FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- There are several Carolina Panthers who are making an impact on this team for the first time in 2017. Some weren't in Charlotte last season, while others were on the team but have enjoyed bigger roles and greater success this year.
Each of these five Panthers will likely have a say in the outcome of Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons, so it's time we get better acclimated with them.
Christian McCaffrey, RB
The first player on this list is pretty obvious. McCaffrey, the Panthers' exciting first-round pick, was one of the top college running backs in the country during his final season at Stanford, and he's become one of the focal points of Carolina's offense. A versatile back, McCaffrey has done a little bit of everything for the Panthers so far in 2017.
Through the first eight weeks, McCaffrey has carried the ball 49 times for 117 yards and caught a team-leading 49 passes for 378 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In the Panthers' 17-3 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McCaffrey set a new franchise record for passes caught by a running back.
By drafting McCaffrey, the Panthers (5-3) added an important weapon to their offense that had been missing – a hybrid player who is lethal in space and a threat in the passing game. Whether he has the ball in his hands or not, defenses have to account for McCaffrey on every play.
Julius Peppers, DE
Nobody will every confuse this future Hall of Famer with a rookie, but Peppers is certainly moving around like one this season. The 37-year-old pass-rusher has recaptured some of the explosiveness that made him such a dominant player the last time he was with the Panthers from 2002-09.
After registering 7.5 sacks last season for Green Bay, Peppers has already matched that total through his first eight games this season. He's failed to get an opposing quarterback on the ground just twice this year and has at least one sack in four of the Panthers' last five games.
Peppers has eight careers sacks against the Falcons (4-3), including one last season while he was with the Packers. The nine-time Pro Bowler has been a major addition to the Panthers' defensive line this year.
Devin Funchess, WR
Although Funchess is now in his third season with the Panthers, he's having a bigger impact than ever before. Often seen as the clear No. 2 to Kelvin Benjamin, Funchess has looked like Carolina's top receiver at times in 2017. With Benjamin recently traded to the Buffalo Bills, it's likely Funchess will have to play like the team's top receiver more often.
At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess uses his big frame to his advantage, and he can play all three primary receiver positions in the Panthers' offense. While his stats don't jump off the page – he has 33 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season – Funchess commands a high share of the targets in Carolina's passing game.
Curtis Samuel, WR
Carolina's second-round draft pick this April, Samuel has slowly become integrated into the offense. Another extremely versatile player, Samuel often lines up in the slot and is a threat on jet sweeps. He has just 47 yards on seven catches and 50 yards on three carries this season, but his speed and athleticism offers a lot of upside. With Benjamin gone, Samuel's role in this offense should become substantial pretty quickly.
James Bradberry, CB
Another player who was on Carolina's team in 2016, Bradberry looks like a more assured defender in his second NFL season. He is second on the Panthers' defense with 40 tackles through the first eight weeks, and he is tied for the team lead with five passes defended. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradberry has been the best cornerback in the league in employing press defense, allowing a catch just 23.1 percent of the time.
Bradberry played well as a rookie for the Panthers last season, and he's continued to emerge as a reliable starter for them.