Christian McCaffrey is as polarizing as a squeaky-clean off-field, elite on-field prospect can possibly be.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. In fact, it shouldn’t be.
McCaffrey has the pedigree, skillset, and versatility to command a top-15 real-life NFL Draft pick. In the 2015 season, he broke Hall-of-Famer Barry Sanders’ NCAA record for the most all-purpose yards in a collegiate season, highlighting his ability to contribute as a multi-faceted weapon in numerous phases of the game.
Film and Traits
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McCaffrey has been knocked as someone who isn’t an effective inside runner. This is lazy “analysis”. Because of his stature, he must win with vision, footwork, agility, and explosiveness to be an effective rusher between the tackles. Fortunately, that’s precisely where his strengths lie.
The former Stanford star eviscerated the California Golden Bears with a 31-284-3 line on the ground. In breaking down his tape, it’s easy to see why he’s so effective.
McCaffrey has a distinct running style that makes it difficult to pinpoint a similar pro comparison. An intelligent runner, his uniqueness stems from his propensity to alter his stride length. He never stops moving, displaying choppy feet and impressive patience behind the line of scrimmage to create for himself. McCaffrey’s one-cut style suits him perfectly, and allows him to thrive in goal line situations despite his stature. He has impressive acceleration and burst to explode through a hole once it opens, and is devastating in the open field. His vision allows him to see the whole field, set up his blocks, and weave his way through traffic while evading tacklers. McCaffrey’s change of direction skills are rare, and he protects the ball well – he fumbled just four times on 731 touches from scrimmage in his college career.
The Cardinal standout is a natural receiver with the ability to run the full route tree. He’s able to catch the ball like a wideout, tracking balls over his shoulder and snatching passes away from his frame. McCaffrey stands out as a route runner, and because of his athleticism, he’s a matchup problem against linebackers, incorporating and understanding minor nuances (including head fakes) to create additional separation.
A key (and probably understated) component of evaluating the potential of running back prospects in the passing game is their ability in pass protection. As a smaller back, McCaffrey can struggle to absorb bull rushes from players weighing over 50 pounds more than he does, but he’s otherwise a solid pass protector. This claim doesn’t need to be included with the caveat “for someone his size.” He routinely squares his body and takes on linebackers and defensive backs and keeps them away from the pocket. His deficiencies as a blocker can be coached. This aspect of his game isn’t mentioned often, but it will keep him on the field for all three downs.
McCaffrey’s one glaring drawback is his size, which affects his ability to successfully deter edge rushers in pass protection on a regular basis. He’ll never run anybody over – appearing to go down on first contact more often than one would like – but he does consistently fall forward when hit. McCaffrey handled a heavy workload at the college level, but it’s unlikely that he would be able to do the same at the professional level. He has probably maxed out his frame, and adding weight probably would hinder more than help.
At 20 years old, McCaffrey is one of the youngest players in the 2017 NFL Draft. Just a few years ago, he was a four-star recruit out of Valor Christian High School in Littleton, Colorado and was rated the second-best all-purpose back in the 2014 recruiting class (trailing just Joe Mixon). He was a prolific rusher and receiver in high school, which carried over to his career at Stanford. Throughout his sophomore and junior seasons, McCaffrey averaged 27 touches and 183 yards per game.
Statistics from sports-reference.com
He got off to a pedestrian start as a true freshman, finishing fifth on the team in carries but outpacing his competition in yards per carry (albeit through a small sample). He exploded onto the scene the following season, racking up at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every contest after the season opener. In addition to rushing for over 2000 yards, McCaffrey led the Cardinal in receiving yards as well on the way to a runner-up finish in Heisman voting.
His 2016 season was also extremely impressive, if not quite as prolific as his sophomore campaign. Despite the Cardinal losing their starting quarterback and three offensive linemen, McCaffrey increased his efficiency and made strides near the goal line, scoring an additional five touchdowns on the ground.
