Christian McCaffrey can run the football. He finally looks like a running back.
A running back. Not a receiving back.
He’s turning into the all-around threat the Carolina Panthers hoped he’d be when they drafted him eight overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. His last two weeks of work showed he’s one of the NFL’s most versatile playmakers.
In Week 2 against the Atlanta Falcons, McCaffrey had 14 receptions for 102 yards with eight rushes for 37 yards. It was the second time in his career he’d managed over 100 yards receiving in a single game. Ho-hum. What was more important was his Week 3 performance against the Cincinnati Bengals, when he had 28 rushes for 184 yards and two receptions for 10 yards. McCaffrey’s previous rushing high for a single game was 66 yards — he almost tripled that sum.
He’s not just beating defenders to the corners with his elite speed. McCaffrey has been hammering the ball between the tackles, averaging 10.7 yards per carry off his left guard and 6.4 yards per carry off his right guard. Unlike much of last season, he ran with power, balance and vision.
After 2017, defensive players had to respect McCaffrey as an elite pass catching threat. As a runner — not so much. He averaged 3.7 yards per carry last year.
This season, however, he’s averaging 5.9 yards per carry. The Panthers can feel comfortable feeding McCaffrey as a runner, which will make the young back much less predictable when he’s on the field — which will make the Panthers offense less predictable. Teams have to think twice about fielding an extra defensive back to defend McCaffrey as a passer, because he’s proving to be one of the most elusive ball-carriers in the NFL with an NFL best 19 tackles avoided in the first three weeks of the season. That said, if defenses put a linebacker on the field, they can prepare for McCaffrey to burn that backer for a reception.
McCaffrey has to continue to prove he’s just as happy beating defenses between the tackles as he is as a downfield threat. That’s when he’ll start drawing comparisons to Le’Veon Bell or Alvin Kamara, at least from a production standpoint. He’ll rack up a 100 yards rushing, if a defense is not careful. McCaffrey will rack up a 100 yards receiving, if you blink. He’ll do both, if you suck. McCaffrey has teased that potential in the first three weeks.
Speaking of Bell: Check out this patience from McCaffrey during Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
McCaffey waits behind his offensive line for a moment to burst upfield. He demonstrated excellent vision to find a hole before forcing the first man to miss, a essential job for an NFL running back. That’s a part of the job description — the first tackler should never take down a running back. His patience and elusiveness turn the play from a 1-yard gain into a 13-yard gain.
When he becomes a consistent threat in both ways, the Panthers offense will prosper. Cam Newton’s read option will be more challenging to defend, because they’re both among of the most challenging players to tackle in the NFL (and for totally opposite reasons). Newton’s play action should be more challenging to defend, because McCaffrey will require additional manpower to tackle. It’s also worth noting that McCaffrey has proven a solid pass-protector, which means he never has to leave the field.
Somehow, even C.J. Anderson, McCaffrey’s backup, benefits. During the win over the Bengals, the Panthers ran a fake pitch to the right on McCaffrey’s pre-snap motion. That movement brought nine of the Bengals defenders over to McCaffrey’s half of the field. That left Anderson wide open for a screen with three offensive linemen in front of him. He walked into the end zone practically untouched — largely thanks to McCaffrey.
McCaffrey is proving to be an every-down back, and could quickly emerge to be one of the most significant matchup problems in the NFL. Even in an offense with Newton and a number of explosive playmakers, McCaffrey could turn into Carolina’s offensive focal point, because he may soon prove unstoppable.