The debate over the valuation of the running back position as it pertains to the NFL Draft isn’t going away any time soon. The Browns and Bills lament over its selections of Trent Richardson (No. 3 overall) and C.J. Spiller (No. 9 overall) respectively, while I am sure there is no remorse from the Rams regarding its pick of Todd Gurley at No. 10 overall or the Cowboys with its selection of Zeke Elliott at No. 4.
Some will be quick to point out that several of the most productive runners in the NFL were drafted later on including Jordan Howard (No. 150 overall), Kareem Hunt (No. 86 overall) and Alvin Kamara (No. 67 overall) and teams should invest high selections on prospects who play premium positions and wait to consider drafting running backs later in the draft.
At the same time, we just saw the New York Giants select running back Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 pick in the draft while passing on three quarterbacks that were ultimately selected in the top-10 with an aging and declining Eli Manning as its current starter with no successor in the fray.
We aren’t going to solve this argument any time soon and every team will treat the running back position differently. What everyone should be able to agree on is that if a running back is selected in the top 10 then he needs to be among the most productive backs in the league and focal point of his offense. So far this season, Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey is doing just that.
With 428 yards from scrimmage through the first three weeks of the season, McCaffrey is second in the NFL behind only Kamara who has produced 430 yards from scrimmage. McCaffrey is averaging 90.3 rushing yards per game with 52.3 coming through the air. McCaffrey is fifth in the entire NFL in receptions. He’s second in the NFL in rushing yards and his 5.9 yards per attempt is the most among backs with at least 40 carries.
The No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, McCaffrey is producing like his draft status says he should.
McCaffrey didn’t have a bad rookie season, but it did raise questions about whether or not Carolina should have invested such a high pick in a running back. While McCaffrey hauled in 80 receptions for 651 yards, he only rushed for 435 yards while averaging less than four yards per carry. That’s not what your looking for out of a top-10 running back.
Prospects acclimate differently to the NFL and often times a lack of production has little to do with the player. Understanding the context of the players situation is important to factor in. The Panthers scratched and clawed to an 11-5 mark in 2017 but it wasn’t an easy path. Franchise quarterback Cam Newton didn’t get any time on the field during minicamp, OTAs and nearly all of training camp after rotator cuff surgery on his throwing shoulder following the 2016 season. He attempted just two passes in the preseason. McCaffrey working into the lineup and developing timing with Newton and the offense was behind from the outset.
Watching the Panthers offense in 2017 was uninspiring which ultimately led to the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Shula after a seven-year run with the team. While an excuse can be made for Shula since he was without his quarterback for nearly the entire offseason, the lack of imagination and modest production was troubling. The most bromidic aspect of the offense was how McCaffrey was featured. Yes, he caught 80 passes but so many of them were force-fed in looks that Barry Sanders wouldn’t be able to produce in. There weren’t enough counters or schemed looks to get McCaffrey intelligent chances to win in space. Instead, Carolina frequently turned to simple flare routes into the perimeter and checkdowns over the middle with defenders almost immediately in McCaffre’y face.
Fast-forward another year and McCaffrey has found top production as both a runner and receiver in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system.
Take this play for example of how to creatively get McCaffrey involved to maximize his receiving ability and elusive traits. Newton fakes a hand off to McCaffrey, looks to his left to fake a quick screen to the slot receiver and works his eyes to the middle of the field all while McCaffrey disguises his route by acting like he is staying in to pass protect before leaking into space to the right. All of that action creates an abundance of space, sets up an easy completion and Carolina gains a first down. Much better than the one-read flare routes from 2017.
The other area I am excited to see McCaffrey evolve is as a between-the-tackles runner. From watching Carolina last year compared to what we’ve seen so far in 2018, McCaffrey’s utilization running from c-gap to c-gap will increase.
One of the misnomer’s about McCaffrey during the draft process and entering the league was that we hasn’t capable of winning between-the-tackles and is more of a third-down specialist and space player. Anyone who said that didn’t study his tape and profiled him incorrectly based on preconceived notions.
McCaffrey has outstanding vision and spatial awareness, regardless of how he gets the ball. He’s multifaceted player capable of producing in a variety of ways. His game is never going to be predicated on power and breaking tackles with physicality but if you don’t think he is capable of sprinkling that into his repertoire, let’s ask Cowboys LB Sean Lee about this rep.
His patience, vision, balance, agility and power makes McCaffrey effective in nearly any role. Look at how he allows his blocks to take form, works off them and picks up another five yards after contact. McCaffrey not being an effective between-the-tackles is a lie. He’s not solely a perimeter runner.
There’s so much to be encouraged about with McCaffrey and how his multifaceted skill set is producing early this season. He’s averaging 23 touches per game and is the focal point of the Panthers offense.
After catching a career-high 14 receptions in Week 2 against the Falcons, McCaffrey set another new career-high with 184 rushing yards in Sunday’s win against the Bengals. His versatility and capacity to win in a variety of ways allows him to take on whatever role Carolina needs on a weekly basis.
Head coach Ron Rivera said this offseason that he wouldn’t be surprised for McCaffrey to carry the ball 200 times after just 117 attempts in 2017. Turner also commented that it wouldn’t be unrealistic for McCaffrey to see 25-30 touches per game. McCaffrey showed up to camp with a more defined, muscular physique and apparent increase in bulk. He only admitted to adding five pounds of muscle but that seems like a modest answer.
If McCaffrey continues to produce like he has to start this season, he’ll be the next posterboy for why using premium draft picks on running backs is worthy investment. All signs point to him doing just that.