Grading the Panthers' selection of Christian McCaffrey in the NFL Draft
Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis inadvertently paid tribute to Christian McCaffrey’s versatility Thursday night at the NFL draft when he introduced his newest teammate as a “wide receiver – I meant, running back.”
Davis can be forgiven for the slip. In fact, he forgot to mention kick returner and punt returner, too.
The Panthers selected McCaffrey, the do-it-all Stanford scat-back, with the eighth pick in the first round, giving quarterback Cam Newton an offensive weapon with a history of making plays all over the field.
McCaffrey said his varied skill set defies description.
“I’m a football player. I don’t put a title on what position I am,” McCaffrey said from his parents’ home in suburban Denver.
“If you need me to go to wideout, I can go to wideout. If you need me to run power between the tackles, I believe I can do that as well. I think there’s such a variety of different things I can do. That’s something I pride myself on.”
McCaffrey was the second running back taken Thursday, after LSU power back Leonard Fournette went to Jacksonville at No. 4. The Panthers scouted both backs heavily, creating an interesting debate about two players with contrasting running styles.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera raved about McCaffrey’s position flexibility, while Dave Gettleman praised the makeup of McCaffrey, whose father was an NFL wideout for 13 seasons.
“He’s a young man who has a pro approach already. He knows what it takes. He understands the game and he has elite skills,” Gettleman said. “There’s just so much value there. He’s a guy we targeted and we’re hoping to get him.”
McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA’s single-season, all-purpose yardage record in 2015, when he also set the school’s single-season rushing record.
Carolina had a couple of key connections to McCaffrey.
Gettleman was a Broncos scout in the mid-1990s when Ed McCaffrey was a Denver wide receiver. And recently hired Carolina receivers coach Lance Taylor was Christian McCaffrey’s position coach at Stanford.
Taylor, who was with the Panthers when they drafted Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2012, told Rivera early in the pre-draft process that McCaffrey had “Luke’s DNA.”
Taylor also had practice tape and other video of McCaffrey that other teams didn’t have access to.
Critics have questioned whether the 5-11, 202-pound McCaffrey can take the pounding at the next level. But McCaffrey averaged 30 touches a game his last two seasons at Stanford, and figures to get the ball in space more than he will between the tackles.
But Gettleman said he never understood the questions about McCaffrey’s durability.
Gettleman and assistant general manager Brandon Beane had already seen all of McCaffrey’s tape, but the Saturday before the draft they went back and watched it again.
“Then we started talking about, OK, who are the smaller backs in our league that have not only played well, but played well for a reasonably long period of time?” he said.
The two came up with Brian Westbrook, a 5-foot-8, 200-pound, two-time Pro-Bowler who played nine NFL seasons (largely with the Eagles), Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin, current Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy, and Reggie Bush, who won the Super Bowl with New Orleans.
“You know, so I wasn’t concerned about it,” said Gettleman. “First of all, he has a great understanding of what it takes to prepare, and he’s been doing that for all his life.”
Gettleman said of running backs who have to run against an over-stacked defensive front, McCaffrey is on par with the best he’s seen.
“The best tackle-box runner I’ve ever seen is Curtis Martin, when he came out of Pitt,” said Gettleman. “And Christian is right there with him. I mean, running in that tackle box takes unique vision and unique foot-quickness. He’s got it.”
Rivera said all-purpose back Darren Sproles and Bush were the two players he most likened McCaffrey to.
“Reggie Bush is such a versatile back, he did so many different things when he was with the Saints,” said Rivera. “I was fortunate to be around Sproles. Watching him as a punt returner and then watching him as a third-down back and then watching him come in and do some things on first and second as well, and then his versatility. That was exciting.”
Rivera said the Panthers plan to use McCaffrey in much the same ways Stanford did – lining him up in the backfield, splitting him out wide and doing a lot of motions with him to get defenses to reveal their coverages.
McCaffrey said he talked with offensive coordinator Mike Shula during his pre-draft visit to Charlotte, when he also visited with Davis and Kuechly.
He didn’t mention getting to meet Cam Newton. But he’ll be lining up behind, alongside and flanked to Newton soon enough.
“He’s the most talented QB in the NFL, hands down,” McCaffrey said. “I just think to be able to line up in the backfield with him, I hope we can do some special things.”