2017 has been the year of the rookie running backs.
Kareem Hunt is second in the NFL in rushing yards and he hasn’t played his Week 8 game yet. He also has a staggering eight 20+ yard run plays which obviously is best in football. Leonard Fournette is tied with Ezekiel Elliott for the most rushing touchdowns in the league and just behind Hunt in 40+ yard runs (2 to Hunt’s 3). Dalvin Cook was giving the Vikings their best rushing attack since 2015 before he tore his ACL. Joe Mixon has been showing that he’s the best back in Cincinnati, leading the team in attempts, yards and touchdowns.
There have been rookie backs who we didn’t even know about who’ve been making a serious impact. Alvin Kamara basically made the best running back of the last decade disposable for the Saints while Tarik Cohen has been the best pass catcher for the Bears this season. Heck, Aaron Jones has come out of nowhere to suddenly give the Packers a legit ground game.
Amidst all this rookie success, it’s understandable to wonder where Christian McCaffrey is, after all, he was the eighth pick of the draft and the second running back selected.
Welp, McCaffrey is nowhere to be found on this list because he’s found nowhere to run this season. Through Week 8, McCaffrey has only 117 yards on the ground on 49 carries. Doing some quick math, you’ll see that that averages out to a pitiful 2.4 yards per carry, which is less than both Eddie Lacy and Chris Johnson (I honestly don’t know which is more upsetting). The rookie has only rush for more than 20 yards ONCE this season and that was back in Week 1 against the 49ers. Over his last four games, he’s averaged four carries for seven yards.
Now, not all of this lack of production is McCaffrey’s fault. The Panthers’ offensive line ranks 23rd in Football Outsider’s stuff rankings (percentage of runs where the back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) and dead last when it comes to open field yardage (yards which team's running backs earn more than 10 yards past line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries). Basically, Panthers’ running backs get stuffed at the line of scrimmage 23% of the time and rarely, if ever, gain more than 10 yards on a single run. McCaffrey is a talented back who can make people miss, but it’s hard to gain yards when you’re constantly fighting off tacklers before you’ve even made it to the line of scrimmage.
There is of course blame that falls on the rookie as often it seems he’s conservative when making his reads and tends to go with the “safe” play rather than the big play. You can see that exact thought process on this play here against the Bills as he cuts the ball inside, despite the outside being open for business:
McCaffery seems determined to have positive rushes even if it means leaving yds on the field. Here OT pulls, clear outside lane, cuts inside pic.twitter.com/hjmiRTgLPj— James Koh (@JamesDKoh) October 24, 2017
Despite the slow start on the ground, the rookie doesn’t seem too worried:
"The big plays will come," McCaffrey said, via ESPN. "Right now it's just being patient. You've got to let the game come to you. You can't press. You can't try to make something crazy happen when nothing is there. You've just got to keep pushing."
McCaffrey has been able to do some damage in the passing game. In fact, if he was a rookie wide receiver, the general football world probably wouldn’t be so worried about him. He’s third in the NFL in catches (49), ninth in targets (66) and has caught two touchdowns. However, even here in the passing game the big play hasn’t been there for him. He’s averaging 7.7 yards per catch, is 37th in the league in receiving yards (378) and only has two plays of 20+ yards.
As crazy as it might sound, McCaffrey’s versatility could be feeding into this slow start.
“We shift him. We motion him. We move him around," Rivera said. “We’ve asked a lot of him, and there is a little bit of a concern that maybe we are doing too much with him.”
It makes sense that McCaffrey might be overwhelmed given the fact that he sits in on running back meetings, wide receiver meetings and special teams meetings. That’s a lot for any player to digest and process, let alone a rookie.
So, what does this all mean for McCaffrey’s fantasy value moving forward?
Honestly, keep riding the rollercoaster. While McCaffrey’s yardage and big plays have been lacking, the opportunities that he has been receiving are too good to pass up. McCaffrey is currently 16th in the NFL in total touches and is averaging 14.8 touches a game. Most importantly, he has the confidence of his coaches and they’re going to keep feeding him the football. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula predicted that “bigger and better things are to come" for the rookie and says he hasn’t been around a player like McCaffrey before.
And let’s face it, things can’t get worse for him. It’s not like there’s a lot of space between 2.4 yards per carry and rock bottom.
The schedule also starts getting easier for the Panthers. Of the remaining eight games, six are against bottom 15 defense (per DVOA) with three of those falling in the bottom 10 (Falcons—who they play twice—Buccaneers and Jets). They also face three defenses all ranked in the bottom 10 in terms of fantasy points surrendered to opposing running backs (Packers: 4th, Jets: 9th, Falcons: 10th).
Maybe things don’t click for McCaffrey this year. Maybe it’ll all be a waste and everyone who hung onto him for the entire season—myself included—will hate ourselves for doing it. Or maybe, things do start clicking and we start seeing the running back that ran for 1,603 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Who knows.
All I know is I’d really hate myself if I gave up now on someone who could be on the brink of being big.