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2017 NFL Draft Preview: RB Christian McCaffrey

USA TODAY Sports - Kelley L Cox

McCaffrey is one of the most interesting players in the draft. With a very unique skill set, which team will decide to take the risk drafting him?

Over the course of the weeks leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. We look now into the running back position. Today we look at Christian McCaffrey from the Stanford University.

College Career

Christian McCaffrey has put up several impressive collegiate campaigns. In 2015, he finished second in the Heisman voting behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry by only 300 votes. That year he put up an impressive campaign through the air, on the ground, and on special teams that blew away all competition.


In achieving that feat, he broke Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yardage record. This past year he had “only” 1,900 yards from scrimmage, including 1,600 on the ground. He has won All-American honors, and the Paul Hornung Award for most versatile player. If he has a fraction of this success at the next level, than he will have a very solid career.

Pros

The immediate and obvious asset that McCaffrey has is his versatility. He’s a threat in the run, pass, and return game. It’s tempting to look at his numbers and view him almost as a looter in a riot; view him as the best player on a team that decided to force feed him the ball. While this may be part of the story, the tape tells the tale of a talented tailback with a top-notch skill set tailor made for today’s NFL.

When watching McCaffrey, the first thing that stands out is his balance. He can absorb contact and keep moving forward, despite his 5‘11”, 200 lbs frame. Part of the reason he is able to fight through contact and get average yardage is that his feet never stop moving. He can turn a one yard loss into a two to three yard gain on a consistent basis, which may not seem sexy, but in an NFL where offenses are increasingly moving towards quick actions and short throws, it is becoming more and more crucial to stay on schedule and avoid drive-killing plays.

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McCaffrey also has great vision. The way he runs is reminiscent of Le’Veon Bell in how he waits for a hole to develop and then hits the gap hard. In the clip above he comes to a complete stop and changes course, managing to pick up three yards where most backs would get none.

Most pundits would be surprised (because of his hue) but he’s quicker than Bell who put up combined stats of a 4.60 forty time, 6.75 cone drill, and 4.24 shuttle. He’s also quicker than a guy you hear comparisons to: Ty Montgomery (4.55 40 time, 6.97 cone drill, 4.21 shuttle). A few days ago at the combine, McCaffrey clocked in with a 4.48 forty time, 6.57 cone drill, and 4.22 shuttle.


McCaffrey’s return ability is a key reason teams might consider drafting him. 

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You can see that as in the run game, McCaffrey demonstrates great vision and an ability to take a hit and keep fighting.

Lastly, the ability he has to split out as a wide receiver or catch balls out of the backfield makes McCaffrey very valuable in today’s NFL. You’ll be able to motion him out, start him in the slot, and most importantly you’ll be able to trust him to catch and hold onto the football. All of this, combined with his other talents, makes him an interesting choice. 

Cons

Although he compares to Bell and Montgomery as mentioned above, it is important to note that McCaffrey is no speed demon. He has good acceleration, but will have some trouble avoiding the heat-seeking missiles in the NFL. He can absorb contact, but he will struggle with making people miss in the open field.

His size is also a bit of a concern. He is not small by any means, but he’s not very large. McCaffrey has taken a lot of hits throughout his college career, and this past season he played with a nagging injuring throughout most of it. Running backs don’t last for long in the NFL and there is already significant mileage on him.

Also, as is often the case with young running backs, he could use some work in pass protection. This may not seem like a big deal, but for McCaffrey who will likely be used as a third-down back, being able to reliably pass protect is a prerequisite for obtaining playing time.

The Verdict

One of the largest issues here is the philosophical question: Would you rather be a jack-of-all-trades or a master of one? There’s something to be said for the fact that McCaffrey can help in a lot of areas, but there are many individuals who can do the specific tasks better.

You can find a better return guy, a better pass catching back, a better runner, and with a 53-man roster some teams have the luxury of doing that. Or you could sacrifice a bit at those positions and go with McCaffrey and improve other portions of your roster. It’s a unique situation and question for which there is no clear answer. It will likely limit the amount of teams interested in him, but all it takes is one team to give him a major shot.

In the end, McCaffrey is a very solid player that belongs somewhere between the late first and early third rounds. I think he’ll go early second round, but he definitely has the talent to go sooner.

Best Fit

The success or failure of Christian McCaffrey will be determined by how a team can creatively take advantage of his skill set and flexibility. Three such teams that would make great use of McCaffrey are the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, and San Diego Chargers.

Bill Belichick always knows how to get the most out of his players and exploit matchups to pick on mismatches. McCaffrey creates a dilemma on every play in figuring how to defend him and with who. Kyle Shanahan has demonstrated an ability to create excellent offensive schemes that can maximize the talent that he has on the roster. I’m certain he could figure out a couple interesting ways to use McCaffrey. Lastly, the San Chargers just lost Danny Woodhead to free agency. He was a large part of their offense when healthy and replacing him with a similar RB/WR type player would make a ton of sense.

All three of these teams could use what McCaffrey brings as well. San Francisco, San Diego, and New England are 28th, 25th, and 22nd respectively in adjusted kick return yardage, 19th, 14th, and 29th in adjusted punt return yards. In addition to having poor special team return games, San Francisco finished 20th in receiving yards from running backs, while San Diego and New England fared slightly better, ranking 15th and eighth, respectively.

Overall, I really like the idea of McCaffrey staying in California and teaming up with Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers. The only issue is that as a team with so many holes, can the 49ers afford to spend a pick on McCaffrey given Carlos Hyde on the roster and the meat and potatoes that they lack on defense, and in the trenches? Where he goes will be determined by whether teams view him as a nice-to-have player or an integral, missing piece to a championship team.


Edited by James Malloy, Kat Johansen, Emily Greitzer, Vincent Choy.

SQuiz
Where did Barry Sanders go to college?
Created 3/13/17
  1. Auburn
  2. Okhahoma State
  3. Ole Miss
  4. Texas

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