Projecting Christian McCaffrey

By the time you read this, the 2017 NFL Draft will have concluded, and for fantasy football enthusiasts, the ’17 fantasy season feels nearly upon us. Among the skill position players drafted in last Thursday’s First Round, one of the shiniest of shiny new toys for fantasy owners to pontificate is Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey. The NCAA record holder for single-season all purpose yardage, McCaffrey’s  proverbial hype is justified. Just how much the rookie can help your fantasy team this season will likely be a heavily debated topic between now and September 10th, when McCaffrey’s Panthers kick off at San Francisco. Let’s take a look at how McCaffrey may measure up come fantasy football draft season.

Christian McCaffrey’s 2015 Heisman runner-up season tends to overshadow his  2016 performance.  The NFL largely employs a “what have you done for me lately” approach, so as fantasy owners, we also have to have, within reason, short term memories and somewhat narrow focuses. That said, let’s look at his most recent statistical output, and see how, translated to the NFL, 2016 McCaffrey would have measured up with his NFL counterparts. For the purpose of this article, I’ll be basing NFL running back point totals on Sporting Chart’s 2016 PPR Point Totals, while projecting McCaffrey’s fantasy performance using ESPN’s PPR System of 6 PTS per TD, 1 PT per 10 yds rushing/receiving, 1 PT per reception, and -2 PTS per fumble.

First, McCaffrey’s 2016:

RUSH YDS RUSH TD REC YDS REC TD REC’S (total) FUM LOST POINT TOTAL
1603 13 310 3 37 2 320

Impressive PPR point production, let’s rank McCaffrey’s output as if he had played for the Panthers last year, and see how a season like that would translate into NFL fantasy RB rankings:

Player ‘16 PPR Point Total ‘16 PPR Points-Per-Game
David Johnson, ARI                 408                  25.49      
Ezekiel Elliott, DAL                 325                  21.69
Christian McCaffrey, CAR                 320                  20.00
Le’Veon Bell, PIT                 317                  26.45
LeSean McCoy, BUF                 298                  19.89
Devonta Freeman, ATL                 284                  17.76

Let me be clear that it is not to argue for drafting McCaffrey ahead of Bell, McCoy, or Freeman. I’m not suggesting the numbers instantly correlate into NFL production. Consider it a starting point to demonstrate the potential for production McCaffrey brings to the fantasy player pool.

Certainly, it should be considered a scientific fact that gone are the days of McCaffrey carving up defenses like Cal, Oregon State, and Rice. NFL defenses certainly present a more formidable obstacle for McCaffrey to try and overcome. Take a look at his 2017 scheduled opponents, along with their respective 2016 rush yards against, receiving YA, and average YPG (yards per game) against.

Note: Read YPG as lowest-to-highest, i.e. most YPG against would be ranked 32nd, while fewest would be ranked 1st

Opponent ‘16 Rushing YA ‘16 Receiving YA ‘16 Avg. YPG
49ers 2654 (32nd) 4013 (12th) 406.4 (32nd)
Bills 2247 (29th) 3835 (7th) 357.0 (19th)
Saints (x2) 1626 (14th) 4593 (31st) 375.4 (27th)
Patriots 1417 (t-3rd) 4033 (13th) 326.4 (8th)
Lions 1701 (18th) 4136 (18th) 354.8 (18th)
Eagles 1652 (15th) 4039 (14th) 342.8 (13th)
Bears 1950 (27th) 3828 (6th) 346.8 (15th)
Buccaneers (x2) 1875 (22nd) 4246 (22nd) 367.9 (23rd)
Falcons (x2) 1672 (17th) 4495 (28th) 371.2 (25th)
Dolphins 2247 (30th) 4101 (16th) 382.6 (29th)
Jets 1581 (11th) 4077 (15th) 342.4 (11th)
Vikings 1711 (20th) 3637 (4th) 314.9 (3rd)
Packers 1515 (8th) 4603 (32nd) 363.9 (22nd)

Absent a few tough  match-ups (Patriots, Vikings), there seems to be a season full of preferable opposition for the  versatile running back. Why list receiving yards? Two reasons, really; with 99 career catches, over 1,000 receiving yards, and double digit receiving touchdowns in 37 games at Stanford, McCaffrey has already shown the flexibility of today’s pass-heavy running back of the future. And with Panthers head coach Ron Rivera quoted as saying McCaffrey has “the ability to play slot receiver,” will “make an impact very early for us”, and that he will “take a lot of pressure off of Cam,” there is no lack of transparency as to what the Panthers plan to do with McCaffrey: everything.

One of the more frequent faults the experts find with McCaffrey is his size. Listed anywhere from 6’0, 197 lbs, to 5’11, 203 lbs, he does not present the big physical stature of an every-down ball carrier, say, a  Leonard Fournette or even Ezekiel Elliott type of back. Consider the similar stature of an elite back like LeSean McCoy (5’11, 207lbs), along with the fact that the Panthers likely didn’t draft McCaffrey to fill an immediate every down ball-carrier type of role. Rather, as Panthers coaching mentioned, they plan on using him in a highly versatile manner. I imagine when not lining up in the backfield, Rivera intends to deploy McCaffrey as a receiver, precisely as he’s told us all he would.

So what else should we consider in regards to Carolina’s running back of the future? Where would one draft McCaffrey in his or her fantasy league? Specifically from a fantasy perspective, very early mock drafts from Fantasy Football Calculator show a consensus ADP somewhere in the 10th round of 12 team leagues. According to the FFC mock draft research, McCaffrey, in the few days since being drafted, has been selected among PPR-specific targets like Charles Sims (TB) and James White (NE). Viewed as “passing down” backs, or scat backs, RBs like Sims and White are heralded for reliable hands and for having the quickness & speed to change direction and make plays in the open field. Aside from game film, what better way to measure such attributes than the good ol’ 3 cone drill & 40 yard dash?

Player 40 yd dash time 3 cone time
Charles Sims 4.48 7.16
James White 4.57 7.05
Christian McCaffrey 4.48 6.57

McCaffrey is as fast, if not faster, and notably quicker than either of his mock draft round-mates, so I would make the argument that if either of them are your round 10 targets, you can go ahead and bump McCaffrey up to your round 9 targets specifically in PPR leagues (perhaps even earlier in that format). Oh, and as for the aforementioned McCoy? He didn’t attend the combine when he was drafted, but on his pro day? 40: 4.50, 3-Cone: 6.82. Shady also measured 5’10, 198 lbs at that same pro day.

I’ve given you a lot of information to process on one player, and truth be told, all of it is speculative. We find ourselves measuring a back who has yet to play one NFL snap, against players with years of experience and numerous highlights of actual pro play-making footage to their credit. The last thing I would say is, for those hesitant to draft McCaffrey because of Jonathan Stewart’s extension; according to Football Outsiders, Carolina was the 9th worst in the league in terms of “stuffed percentage,” meaning their backs were tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage at the 9th highest rate in the NFL. While some of that can be chalked up to their offensive line, it’s clear their backfield approach needs an overhaul. I share Riverboat Ron’s sentiments: McCaffrey is a focal point in their new offensive scheme and mindset, and while I’m not suggesting he’s this years “Zeke,” I think at this point (early,  I know) he can be targeted as an RB3/low end Flex with a TON of upside.

If the consensus ADP’s carry over to August’s fantasy draft season, the majority may be looking at him in round 10, but I’d suggest taking a flier even earlier than that.

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