When the Carolina Panthers’ offense wakes up and goes for 444 total yards and 33 scoreboard points, Christian McCaffrey is supposed to benefit. After all, the prime excuse we’ve been making for his relatively slow fantasy start is that Cam Newton hasn’t looked right, and that Carolina had averaged 277 scrimmage yards per game and turned it over a bunch. Surely, if the Panthers were going to march into Foxborough and lay big numbers on the New England Patriots in Week 4, McCaffrey was going to be the touch magnet at the heart of it.
That’s not what happened. McCaffrey’s box score last week was gnarly: 10 touches, 49 scrimmage yards, zero touchdowns.
And if I were all about box scores, that’s where the lesson would end: Christian McCaffrey is another Smurf running back who was oversold for various reasons — from the fun of his college tape to his complexion — and you don’t want him for fantasy. But I’m not all about box scores. And I think McCaffrey is still pretty appealing for fantasy.
Have you watched him play? The kid is little. I remember having Twitter debates with people about his Stanford career, where McCaffrey racked up 4,577 scrimmage yards (!) in his final two seasons: Folks were convinced that because he could break tackles in the Pac-12 he was ready to be Marshall Faulk. But now that we’ve seen him in an NFL uniform, he looks even smaller than 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds. He looks slight, and at least with his current offensive line — which has been mediocre for a few years, even dating back its Super Bowl campaign — he doesn’t see consistent enough rushing lanes to become a between-the-tackles runner. Carolina still gives most of those looks to Jonathan Stewart: In four games, Stewart has 27 carries categorized as “up the middle” and McCaffrey has seven. That’s because Stewart weighs 240 pounds.
But McCaffrey fits the model of the modern RB. He played 46 offensive snaps in New England, while Stewart played 27 and Fozzy Whittaker played six. He’s out-snapped Stewart by at least 15 in every game this season. He’s one of seven backs to have run 100-plus routes, and he’s tied with Andre Ellington and Tarik Cohen for the RB lead in targets, with 29. It’s true that McCaffrey and Stewart have basically split Carolina’s backfield touches, and it’s also true that Stewart is likelier to convert a short TD any given week. But I’ll take a lightning-quick player whose team is dedicated to getting him the ball in space.
More on McCaffrey’s skills in a moment. Let’s go back to the Patriots game. How maddening it was that Carolina’s offense suddenly became hyper-functional and McCaffrey didn’t benefit. Except, did it? The top-line numbers look great, but watch that film and you’ll see New England blow coverages again and again. Full credit to the Panthers for taking advantage, but from their very first series — which featured an Ed Dickson 25-yard grab on which he was open by five yards — this was often about Newton throwing to hilariously open receivers. There wasn’t much call for a horizontal pass attack when everything vertical worked.
From Whittaker’s blown-assignment TD, to Kelvin Benjamin standing by himself down the left sideline in the halftime two-minute drill, to Devin Funchess standing alone in the end zone at the end of that same drive, to Benjamin uncovered again on the first play of the fourth quarter: McCaffrey’s relative lack of sharing in the festivities shouldn’t be held against him. They didn’t need a short game. Maybe this is an argument that Week 4 was fool’s gold for Carolina, and the offensive ugliness we saw through most of September will continue Sunday in Detroit. I don’t think it means a Cam-Newton-to-Devin-Funchess connection is about to reign over the NFL, and it’s not an argument that McCaffrey is a mere supplemental player.
Week to week, fantasy owners get worked up over Ameer Abdullah or James White or Giovani Bernard. McCaffrey is a better version of those players. (Okay, maybe he’s not better than Gio. I really like Gio.) He just hasn’t made big plays yet. We’re talking about the quickest back from the 2017 draft, an ankle-breaker with elite acceleration and better-than-average top-end speed. Big plays are coming. He was a half-step away from a fourth-quarter red-zone TD against New England, running a slant out of the slot and getting behind Kyle Van Noy, only to have Van Noy trip him from behind. Through four games, a survey of McCaffrey’s catches shows delayed screens, flat routes out of the slot, bubble screens with him lining up or motioning wide, slants, arrow routes and an out-and-up he caught for 37 yards against the Saints. Maybe you’re not convinced McCaffrey is a big play waiting to happen, but the Panthers sure seem to be.
If you’re a McCaffrey owner, you’re hoping for the Reggie Bush rookie season, circa 2006: 121 carries, 88 catches, 1,307 scrimmage yards and eight TDs. Bush had a few big plays that first season — including behind-the-line screens that he took for 60-plus yard gains in back-to-back contests — but mostly he became fantasy’s RB16 that year by chipping away with a few 15-yard gains per week and a whole lot of catches. (And remember: That year the Saints also had Deuce McAllister pulling down 271 carries!)
McCaffrey isn’t as straight-line fast as fresh-from-college Bush was, but he’s every bit as quick. And right now he’s on pace for … wait for it … 124 carries, 88 catches and 1,180 scrimmage yards. All that’s missing are the TDs. And they’re coming.
Christopher Harris runs HarrisFootball.com, where you can find more info on the “Harris Football Podcast,” with new episodes every weekday.