The Best Things in Life are McCaffrey - Footballguys

A detailed look at Christian McCaffrey's fantasy prospects in 2018.

the best things in life are McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey was part of a legendary rookie running back crop, which also included Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Joe Mixon. For some reason, McCaffrey is consistently drafted after Hunt, Fournette, and Cook in drafts in spite of having the ideal combination of a high floor and ceiling.

  • McCaffrey is the best running back on an offense built around a power-running scheme
  • New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a 30-year history of producing elite fantasy running backs
  • McCaffrey finished 9th last year in PPR formats but was a respectable 16th in non-PPR in spite of only 117 carries
  • C.J. Anderson will have a role, but he's oft-injured and is playing on a modest one-year contract
  • If McCaffrey doesn't get more carries, he proved he's no worse than a No. 2 fantasy back
  • If he does get more carries, which is likely, he has the same top-five upside as all the other 2nd-year backs going ahead of him in drafts

debunking the myth Mccaffrey can't be a 3-down back

Why is McCaffrey pigeon-holed into a part-time role? The narrative started last year and was fueled by the coaches' decision to give him 117 carries. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula treated McCaffrey with kid gloves while giving veteran Jonathan Stewart 198 carries. Both Shula and Stewart are gone, but most fantasy analysts continue to speak of McCaffrey as though he's a fragile bird incapable of holding up to the rigors of a more traditional workload. Nothing could be further from the truth.

McCaffrey's Collegiate Stats, Stanford University

Year
Games
Rush
RuYds
Yds/Ru
RuTDs
Recs
ReYds
Yds/Re
ReTDs
2014
12
42
300
7.1
0
17
251
14.8
2
2015
14
337
2019
6.0
8
45
645
14.3
5
2016
11
253
1603
6.3
13
37
310
8.4
3

As a starter in 2015 and 2016, McCaffrey was an every-down workhorse. He was the focal point of the Stanford offense, rushing 590 times for 3,622 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 24 rushes per game. And he ran in a pro-style offense, so his carries weren't a byproduct of spread gimmickry.

McCaffrey is listed as 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, and the coaches noted he entered training camp at 210 pounds. That may sound small, but it's completely in-line with many of the NFL's most productive running backs in history:

  • Walter Payton (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) -- 3,838 carries (2nd all time), Hall of Fame
  • Curtis Martin (5-foot-11, 210 pounds) -- 3,518 carries (3rd), Hall of Fame
  • Frank Gore (5-foot-9, 212 pounds) -- 3,226 carries (5th)
  • Barry Sanders (5-foot-8, 203 pounds) -- 3,062 carries (7th), Hall of Fame
  • Edgerrin James (6-foot-0, 214 pounds) -- 3,028 carries (8th)
  • Tony Dorsett (5-foot-11, 192 pounds) -- 2,936 carries (12th), Hall of Fame
  • Thurman Thomas (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) -- 2,877 carries (14th), Hall of Fame
  • Marshall Faulk (5-foot-10, 211 pounds) -- 2,836 carries (16th), Hall of Fame
  • Warrick Dunn (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) -- 2,669 carries (19th)
  • Marshawn Lynch (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) -- 2,351 carries (30th)
  • Clinton Portis (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) -- 2,230 carries (31st)
  • Tiki Barber (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) -- 2,217 carries (32nd)
  • LeSean McCoy (5-foot-11, 210 pounds) -- 2,185 carries (35th)
  • Chris Johnson (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) -- 2,163 carries (36th)
  • Maurice Jones-Drew (5-foot-8, 205 pounds) -- 1,847 carries (48th)

There is nothing in McCaffrey's physical profile or his college role to preclude him from a heavier offensive role. But just because McCaffrey can be an every-down player doesn't mean he will be.

Three Roadblocks: Norv, Cam, and C.J.

