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Can Christian McCaffrey Improve on 2017?

You had to wonder what Christian McCaffrey was going to bring to the Carolina Panthers offense last season when they selected him eighth overall in the 2017 draft. Even though McCaffrey was a star at Stanford, there were concerns regarding his ability to perform at the NFL level as a true between-the-tackles running back. Would he be able to produce on the ground or would his impact be limited to his ability to catch the ball?

In PPR leagues, McCaffrey was able to produce a very good season in 2017, finishing as the RB10 thanks to his 80 receptions. When you look at only standard scoring, McCaffrey fell some, finishing as the RB15. For McCaffrey to truly take the next step in his career, he will need to grow in the running game. McCaffrey only finished with 435 rushing yards on 117 attempts, good for 3.7 yards per carry, which ranked 37th among running backs with at least 100 rushing attempts.

If McCaffrey is truly destined for stardom, he will need to turn into an all-around running back that will carries a workload on the ground and through the air, but can he sustain last year’s performance now that the team has added C.J. Anderson?

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The Missing Link - Greg Olsen

One of the biggest losses in football last season was Greg Olsen. He wasn’t the biggest name to hit the shelf, but he meant just as much to his team as others who missed significant time. The Panthers were only 5-4 in games Olsen missed last season. He is very underrated, not just from a fantasy football standpoint, but an actual football standpoint and what he means to his team.

While missing Olsen last year may have negatively affected the Panthers as a whole, it was beneficial to McCaffrey’s stat line. While Olsen was out, McCaffrey became a safety blanket for Cam Newton, becoming that go to receiver. With Olsen back and healthy though, will Newton look to him once again or will McCaffrey still be able to grab some of those targets? The numbers say McCaffrey would be much more successful without Olsen on the field.

Targets Receptions Yards
with Olsen (7 Games) 5.7 3.8 36.7
w/o Olsen (9 Games) 8.1 5.8 43.7
*Avg per game

The differences may not seem like a lot, but a lot of little differences make one large one when the season is over. McCaffrey is a freak athlete that can make almost anyone miss once he has the ball in his hands. Seeing almost three less targets a game could really add up. Just one less target is one less time McCaffrey doesn’t have the ball and doesn’t have the chance to carve out a huge play.

The receptions are a large one in PPR leagues. That is where McCaffrey was a huge asset last year. The drop from RB10 to RB15, which I mentioned above, doesn’t seem like much. However, McCaffrey scored 80 more points in PPR leagues last year, or 5 points per game. We have all had that week, where we barely scratched out a victory. A point either way would have meant landing in the loss column instead of win column. Two less receptions a game over the course of a 16-game schedule in PPR leagues, is a 32-point difference, which would have dropped him from RB10 to RB14. Even the stone handed Jordan Howard would have finished above McCaffrey last season.  What else could affect this though?

 

The Receivers Receive Backup

The receivers in Carolina last season did not look great on paper and they did not produce much either. Injuries to Olsen and Curtis Samuel were an issue, then the Panthers decided to trade Kelvin Benjamin as well. McCaffrey didn’t need to fight for targets with anyone but Devin Funchess, and while he had a breakout season, McCaffrey still had more receptions and targets than him.

McCaffrey led all running backs in targets last season and was one of only three running backs in the NFL to lead his team in targets. LeSean McCoy and Duke Johnson also took advantage of underwhelming receivers to load up on targets. McCoy is the only one of the three I could see doing this again. Johnson and McCaffrey both have much improved receivers around them.

The Panthers biggest addition is D.J. Moore, who they selected in the first round of the draft this year. He was the most talented receiver in this draft, and even though I am hesitant to say he makes an immediate impact, he will still find himself with more targets than the WR2 from last season, who was Benjamin with 51. Funchess and Moore alone would be a huge improvement, but they will also have a full season from Samuel and they signed veteran free agent Torrey Smith to come in and stretch the field. The Panthers made a concentrated effort to ensure Newton has more weapons in 2018.

Carolina receivers who were not named Funchess combined for 155 receptions last season. Of the 492 attempts Newton had in 2017, McCaffrey accounted for just over 22% of those targets. So, while it is hard to expect anyone to repeat those kind of numbers as a running back, the most important part for McCaffrey to take the next step isn’t through the air, it’s on the ground. It looks like Carolina may not have been that confident in McCaffrey either.

 

Welcome CJ Anderson

We waited all off-season for the Panthers to make a move at running back and it didn’t look like they would. Finally, the Denver Broncos decided to walk away from C.J. Anderson and the Panthers decided this was their guy. Anderson took a lot of grief in Denver the past two years, but he was a lot better than advertised and still has something left. Last season, Jonathan Stewart lead the Panthers backfield with 198 attempts, but was not very effective and only averaged 3.4 yards per carry, which was worse than McCaffrey. Anderson, who has averaged at least four yards per carry since entering the NFL, will likely replace Stewart in that role and will bring more production with it.

Anderson has a good chance to sneak into that back-half RB2 status this season. If he can get at least 200 carries this season at his career average of 4.4 YPC, he’ll have 880 yards rushing. If the run game is productive with Anderson and Newton, will the Panthers try to get McCaffrey more than his 117 attempts from last season? Well, that brings me to my next point.

 

The Newton Effect

Any running back that lands in Carolina must deal with the Newton effect. This is when running backs lose carries and goal-line touches because his quarterback is a better weapon than him. Newton has 754 yards on 139 attempts last season. The next two closest quarterbacks in rushing attempts were Russell Wilson with 95 and Tyrod Taylor with 91. Those extra attempts Newton has every game will always limit his running backs. At some point, Newton will need to realize this, but he has already dealt with enough injuries in his career that it’s apparent he doesn’t care about that on game day. I’m not knocking Newton for it, because it’s part of the reason he is such a good quarterback, but I don’t see an end to Newton’s days of running the football and taking goal-line carries away.

 

Where Will McCaffrey Finish?

While I sit around and listen to everyone debate second year running backs on Twitter, I am always amazed that McCaffrey doesn’t come up with more concerns. I hear all the concerns about Kareem Hunt’s workload, Joe Mixon’s ineffectiveness and head coach, Dalvin Cook’s knee injury or Alvin Kamara and his inability to replicate last year’s highly efficient performance. I hardly ever see anyone raise a concern about McCaffrey. What is the concern though?

The concern is that McCaffrey has nowhere to go but down. The workload he received last year was ridiculous by most standards. It would take another set of unfortunate circumstances to put McCaffrey in a position to get that many targets again. Evan Engram is being devalued because fantasy owners know all the injuries from last year led to increased targets. Why not the same for McCaffrey? Add to that, it doesn’t appear much room for growth in the running game is coming for McCaffrey either.

McCaffrey is a RB10 again in PPR leagues and that is best case scenario. When I draft players or trade for them, it’s because I believe at worst, they will be consistent producers at a level of years past. For McCaffrey, it would take another season of injuries and trades plus ineffective play from other running backs to allow him to even stay at his current level. Even in PPR leagues, I see McCaffrey falling outside the top 10 and becoming a RB2 instead. If you buy, do so with expectations that his production just can’t be matched again in 2018.

 

More 2018 Fantasy Football & ADP Analysis




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