Carolina Panthers' Christian McCaffrey (hamstring) could return from IR to play Sunday

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey was designated for return from injured reserve Wednesday after missing the past five games with a hamstring injury.

This begins the team's 21-day window for him to begin practicing and makes him eligible for Sunday's game against the New England Patriots, should Carolina (4-4) activate him.

"I would probably say he was pretty limited, not a ton of plays,'' coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday. "Just trying to begin the process of working him back. We'll see how he looks tomorrow in terms of this weekend and his availability. See how he responds to this, but no setbacks."

Rhule called Wednesday's practice "the first step" for McCaffrey.

McCaffrey appeared close to a return in Week 5 after practicing on a limited basis Wednesday through Friday, but he wasn't activated. He practiced again on a limited basis the next Wednesday, then was placed on injured reserve after missing practices Thursday and Friday.

Rhule said Monday the goal whenever McCaffrey returns is to spread the workload as Carolina did in Sunday's win at Atlanta, which snapped a four-game losing streak.

Backs Chuba Hubbard, Ameer Abdullah and Royce Freeman teamed with quarterback Sam Darnold to rush a season-high 47 times for 203 yards.

"To me it's not just about Christian," Rhule said Monday. "It's about those guys that have really emerged for us, and we want them all to play."

The Panthers, however, might be without Darnold, who suffered a concussion on a designed run with just under seven minutes remaining in the 19-13 victory. P.J. Walker is expected to start if Darnold does not clear the concussion protocol this week.

According to Rhule, Darnold was "extremely limited'' in Wednesday's practice and Walker took all the first-team snaps.