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The case for trading Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey is the ideal NFL running back. 

He is arguably the league’s best receiver at the position and has turned in three consecutive seasons with 84.0-plus receiving grades in his first three years in the NFL. That run culminated in a 92.4 receiving grade in 2019, and McCaffrey has shown that he is not only a receiving threat out of the backfield, as his 67 receptions when lined up in the slot or outside since 2017 rank second to only Tarik Cohen among running backs over that period.

After a slow start to his rookie season, it’s safe to say that McCaffrey has developed into one of the league’s best rushers, as well. His 81.0 rushing grade since 2018 ranks 13th among 33 running backs with 250 or more carries. No one is going to mistake him for Derrick Henry, a back who turned Earl Thomas III into his own lead blocker last postseason, but McCaffrey gets the job done on the ground in his own way. 

According to PFF WAR, he has been the most valuable running back in the NFL since joining the league, beating out the likes of Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott. At just 23 years old and still on his rookie contract with no injury concerns, McCaffrey’s value is at an all-time high. That’s something that the Carolina Panthers must capitalize on, as much as it may hurt. 

Christian McCaffrey has been only as valuable as D.J. Moore since 2017

Yes, D.J. Moore was drafted in 2018, one year after the Panthers drafted McCaffrey. Despite that, he has been able to generate almost exactly as many wins above replacement as McCaffrey has in three seasons. The table below shows where McCaffrey would rank among wide receivers in wins above replacement since 2017. 

Player WAR since 2017
32. Danny Amendola 0.88
33. DeSean Jackson 0.85
34. Christian McCaffrey 0.84
35. D.J. Moore 0.83
36. Robby Anderson 0.81

McCaffrey has been easily the most valuable running back in the NFL in recent years, but the key words there are running back. The position simply doesn’t carry the same value as wide receivers who can consistently win their routes downfield, even for a special receiver at the position such as McCaffrey. Nearly all of a running back’s touches come at or behind the line of scrimmage, making it more difficult to produce efficient offense on those plays.  

In 2019 alone, teams had a 48.2% success rate — the percentage of plays that generate positive EPA — when targeting running backs. In comparison, that number was 55.6% when targeting tight ends and 54.1% when targeting wide receivers.

EPA per play, a measure that looks more at explosiveness, tells a similar story. Running back targets generated an average mark of 0.04, while tight ends (0.25) and wide receivers (0.29) were well clear of that figure. Being able to get looks down the field matters, and while McCaffrey is great at what he does, his role does not provide the sort of value that his raw stats would suggest.

His perceived value is at an all-time high

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