"There was a report back in November that we were actively trying to trade him, and I told him that was not true,'' general manager Scott Fitterer said Monday of his exit interview with McCaffrey following the Panthers' 5-12 season. "What I did tell him was, 'Hey, listen, I'll take any call. Call and make any offer you want.'
"'That doesn't mean we'll do it. That doesn't mean we're shopping you.' I look at Christian as a foundation piece on this team. We're a better team when he's on the field. He's one of the elite players in the NFL.''
Injuries, however, have plagued McCaffrey's career since coach Matt Rhule was hired in 2020. He's played in only 10 of a possible 33 games. He missed 10 of 17 games this past season with a strained hamstring suffered in Week 3 and a left ankle sprain he suffered in Week 12.
Rhule said he and former offensive coordinator Joe Brady, fired in early December, talked a little before the season about using McCaffrey more as a slot receiver, but it never materialized because the eighth pick of the 2017 draft was injured early.
"We started down that path, but unfortunately he was out in Game 3,'' Rhule said. "To me, when you have a weapon like Christian McCaffrey, I'm looking for an offensive system that utilizes him, and doesn't just pigeonhole him. To me, that's what makes him one of the best players in football.''
Rhule said his new offensive coordinator will have a say in how McCaffrey is used. The Panthers, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, are interested in Alabama offensive coordinator and former Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien, with former Washington head coach Jay Gruden and Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell among the candidates.
"Christian brings that versatility, so that's one of those things as we talk to coordinators, we say, 'How do you plan on using him?''' Rhule said. "That's kind of what I'm looking for.''
McCaffrey lined up in the slot 16 of 429 snaps in 2019 under then-coach Ron Rivera, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In his first season under Rhule and Brady in 2020, McCaffrey lined up there twice on 78 snaps.
He lined up in the slot only once in 141 snaps this season. He lined up in the backfield 135 times in 2021, as opposed to wide receiver three times, Wildcat quarterback twice and slot once.
But Rhule made it clear any thought of using McCaffrey more in the slot had nothing to do with trying to protect him from injury.
"You put him in the slot to get a matchup,'' Rhule said.
That also allows the Panthers to utilize running backs Chuba Hubbard and Ameer Abdullah more with McCaffrey on the field. Much of Brady's offense was built around McCaffrey as a receiver out of the backfield.
"I'd like to have a diverse offense where it's not run through just one person,'' Rhule said.
When McCaffrey was asked if it would benefit him healthwise to play more slot, he deadpanned, "No.''
But McCaffrey left open the possibility of "tempering'' his offseason preparation and easing into offseason workouts instead of being in tip-top shape when OTAs begin.
"Talking to guys around the league who have had success, is in these first 12 weeks of the offseason, they said just let yourself emotionally and mentally and physically relax,'' said McCaffrey, who in 2019 became the third back in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. "Still being active, but relaxing.
"I'm a competitor, and I always want to show up ready to go in OTAs, and trained for OTAs, if that makes sense, and I tried to show up at full speed ready to roll.''
McCaffrey's competitive nature and unique talent are two more reasons Fitterer and Rhule aren't looking to trade their star, the highest-paid back in the league at $16 million a year.
"I fully expect Christian to be here next year,'' Rhule said. "I look for Christian to come back and be healthier than ever.''
Where does McCaffrey fall in the 2022 RB ranks?
Field Yates and Matthew Berry decipher where they would have Christian McCaffrey in next season's running back rankings as his past two seasons have been plagued by injuries.