Roadblock #1 -- Norv Turner

The venerable Norn Turner replaced Mike Shula. Turner is a legendary offensive coordinator, most notably as one of the driving forces behind the Cowboys dominance in the early 90s. Turner has 26 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, for eight different teams. The good news is Turner has always favored a balanced offensive approach and is a proponent of the workhorse running back. He's coached Emmitt Smith in his prime, Terry Allen and Stephen Davis to career seasons, LaDainian Tomlinson in his prime, Ricky Williams to his best years, Frank Gore in his prime, and Adrian Peterson in his last elite season. The bad news is Turner hasn't coached a top-10 offense since leaving the Chargers in 2011. He's also never coached a running quarterback like Cam Newton, and all of his best running backs (except Gore) were heavyweights.

  • Emmitt Smith (5-foot-9, 221 pounds)
  • LaDainian Tomlinson (5-foot-10, 221 pounds)
  • Stephen Davis (6-foot-0, 230 pounds)
  • Ricky Williams (5-foot-10, 226 pounds)
  • Adrian Peterson (6-foot-1, 220 pounds)

Roadblock #2 -- Cam Newton

Newton ran the ball 139 times last year, more than McCaffrey. In his seven-year career, Newton has 828 carries for 4,320 yards (5.2 yards per rush) and 72 rushing touchdowns. No matter what the Panthers have planned, Newton is going to run the ball in key situations and will be one of the primary options at the goal line. It's unavoidable.

Roadblock #3 -- C.J. Anderson

When Jonathan Stewart headed to the Giants, McCaffrey supporters rejoiced as the main impediment to McCaffrey getting consistent 1st and 2nd down work was gone. But the enthusiasm was short lived as the Panthers moved quickly to sign C.J. Anderson as his replacement. Anderson is essentially a younger, more productive version of Jonathan Stewart.

  • Anderson (27 years old, 5-foot-8, 225 pounds) -- Career 4.4 yards per rush average, 8.3 yards per catch average, 2.9% rushing touchdown rate
  • Stewart (31 years old, 5-foot-10, 240 pounds) -- Career 4.3 yards per rush average, 8.0 yards per catch average, 3.0% rushing touchdown rate

Anderson isn't without his flaws, thankfully. He's missed 22 games in five seasons. He's only started 36 games. And he's averaged less than 12 carriers per game. It's also notable the Panthers only signed Anderson to a one-year, $1.75 million contract. That's a contract more in line with a No. 2 running back that has a role but isn't the focal point.

Ron Rivera Hints At A Bigger Workload

Head coach Ron Rivera is a defensive coach and isn't going to have a significant hand in how Norv Turner calls the offense. However, he is the boss and sets the overall tone including whether the Panthers are going to be defined as a power-running team or not. With that in mind, consider two early sound bits from Rivera at the start of training camp:

ESPN's David Newton reported this on his camp blog:

But coach Ron Rivera told ESPN.com he wouldn't be surprised if McCaffrey reached 200 carries in his second year after having only 117 a year ago. The staff is confident McCaffrey can run between the tackles, as he did at Stanford. McCaffrey has bulked up about five pounds to 210 to be better prepared for the pounding.

and the less realistic, but equally inspiring comments to Steve Reed of the Associated Press:

It's statistically impossible for any player to get 30 touches per game, but it's clear Rivera is setting a tone for McCaffrey's role to increase in Year Two.

Let's Not Ignore the Receiving Role

Whether or not McCaffrey gets more carries, he'll remain one of the most targeted backs in the league. As a rookie, McCaffrey led all running backs with 113 targets and was alongside Le'Veon Bell and Alvin Kamara for overall receiving productivity.

2017 Running Back Receiving Stats, sorted by Targets

Rank
Player
Tgts
Recs
ReYds
Yds/Re
1stDns
ReTDs
1
114
80
651
8.1
36
5
2
Le'Veon Bell
105
85
655
7.7
31
2
3
101
81
827
10.2
38
5
4
Duke Johnson
92
74
693
9.4
34
3
5
Carlos Hyde
89
60
360
6.0
18
0
6
Todd Gurley
88
64
788
12.3
31
6
7
Melvin Gordon
83
58
476
8.2
22
4
8
LeSean McCoy
77
59
448
7.6
23
2
9
James White
73
56
429
7.7
25
3
10
Mark Ingram
71
58
416
7.2
19
0

There might be some debate about who the best receiving back in football is, but there's no debate McCaffrey is in the conversation. Studying the film, you can see McCaffrey was asked to run a variety of routes and lined up all over the formation. The only potential fly in McCaffrey's ointment is rookie receiver D.J. Moore. Moore is considered by many the most pro-ready rookie receiver and was prolific playing for a bad Maryland team. Last year, the Panthers were bereft of talent beyond Devin Funchess -- who was forced into a No. 1 role but is better suited to complementary duties. If Moore lives up to the scouting reports, he's going command Cam Newton's attention, and at least a few of Moore's targets could come from McCaffrey's workload.