McCaffrey weighed in at 5’11” and 202 pounds at the Combine last month, which only marginally differed from his college listing of 6’0” and 200 pounds. Most of his detractors point to his weight and build as the reasons why he will not be able to sustain success at the next level, but a creative coach will keep this from hindering him in the NFL, unless pigeonholed into a role that fails to maximize his strengths. Size aside, McCaffrey was one of the few “winners” at the running back position at the Combine.
McCaffrey’s Mock Draftable comparisons aren’t particularly noteworthy. The list is littered with scatbacks that were never able to contribute much to an NFL team – but he’s very similar to LeSean McCoy from an athletic standpoint, which is obviously extremely encouraging.
Besides an abysmal effort in the bench press – he pushed out just ten reps, landing in the first percentile – McCaffrey was above average at his position in every other drill. It would have been a red flag if McCaffrey failed to break a 4.50 forty yard dash at 202 pounds, but he was able to sneak under that threshold by running a 4.48 (81st percentile) time.
However, although he possesses adequate speed, his trump card is his agility – and he put on a show in these drills. McCaffrey led a disappointing running back group in the 3-cone (6.57) and 60-yard shuttle (11.03) drills by posting spectacular times.
Let’s look at some of his metrics, courtesy of Player Profiler.
McCaffrey’s College Dominator rating – a player’s share of his team’s total yards and touchdowns – was 50.7 percent, which is a 98th percentile score. Any mark over 40% is considered exceptional for running backs. Additionally, his college yards per carry mark is among the highest quartile of collegiate runners.
According to Player Profiler’s glossary, Agility Score measures a player’s short area quickness and balance and correlates with an ability to avoid tackles and compile yards before contact. Unsurprisingly, McCaffrey’s ranked in the 97th percentile. His Burst Score – measuring a player’s zero-inertia explosiveness (stop-and-start acceleration) – was also quite solid in the 78th percentile. His Speed Score was less spectacular – due to the formula’s reliance on a player’s weight – but was still an above average mark.
The former Stanford star spent his pro day at wide receiver, participating in drills and displaying his route running, hands, and polish at a position other than his own. As one of the more dangerous return men in college football, he adds yet another dimension to his alluring skill set.
McCaffrey hails from athletic bloodlines. His father, Ed, was a former All-Pro and Super Bowl champion wide receiver who spent thirteen seasons in the NFL. His grandfather was an Olympic medalist, while his mother was a collegiate soccer player and his brothers are also college football standouts.
Versatility isn’t just the ability to do multiple things. Versatility is the ability to do multiple things well. McCaffrey can. The 2015 Heisman runner-up is a safe, easy, and conservative projection. At worst, he’ll immediately become one of the NFL’s premier satellite backs; a change-of-pace runner who can be an impact real-life player and consistent PPR option. At best, a smart team will commit to him as their feature weapon, maximizing his elite skill set and scheming him 20 touches a game out of the backfield and the slot. He’d be an especially good fit with teams like the Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints.
In a year where each of the other three top running backs have questions (Leonard Fournette’s pass game and shotgun formation concerns, Dalvin Cook’s fumbles, off-field, and shoulder issues, and Joe Mixon’s well-publicized incident), McCaffrey may truly be in a class of his own.
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I take a slight contrarian approach to McCaffrey. I feel ppl are under appreciating the whole “if he goes to right system, or if they use him right, or if he has a smart HC” statements. Those are a lot of IFs that need to be considered if we are talking potential 1.01 here. We need to ask ourselves, why does this player need all these IFs to be a productive fantasy stud? I think the answer is rather straight forward. His size and likely inability to handle the 20+ carries a game is a major concern for any potential RB1. With that limitation placed on him, he will likely be a week to week boom or bust prospect at the RB position, which is usually reserved for those speedy deep threat WRs. I feel 1.04 to 1.06 is a perfect spot for CMC given those concerns. Of course I could be way off, but those concerns are out there and do seem to pop up in everyone’s analysis. I just think they need to be really considered before we place the 1.01 ranking on him.