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7 reasons why Christian McCaffrey is our 2016 Heisman Trophy favorite

Stanford's Christian McCaffrey during an NCAA college football game against Arizona Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015 in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The 2015 season was an exceptional one for Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey, as evidenced not just by his jaw-dropping box-score stats (breaking Barry Sanders’ record for the most all-purpose yardage in NCAA history), but also by the grades and signature stats he posted in the PFF college database.

He is being considered one of the top three candidates to win the 2016 Heisman Trophy by many of the experts out in Las Vegas, along with Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and LSU RB Leonard Fournette. But here are seven reasons why the PFF data says McCaffrey should be considered the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy:

1. He is one of the most dangerous pass-catchers in college football — at any position.

McCaffrey did a lot of his all-purpose damage as a receiver in 2015, and his rankings among his fellow running backs in that area were excellent. He earned the No. 1 PFF receiving grade among RBs, recorded thee third-most receptions (45), second-most receiving yards (643), the second-lowest drop rate (only dropping two of 47 catchable passes) and the No. 1 yards per route run average at 3.20.

But it’s that last number that sticks out the most, as that average would have ranked fourth among wide receivers in the 2016 draft class.

That means that McCaffrey was more productive on a per-route basis than almost all of the nation’s top wide receivers. Only TCU’s Josh Doctson, Baylor’s Corey Coleman (both of whom were drafted in the first round, by the Redskins and Browns, respectively) and Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins (a potential fifth-round steal for the Browns) ranked higher, and McCaffrey out-ranked the rest of the receivers taken in the first and second round of the 2016 draft.

Player College YPRR Pick drafted NFL team
Josh Doctson TCU 4.01 Rd 1, Pick 22 Redskins
Corey Coleman Baylor 3.97 Rd 1, Pick 15 Browns
Sterling Shepard Oklahoma 2.89 Rd 2, Pick 40 Giants
Will Fuller Notre Dame 2.88 Rd 1, Pick 21 Texans
Tyler Boyd Pittsburgh 2.68 Rd 2, Pick 55 Bengals
Michael Thomas Ohio State 2.54 Rd 2, Pick 47 Saints
Laquon Treadwell Ole Miss 2.42 Rd 1, Pick 23 Vikings

It isn’t fair to make a complete comparison between McCaffrey and these outside receivers, but the point is that his production as an underneath pass-catcher (the majority of his targets came from out of the backfield) exceeds those of the best downfield threats in college football. Stanford quarterbacks achieved a near-perfect 140.8 QB rating when throwing to McCaffrey, largely on screens, flares and checkdowns (of his 45 catches, 26 were behind the line of scrimmage, 17 were on passes between 0 and nine yards downfield, and two were on throws of 10-plus yards — 13.2 of his 14.3 yards per reception came after the catch). That is remarkable.

2. Purely as a runner, he is one of the best in the nation.

With all that preamble about McCaffrey’s abilities as a receiver, you might think that’s done to cover up some limitations as a runner. That isn’t the case at all. Yes, his best-in-the-country receiving grade put him over the top as the No. 1-graded running back overall, but he ranked second only to Fournette in rushing grade among RBs. That’s ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry from Alabama and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, who was just drafted fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys.

While he might not have the prototypical running back stature – he appears lean at 6-foot-1, 201 pounds – his combination of elusiveness and power led to his forcing 71 missed tackles as a runner alone, the nation’s sixth-highest total (and more than Elliott). His 2,014 rushing yards were thee second-most nationally behind only Henry’s 2,225.

3. He excelled as a return man as well.

McCaffrey’s work as both a kick and punt returner earned him plenty of time in the highlight reel, and no player from a Power-5 conference earned a higher PFF grade among returners. He had the highest yards per kick return average in the Power-5 among qualifying players, and brought one kick and one punt back for touchdowns in 2015.

4. He was at his best in the Cardinal’s biggest games.

McCaffrey’s five highest-graded games were as follows: Critical conference wins over UCLA and Washington, a shootout victory over Cal and 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, the Cardinal’s Pac-12 title game championship over USC and its Rose Bowl rout of Iowa. In that win over the Hawkeyes, averaged 9.6 yards per carry, 26.3 yards per reception (24.3 of which came after the catch) and broke a ridiculous nine total tackles.

5. He should have won the Heisman last year.

That aforementioned performance against Iowa put the cap on what PFF considered to be a Heisman-winning season. That isn’t meant to be any sort of disrespect towards the actual winner Henry, who had an excellent year in his own right. But when comparing the two players’ performances overall and even specifically as runners, McCaffrey graded out better than Henry.

6. He’s a legitimate NFL prospect.

While there might be a perception that McCaffrey’s less-than-ideal frame and size for the running back position doesn’t make him a top NFL prospect the way that perhaps Fournette and FSU’s Dalvin Cook are, McCaffrey is absolutely on the NFL radar. Both PFF’s Steve Palazzolo and ESPN’s Todd McShay placed him in the first round of their early 2017 mock drafts, noting his versatility to succeed as an offensive weapon in the NFL.

7. Stanford could once again be very good.

The Cardinal are losing a lot off of last year’s team, which could be contributing to why some view Watson, Fournette or others as more likely candidates than McCaffrey. After all, perhaps McCaffrey would have won over Henry last year if Stanford were in the playoff along with Alabama.

But even though the Cardinal’s losses were significant, and in particular question marks along the offensive line and at quarterback will have particular relevance on McCaffrey’s Heisman candidacy, it’s worth noting that Stanford ranked behind only Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Michigan last season among Power-5 teams in overall PFF grades. The return of standout D-lineman Solomon Thomas will help on the defensive side of the ball.

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