Christian McCaffrey does a lot well and was the centerpiece of the Panthers offense in 2018.  He’s an ultra-versatile player who can do everything required of a modern NFL running back at a plus level. He thrives in the receiving game; both out of the backfield and out wide. He’s the ultimate chess piece that when used correctly, can put up excellent numbers.  However, I’m not sure how much he truly adds over a replacement level running back in the rushing game.

McCaffrey is great when following blocks and hitting open holes within the play design but he does have struggles. He lacks explosiveness on his cuts and doesn’t have the burst to force defenders into poor angles (pay attention to this throughout the clips). McCaffrey is fast enough, but not a true home run threat. He frequently gets tunnel vision and only sees holes within the play design.  McCaffrey is very similar to Alvin Kamara in skillset, but not quite as talented.  

I’ll start with McCaffrey’s ability to excel within the design of the play. McCaffrey is excellent at allowing his blocks to develop and following those blocks within the play design:

He is not “patient” in the same sense as Bell or Mixon. He never comes to a full stop behind the line of scrimmage, but he takes his time and allows his linemen to get their blocks set before he hits the hole. It’s more like he runs with extraordinary calmness. The Panthers frequently run power plays with a pulling guard (#73 Greg Van Roten is an absolute mauler in that role) and McCaffrey’s calm running behind the line works well to allow the holes to develop.

When a hole does develop immediately, McCaffery hits it at full speed:

McCaffrey is very subtly elusive, a la Alvin Kamara, but lacks the insane jump cuts of Barkley or Elliott. He has exceptionally quick feet that allow him to make moves at full speed even if he rarely breaks ankles. I love his move on #51 here:

But he can also struggle to make people miss in the open field. The first clip here is particularly egregious given the blocker in front of him:

He has a tendency to stutter-step in one-on-one situations, but he lacks the explosiveness to beat his man after the stutter. This Nick Chubb cut is what a good stutter-step looks like:

The difference in explosion off the plant leg is notable.

McCaffrey shows decent power for his size. He has the ability to break tackles and typically falls forward at the end of runs:

He can even be effective in short yardage when given the opportunity:

I mentioned in the intro that McCaffrey can be too predetermined in following the play design.  This play is designed to follow the pulling guard and that is exactly what McCaffrey does:

He gained a yard or two, but passed up on the hole between 70 and 67 on the left. I would’ve loved to see him either hit the hole quickly or press the line to bait 54 to the right before cutting back through the hole on the left.

Plays like that leave me hesitant about McCaffrey’s vision.  He’s really good at following blocks and seeing holes within the play design, but struggles to do anything outside of that design.

I may not be enthralled with McCaffrey’s running talent, he absolutely thrives as a receiver.  His hands are outstanding. He only had one drop on 107 receptions and he’s capable of making snags like these two:

His sideline awareness is phenomenal:

And he can take a big hit and hang onto the ball:

McCaffrey’s ultimate versatility comes from his route running. He is great at disguising his route until his cut. Three plays are below. All three start out identical, but he runs three different routes and got himself wide open on all three:

Here he runs a great out-and-up from the slot:

And a stop-and-go to burn a safety:

These last plays are two of my favorites. McCaffrey is in the slot. His defender blitzes and McCaffrey recognizes this and immediately makes himself available for Newton:

That is absolutely great stuff by McCaffrey and salvaged two plays that would have been sure sacks.

I’m not a huge fan of McCaffrey as a pure runner, but I absolutely love what he brings to the Panthers offense as a whole. He’s the ultimate Swiss Army Knife and the McCaffrey/Newton combo forces the defense to account for three separate threats out of the backfield (McCaffrey run, McCaffrey catch, Newton run) on every single play.  This forces the defense into mismatches and can make the linebackers hesitant to commit to one thing.
McCaffrey is difficult to slot into my True Talent Rankings. His tunnel vision and lack of explosiveness would put him at least a tier behind Kareem Hunt as a pure runner, but I cannot ignore his receiving ability. I slotted him into Tier 2 right behind Todd Gurley