Grading the Panthers' selection of Christian McCaffrey in the NFL Draft
The Carolina Panthers’ No. 8 overall draft pick, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, had some advice to a reporter who asked what he’d say to those who question whether he can be an “every-down” running back in the NFL.
“I would just tell them to watch the tape,” he said, speaking over the phone from his parents’ home in Denver.
Christian, I have believed you since January (with only a few lapses in judgment along the way). Ask my beat partner, Joseph Person, about the match I predicted for Carolina way back in Tampa Bay, when the Panthers were slogging through another tough loss. Boy, was he tired of me ranting about you by April, bless his heart.
Yes, McCaffrey carried the load as a running back for Stanford for the past two years as an “every-down back,” with 590 carries for 3,622 yards and 21 touchdowns. But he also handled more than a fair share of snaps at receiver – both on inside routes and outside routes – with 72 catches for 955 yards and eight touchdowns in his final two seasons.
McCaffrey was used as a kick and punt returner too, and his 3,496 all-purpose yards as a junior broke Barry Sanders’ previous FBS season record. Yes, he did all of this at just 5-foot-11 and 202 pounds.
But it’s not McCaffrey’s numbers that really matter as he heads to the NFL, but how he obtains them. And, he, head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman all expect him to be utilized in the same fashion as he was at Stanford.
So let’s take McCaffrey up on his suggestion. Let’s watch (a small sample of) the film.
Against Kansas State in 2016, McCaffrey showed some of his notoriously quick jukes and footwork – but also his patience for play and block development. He is tough to bring down and if he gets loose, his downfield vision allows him to find gaps and extend a play, as shown here.
So, we know McCaffrey is fast (he ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine). But as general manager Dave Gettleman said, 40-yard-dash speed is different from game speed. For a running back, this can mean speed of cuts, decision making and body control, but can also be all about timing. Patience is a big factor in how a running back finds the right holes through which to run, and McCaffrey shows that here against Iowa in the 2015 Rose Bowl. McCaffrey waits for his blocks to develop on the outside (watch him wait behind No. 18) and uses speed and a little power near the end to extend the play. McCaffrey is also strikingly adept at change-of-pace moves and shows remarkable physical control as he works to find his gap.
And McCaffrey, according to running backs analyst Graham Barfield, faced a box loaded with eight or more defensive players on 64 percent of his carries. In those situations, he rushed for an average of 145.7 yards per game and averaged 5.86 yards per carry. That is 25 more yards per game than LSU back Leonard Fournette (selected fourth overall by Jacksonville), who faced this scenario on 67 percent of his carries and averaged 5.48 yards per carry. With this same criteria, McCaffrey averaged 23 carries per game while Fournette averaged 18.4.
43 According to Pro Football Focus, McCaffrey forced 43 missed tackles as a runner in 2016 and 21 as a receiver.
Finally, Stanford’s run scheme with McCaffrey was one of the more complex in college football and very similar to what many NFL teams run – combinations of both inside and outside zone as well as power-I and sometimes even unbalanced formations with an extra tackle on one side. McCaffrey also ran out of shotgun, from under center and from the direct-snap package called the Wildcat. This ultimately helps with McCaffrey’s versatility in scheme as well as his adaptability to the NFL.
This play, against Iowa in the Rose Bowl in 2015, is classic McCaffrey. He lines up as a running back in the backfield but quickly turns receiver on a simple option route in the middle of the field. His footwork fools the safety and makes a linebacker fall, and he burns a third defender after he threads the needle between the first two to catch the pass. This, a 75-yard touchdown, was Stanford’s first play of the game and set the tone for an absolute beating.
McCaffrey is also a great receiver out wide because he creates separation well – a necessary quality to push Carolina’s offense forward and throw defenses off-balance. Here he is with a tremendous double-move that actually appears to remove USC’s Chris Hawkins’ soul from his body (McCaffrey was wide open as he shook Hawkins, but was overthrown).
Because McCaffrey can line up in any spot on the route chart, and also is a threat when feinting as a back then turning into a mid-range receiver to burn linebackers as a mismatch, any playbook opens up and lends creativity to personnel groupings.
McCaffrey’s downfield vision is partially what makes him such a prolific kick and punt returner - a skill that head coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers will also utilize. At Stanford from 2015-16, McCaffrey accumulated 1,614 yards as a returner.
Not a whole lot can really be said about this particular highlight – the potential, as McCaffrey said, is on the tape. This 63-yard punt return for a touchdown was his second-longest play of the game – the first was his game-opening 75-yard touchdown.
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue