offense and his timing as far as how he wants to call plays, and the sequence and timing of how a defense is playing, is him getting to certain things at the right time."
Could Will Fuller's replacement be a running back? The Texans lost No. 2 wideout Fuller to a broken collarbone this week, and while they expect him to return from it, that obviously won't be soon. Watch out for running back Tyler Ervin, the team's fourth-round pick from San Jose State. He ran the second-fastest combine time of any running back -- a 4.41 that would have ranked as the fifth-fastest time for any wide receiver at this year's combine. Ervin already was a player the Texans planned to use in a variety of roles on their offense, but they're now considering actually switching him full time to slot receiver.
"He does a lot of different things for us," O'Brien said. "He's playing running back, he's in the running back room, but he's a versatile player. Punt returner, does a lot of things on offense. He's a fun guy to coach."
Vic Beasley smiles (and sacks quarterbacks) through his pain. The 2016 NFL sacks leader is nice, pleasant and always smiling. But after Falcons practice Wednesday, he said one of the keys to his breakout year was his reaction to the death of his father.
"It was devastating, but I felt like my dad would want to see me become a great man," Beasley said. "He wasn't there, obviously, to see that. But I know, if he was there, that's what he would want -- to see me just continue to do the work. I would want him to know that he raised a great man and that guy is working extremely hard to carry on the name that's on the back of his jersey."
The Falcons are enjoying the contrast between the high-octane personality of rookie Takk McKinley and the laid-back personality of Beasley. But Beasley has enough respect from his teammates to have been elected one of the team's 14 "chiefs" -- the group that acts as intermediary between other players and head coach Dan Quinn on player concerns and suggestions.
The Texans would like you to watch Whitney Mercilus more. It was hard not to see him dominate the crew the Texans are using at tackle in practice Friday. Mercilus was in the backfield constantly in team drills, and this was without J.J. Watt on the field.
"I think the outside, a whole bunch of people forget about Whitney Mercilus," Watt said. "Jadeveon [Clowney] and I, we appreciate all the love that we get, but I think that a whole bunch of people overlook Whitney Mercilus. I think he's extremely underrated. I think he's an unbelievable player. And I think he deserves a lot more credit than he gets, that's for sure. So we're excited to have all of us out there."
Exciting, indeed. The Texans are making sure to give Watt enough rest this camp as he recovers from the injury that cost him all but three games in 2016. He's on board with the plan this time, and is eager to get on the field with Mercilus and a post-breakout Clowney. The Texans' defensive front should be very good yet again.