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Player Spotlight: Christian McCaffrey

A detailed look at Christian McCaffrey's fantasty prospects for 2017 and beyond.

POSITIVES

  • McCaffrey has great pedigree and his father has helped him prepare to make the NFL his career.

  • He can work between the tackles and is not limited to pass catching.

  • Above average foot frequency, vision, and elusiveness are centerpiece strengths of his game.

NEGATIVES

  • McCaffrey is not a prototypically sized back.

  • A lack of power and burst will mean he can’t create as easily on his own.

  • The Panthers’ offensive line is still a middling unit that won’t create as many holes for McCaffrey.

  • Jonathan Stewart will still be utilized in a committee with McCaffrey, tempering his short-term upside.

CAM GETTING SLAMMED

On October 10, 2016, something sickening happened for the second time in as many years. Cam Newton crumpled at the goal line after a brutal hit. He was slow to get up and later in the evening, it was revealed he had suffered yet another concussion. He would return to action after missing one game, but continued to take punishment. He ultimately required surgery in March of 2017 on a partially torn rotator cuff.

The team began to realize that a constantly beat up Cam Newton would have a shortened career. The most striking verbalization of that concept came when Head Coach Ron Rivera said the following at the end-of-year press conference: "We want him to last 10 more years. We have to find ways to change. We have to find ways to protect him and for him to protect himself. Part of his evolution is learning how to survive." 

The zone read option plays in this offense will have to become more sparing. Teams studied the tendencies of the Panthers and knew that Newton, more often than not, would be the one rushing out of these formations. That is how they were able to key on him and deliver punishing blows. As Matt Harmon outlined here, it also didn’t help that Cam’s leading receivers (Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, and Ted Ginn Jr.) were getting very little separation on routes and as a result were getting their quarterback sacked frequently. 

At the aforementioned press conference, Rivera also showed understanding of this issue. "You can't sit there and expect us to run 20 zone reads and expect him to carry the ball 10 out of those 20 times," Rivera told reporters. "That's the truth of the matter." 

Newton himself realizes that things will have to change if he is to extend his career. In a recent interview with the team’s website, Cam acknowledged:

The thing I have to realize is my job is not necessarily to always be the playmaker. I have to give other people opportunities to make plays. That's the hardest thing about maturation, especially for me. So having more comfort in trusting the guys around me is the biggest thing. Trust and knowing my job is giving everybody a chance and letting them do their job as well.

How can protecting Cam Newton and not compromising the effectiveness of this offense be achieved? The answer: bring in a pass catching running back.

In the modern NFL, having a pass catching back on the roster has become something of a necessity. It gives your quarterback a valuable release valve when pass rush pressure gets intense. It also unlocks mismatches that wouldn’t have otherwise been available to your offense. The two Super Bowl teams this past year are a good example of this. On one side, you have Telvin Coleman, whom Kyle Shanahan made a point to use on out-of-the-backfield patterns, late developing routes, and in space. On the other side, you have James White, who shattered the record for catches in a Super Bowl and gashed defenses throughout the playoffs when linebackers struggled to cover him. 

The Panthers have not had a true pass catching back since the departure of DeAngelo Williams. To say Jonathan Stewart is not much of a pass catcher would be an understatement. His career best reception total was 45 in 2011. Over the past three years, he’s logged 25,16, and eight receptions respectively. In 2016, the Panthers targeted running backs on only 13 percent of passes, well below the league average of 19 percent.

Realizing the importance of both protecting Newton and making their offense multidimensional, the Panthers drafted Christian McCaffrey with the eighth pick of the Draft. Having spent such a high pick on McCaffrey, it's likely they'll put him to work immediately. A committee approach is likely, with Stewart being the goal line and short yardage option and McCaffrey being the pass catcher and before-the-twenties runner. 

A GOOD CHRISTIAN

One thing that made both NFL and independent player evaluators salivate over McCaffrey is his bloodline. Of course, there’s Ed McCaffrey, Christian’s father, who won three Super Bowls over a 13-year career. Then there’s Dave Sime, McCaffrey’s grandfather, who won multiple Olympic gold medals as a runner. Both Ed McCaffrey and Dave Sime pushed Cristian to train diligently throughout his high school and college career. This preparation is going to give him a much better chance to cross the emotional divide and quickly become a productive player in the NFL.

