Welcome to the Exception Report. This series is designed to examine players and their impressive seasons, games, and/or plays. It looks for the outliers and helps understand how they are doing it and if it can continue.
This series has covered several of the rookie running back class already. Perhaps it is the author’s experience with dynasty but when a player excels at a young age, it tends to bode well for the future. In the case of Christian McCaffrey, the barometer of success starts with his ability in the receiving game. Considering his young age (doesn’t turn 22 until June), McCaffrey has done quite well in a short amount of time. Below is a look at the leaders in receptions during their age 21 season (via Pro Football Reference):
How did he get here?
More than just a former NFL player’s (Ed McCaffrey) son, Christian McCaffrey played with something to prove throughout his time leading to the NFL. He won the state’s Gatorade High School Player of the year twice while setting numerous records before attending Stanford. All he did there was become a multiple time All-American, a Heisman finalist, and Associated Press player of the year. McCaffrey’s success revolves around his versatility as a runner, receiver, and return man.
It’s hard to talk about McCaffrey without focusing on his monumental 2015 season. All he did was set an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards. It starts with the 2,014 rushing yards, which was fueled primarily by volume. He did break some big plays, 16 runs of 15-plus yards (30th-ranked), but was only 62nd in yards after contact per attempt. The latter shows a lack of runner creativity in gaining extra yards. As a receiver though, McCaffrey ranked fourth in yards per route run (2.49) while catching 85 percent of his targets. Part of the reason for that yards per route run revolves around his target distribution. McCaffrey saw more than half of his targets (51 percent) occur past the line of scrimmage, highly unusual for a running back.
While McCaffrey’s 2016 season would be considered a success by most players, his nearly 2,000 yards rushing and receiving was seen by some as a disappointment. McCaffrey not only lost his quarterback (Kevin Hogan) to the NFL but suffered a midseason injury that slowed him down. That said, there were some improvement compared to 2015. McCaffrey averaged nearly a full yard more after contact per attempt and had the same number of 15-plus-yard runs despite roughly 80 fewer carries. With the change in quarterback, McCaffrey did see a drop in yards per route run in 2016 (1.66) despite a similar percentage of targets (52 percent) past the line of scrimmage and a slight increase in total routes run (from 174 to 191).
What has he done?
The Panthers seemed like an odd fit at first given McCaffrey’s ability in the passing game and the Panthers’ historic lack of success targeting their running backs. There were few in disagreement, however, that the Panthers needed an upgrade at the position in terms of versatility and dynamism; two areas that were touted by scouts. His only competition was Jonathan Stewart at running back but the team already had established receivers in Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin.
Now, looking back, the concerns of McCaffrey’s role seems overblown. Olsen’s early-season injury and Benjamin’s trade to Buffalo expedited McCaffrey’s importance to the team. Those moves clearly influenced his receiving role, as McCaffrey ranks second in the NFL in total routes run while being first in targets and fourth in receiving yards at the position. His yards per route run (1.52) more closely resemble McCaffrey’s 2016 season at Stanford rather than that sensational sophomore year, which is still ranked 18th overall.
The biggest question was about McCaffrey’s ability to run the football, particularly when dealing with contact. His average yards after contact per attempt (2.12) is ranked 51st among 55 qualified runners and he only has one more forced miss tackle on runs (13) than receptions (12) despite 18 more touches in the rushing game. He is also struggling to break big runs, with just three of 15-plus yards, although they make up 25 percent of his total rushing yards. While he is third on the Panthers in red-zone rushes (11), he is first in red-zone receptions (9), putting him just one touch behind Stewart. Most would not have expected that development prior to the season.
What can he do?
Among the areas where McCaffrey was being doubted is the red zone. Given those red-zone touch numbers, he also is tied for second with eight touches inside the 10-yard line, the key will be to maintain his conversion rate. So far, McCaffrey has five touchdowns on those eight red-zone touches, he doesn’t have any between the 10- and 20-yard lines. Those five touchdowns lead the team and with Stewart closer to the end of his career then the beginning, that number could be even higher in future seasons.
In terms of his receiving work, the Panthers have targeted McCaffrey past the line of scrimmage 58 percent of the time, higher than what he saw in college. Part of that is due to the lack of options in the Panthers’ passing game. If the team looks for a downfield receiver during the offseason, or if Olsen returns to form, McCaffrey could revert to more shallow targets. He is ranked 19th with an average depth of target at the position with 1.9 yards, which is above other receiving backs like James White, Alvin Kamara, and Le’Veon Bell.
McCaffrey needs to average six receptions per game over the last four weeks to tie Reggie Bush’s 88 catches. He has only exceeded that number three times in 12 games, although he has reached five catches in five other games. This won’t be easy for McCaffrey, especially if Week 17 proves to be inconsequential for the Panthers and their playoff positioning.
Confidence level: 35%
What does this mean for fantasy?
Fantasy owners understood entering the season that McCaffrey was going to be more valuable in PPR formats. Currently, he is eighth at the position in total fantasy points with eight of the top 10 running backs having at least 40 receptions already. In standard scoring, McCaffrey is ranked 14th as his 65 total yards per game is pushing his value down more than the six total touchdowns. Even still, that ranking is exceeding expectations for the rookie still dealing with a timeshare and one of the best rushing quarterbacks in NFL history. Receiving backs like McCaffrey tend to age more gracefully than bruising options so he should see more prioritization in keeper and dynasty leagues than some of his rookie counterparts.