Christian McCaffrey‘s rookie debut was underwhelming. In 2017, the Carolina Panthers running back was less of a runner and more of a pass catcher. At least that is what his first year’s production suggests.
Between 2015 and 2018 there would be eight running backs drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. Four of them would rush for 1,000 or more yards while two would fail to reach at least 500 yards. Unfortunately for McCaffrey, it would be the latter. Furthermore, only 17 yards separated him from being the least productive rookie rusher of the last four years. It’s facts like these that make criticizing the Panthers top-10 selection understandable.
Luckily for the Panthers, McCaffrey just needed a typical offseason. With the combine, pro days, and then the draft, rookies are whooped by the time mini-camp comes around. Getting his first full offseason to train and build on 2017’s production must’ve been a breath of fresh air.
Carolina’s modern-day bell cow
Traditionally speaking, a running back runs the football. Only recently has the position been so often used in the passing game. But with the game evolving, bell cow running backs have become a rarity, or so it seems.
A running back who never came off the field 50 years ago could stand to see 30 rushes or more. This is what we’re talking about when using the term “bell cow.” However, there are plenty of current running backs who must be on the field at all times (or as much as possible). Running backs drafted in the first round are expected to do precisely that.
In 2018, McCaffrey would be on the field for 161 more offensive snaps than he was in 2017. With the increase in snaps came a significant boost in production. McCaffrey would gain 102 more carries, and 27 more receptions for a total of 129 added touches. The increased usage would pay dividends as McCaffrey went on to break the franchise record for all-purpose yards in a season with 1,965.
Okay, this one’s obvious. The guy broke a state record in Colorado for touchdown receptions back in high school. With that said, after watching McCaffrey’s first two seasons, he’s more often a receiver playing running back than vice versa. He’s a great route runner that gets open and gains yards after the catch. What more could you want?
According to Pro Football Focus, McCaffrey remained somewhat steady in the passing game from year one to two. His uptick in receptions, yards, and scores can all be traced to the increase in snaps.
Run after the catch
Surely, McCaffrey benefits from a ton of short dump off type passes. His average yards per reception in 2018 (8.1) proves this. However, he also averages eight yards after the catch. I’m no mathematician, but McCaffrey is gaining a ton of yardage in the passing game without the typical inflation that comes with downfield passes.
Get a load of his explosive play ability on this pass near the line of scrimmage.
McCaffrey is an exceptional actor. In many instances of him catching a pass as a check down or by design, he makes defenders believe he is staying in to block. After a fake handoff, McCaffrey gets his hands on the edge rusher only to release and find himself left all alone.
Here’s another example of McCaffrey turning a catch near the line of scrimmage into a sizeable gain. The Panthers quarterback notices the corner dropping and the edge defender rushing. With a linebacker crossing his initial progression, the backup signal-caller elects to take the easy throw into the flats.
Once he makes the catch, it’s obvious how dynamic McCaffrey is at running the football. There’s an innate ability to find a crease, make a guy miss and that’s when he can pull away from the defense.
Ground and pound
Coming out of college, NFL scouts were concerned with McCaffrey’s size and whether he could handle a full workload. While he proved capable of gaining yards after contact in the PAC-12, this is the NFL we’re discussing. In 2018, McCaffrey put that concern to rest.
Some of the things McCaffrey has been doing in the run game have been eye-popping. We already know he has excellent hands to go along with speed, burst, and suddenness. But if he can add to it a run-you-over mentality in the ground game, then watch out. His strength training has only been getting better by the way.
2️⃣2️⃣ coming for it all ? pic.twitter.com/WQRIttO1qQ
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) April 30, 2019
See, I told you he just needed a standard offseason.
Another aspect of McCaffrey’s game that cannot be overstated is his patience and vision as a runner. He’s always had a natural feel for the position albeit concerns from NFL scouts. In this next clip, McCaffrey decides against attacking the designed running lane as he anticipates it closing.
By remaining tight to his linemen’s rear ends, he cuts back on the play while keeping square and gaining yardage. Many running backs are apt to put a foot in the ground and reverse field where they’d be met by a backside defender. The Cincinnati Bengals edge player stayed home and was prepared for a cutback, or so he thought.
McCaffrey benefits from using blocks to the fullest extent. He constantly baits defenders just to cut off a teammate at the last moment. In a way, he sets up blocks with his vision and overall intelligence at the position.
But more often a running back is employed to take a handoff and explode through a crease at the line of scrimmage. McCaffrey has that covered, too.
On this play, the Panthers trap the three-technique defender. Bobby Wagner, the Seattle Seahawks’ elite inside linebacker, is frozen with the backfield flow. This delay, while slight, is enough for the Panthers’ right tackle to reach and cut him off.
With any trap play, the runner knows there’s timing involved in creating an opening. Once the crease is created, however, it tends to close quickly. McCaffrey wastes no time breaking into the second level. With his shoulders square at the exchange, McCaffrey can cut and get up field in any direction. Once the trap occurs, McCaffrey plants and explodes through the hole, putting on the Jets.
Can’t catch 22
McCaffrey deserves to be in the conversation when discussing the upper echelon of running backs in today’s NFL. In a way, he may have duped teams with his abysmal rookie season. By the time opponents caught up to his ways, McCaffrey nearly gained 2,000 all-purpose yards.
We all know he shines in the passing game, but choosing to disrespect McCaffrey in between the tackles will prove troublesome. In 2018, McCaffrey broke off runs of 10 yards or more 31 times. Twenty-one of those runs (68%) were between the guards. He also ran for a first down or scored on nearly a third of his carries.
The modern-day running back must be a dual-threat athlete to remain on the field. While asked to carry the ball less, running backs can recover lost touches by catching passes.
So don’t get caught up in whether he’s a running back or a wide receiver. If McCaffrey is lined up in the backfield, he needs to be treated as such. The NCAA’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards is the epitome of today’s NFL running back.
When playing the Carolina Panthers in 2019, you better have a gameplan for him every week. Furthermore, if you’re needing to strategize for containing McCaffrey, then admittedly he’s a premier player in this league. So let’s make sure to give credit where it’s due.