The traits that stick out on McCaffrey’s film are his elusiveness, his ability to keep his feet moving, his ability to change direction on a dime, and great vision. He has an intuitive understanding and feel for where holes are opening and he can get through them quickly. Moreover, he comprehends how to vary his stride length and can shift speeds and gaits with ease.

McCaffrey is a great pass catcher, who can play in the X, Z, or slot positions. However, that’s not all he can do. McCaffrey demonstrated in a pro-style offense at Stanford that he can grind between the tackles. He averaged 6.3 yards a carry in his final year in college, despite playing through an injury. While that average will creep downward with an increased level of competition, it points to him being able to “tote the rock” in addition to catching it.

McCAFFREY MADDENING?

There are only a few things not to like about McCaffrey and his landing spot. At 5’11” and 202 pounds, he’s a little lighter than your typical between-the-tackles running back. It makes some nervous about his ability to hold up to the hits he’ll take in the NFL. Critics of McCaffrey often point to the career of undersized Giovani Bernard as a cautionary example. McCaffrey may be able to mitigate this concern somewhat by using his elusiveness to not take direct hits. Not that McCaffrey is Barry Sanders, but the “undersized” Sanders preserved his body in this way during his pro career.

McCaffrey does not possess elite burst and because he is lacking size, he does not have the power to push piles and break tackles. To add to this concern, the Panthers offensive line is a below average run blocking unit who did little in the offseason to improve. They drafted only Taylor Moton, who will need some development before he can become a reliable starter. They will likely once again struggle to open holes, and that could be problematic for a runner who needs at least a little daylight in order to create. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

In point per reception (PPR) redraft leagues, Christian McCaffrey at his current average draft position is a solid, but not exciting proposition. All Footballguys projectors believe 1,000 total yards from scrimmage and 7 total touchdowns are a reasonable expectation. However, it's important not to forget that there is a committee in place and that Stewart is a better pass blocker than McCaffrey at this stage. He is going to temper some of McCaffrey's upside in the short-term. If the hype continues to build over the summer and McCaffrey breaches the early third or late second round of drafts, it may be time for owners to consider other alternatives.

In dynasty formats, especially in PPR scoring, McCaffrey is a valuable asset. In normal rookie draft classes, McCaffrey might have been the 1.01. In this packed class, however, McCaffrey typically is going off the board anywhere from the 1.03-1.06 range. People are waking up to his value, but there are still quite a few leagues in which you can get him for cheaper than that. Certainly, it’s better to purchase him now while he is less expensive than at the price he will be after he proves he can produce this season. If you find yourself negotiating with an owner who doesn’t value him as highly and you have the capital to do so, try throwing out an offer. What you project to be a middling or low future first-round pick and an older veteran producer (players like Jordy Nelson, Doug Baldwin, Mark Ingram, and Drew Brees come to mind) would be well worth his services.

2017 PROJECTIONS

JASON WOODS’ PROJECTIONS

G

RYD

Y/R

TD

REC

YD

Y/R

TD

FPT

16

1,000

4.65

5

42

350

8.33

2

219.00

DAVID DODDS’ PROJECTIONS

G

RYD

Y/R

TD

REC

YD

Y/R

TD

FPT

15

675

4.47

4

37

352

9.51

3

181.70

OTHER VIEWPOINTS 

Michael Beller of SI.com feels McCaffrey ended up in a better landing spot for fantasy than Leonard Fournette:

There’s no reason to question what McCaffrey can do with the ball in his hands. We all saw the show he put on at Stanford, and it’s silly to think that won’t transfer over in a meaningful way, despite his stature. McCaffrey will split running back duties with Jonathan Stewart, a breakdown that should benefit both of them. While Stewart will almost certainly handle goal-line work, McCaffrey will get the bulk, if not the entirety, of the receiving production out of Carolina’s backfield. In today’s NFL, that’s nearly as valuable from a fantasy perspective as goal-line carries. McCaffrey should make an instant impact in the fantasy game. 

Richard Janvrin of Bleacher Report doesn’t believe McCaffrey to be extremely valuable, regardless of format:

McCaffrey will be involved in the passing and running game, making him a likely top-15 running back in 2017, regardless of format.”

Luke Easterling at DraftWire proclaims that McCaffrey is the undisputed 1.01 pick in PPR dynasty leagues:

If you’re in a PPR (point-per-reception) league, McCaffrey is the clear-cut No. 1 and it’s not close. But even in standard leagues, McCaffrey’s versatility and ability to score in different ways should make him highly productive in the Carolina offense. If you’ve got the top pick in your league, he’s your best bet.