Projections

Projector
Games
Rushes
RuYards
RuTDs
Recs
ReYards
ReTDs
FumLost
15.3
175.0
698
4.0
67.0
570
4.1
2.9
16.0
135.0
570
3.0
75.0
610
5.0
1.0
16.0
176.0
705
4.0
66.0
600
4.0
2.0
15.0
180.0
721
4.7
67.8
533
3.2
2.7

Final Thoughts

Christian McCaffrey is misunderstood. Yes, he's an exceptional receiver. Yes, he only got 117 carries last year. No, that doesn't make him a one-dimensional asset only suited for PPR formats. As a rookie, McCaffrey was the 9th best running back in PPR leagues but was also a respectable 16th in non-PPR formats. If we're wrong and McCaffrey doesn't get more carries this year, you have a high-end RB2, at worst. But if you listen to what the coaches are saying, and understand McCaffrey's skill set, it's not hard to envision an uptick in rushing attempts. C.J. Anderson will have a role, and Cam Newton is going to steal 100+ carries, too. But to think McCaffrey can't run the ball 10-12 times a game is illogical. He's the same size as many of the league's all-time best runners. And he carried the ball 24 times a game in college, playing in a pro-style offense. If McCaffrey averages just 10 carries per game and maintains last year's receiving tally, McCaffrey is a potential top-5 fantasy player. If you're drafting toward the end of the first round, McCaffrey should be a priority.


Other Thoughts from Around the Web

WalterFootball's Chet Gresham thinks McCaffrey is overvalued:

"If you want to spend a late second-round pick on Christian McCaffrey in a PPR league, that's perfectly understandable. However, this ADP is for standard leagues, and 2.12 is way too early for McCaffrey, who will split the rushing workload with C.J. Anderson."

ESPN's Mike Clay doesn't see much difference between last year and this year:

"McCaffrey remains a candidate for a slight boost in carries, though it's unlikely to be significant after he averaged just 3.7 YPC on 117 tries last season and now with Anderson on the roster. Of course, most of McCaffrey's value comes in the passing game, so Anderson's signing will have only a small impact on his fantasy production. McCaffrey remains a fringe RB1 and Anderson is only in the flex discussion in non-PPR leagues."

Shark Pool (Footballguys Message Board) Thoughts

TheDirtyWord is all in on McCaffrey:

"I'm high on Christian McCaffrey (CMC) this year...perhaps overly so. He put up 591/5 line on 99 touches during the last half of the season.

I think with CMC, the Panthers ultimately want to wind up having him carry the ball 10x/game and catch 5 passes/game. 240 touches (particularly with a third of them coming via reception) seems palatable for his size/build. 2nd half of the season saw him at 5.97 YPT. If he maintains, that's 1400+ YFS.

With Anderson, I think CMC's GL opps tail off, but 3 of his 5 TDs in the second half were by reception. Could see a 4/4 or 5/5 type TD split emerging.

CAR invested a top 10 pick in the guy. His versatility and ability to line up almost anywhere on the field means his snap counts are high. You get this type of production from late 2nd/early 3rd round area, you're ahead of the game."

tombonneau is happy with his dynasty investment:

"I'm biased as a PPR dynasty owner, but I'm very happy with CMC so far. It might not have always looked pretty, but the kid is a stat accumulator plain and simple. I think he's the best ppr RB2 you could get as he is consistent and has a very high floor. If you can pair him with a stud RB1 you're sitting pretty. Even though he will likely produce low-end RB1 numbers, I just don't think he has the weekly multi-TD upside of a true fantasy RB1."