Christian McCaffrey is coming off a spectacular 2019 season. CMC led the NFL in total touches (403), yards from scrimmage (2,392), and total touchdowns (19) while becoming only the third player in NFL history with at least 1,000 rushing yards and at least 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. The 2019 campaign was also McCaffrey’s second consecutive season with at least 1,000 rushing yards and at least 100 receptions, making him the first player in NFL history to hit each of those marks in the same season more than once.
He was deservedly named a Pro Bowler and a First Team All-Pro, he’s just 23 years old (he’ll turn 24 later this summer), he’s never missed an NFL game, and he has played more than 91 percent of the Panthers‘ snaps in each of the past two seasons. So on Monday, the Panthers paid him. Handsomely. McCaffrey signed a four-year extension worth a reported $64 million, making him the on a per-year basis.
If there is any running back out there who would seemingly be worth enough to buck the trend of high-dollar running back contracts turning out to be bad values, it’s probably McCaffrey. And yet, a closer look at data not all that far beyond the surface level reveals why even this contract to this special of a player is probably not a good idea.
Let’s just start with the volume. McCaffrey handled 403 touches in 2019. He is wildly unlikely to ever receive that many touches in a single season ever again, considering there have only been 44 400-plus-touch seasons in the history of the league. Only nine players have ever received 400-plus touches more than once, and only five have done it more than twice. The most recent player to have multiple 400-touch seasons was LaDainian Tomlinson, and his last 400-touch campaign came in 2006.
If you want to bet on McCaffrey being such a rare player that he bucks that trend, fine, but that doesn’t mean it’s likely. The combination of incredible volume and incredible versatility is what makes McCaffrey special, but if you reduce his volume, you necessarily reduce the degree to which he is special as well.
But the reasons this looks like a poor investment goes beyond the relative likelihood of McCaffrey ever handling as large a workload as he did last season.
McCaffrey is one of the best runners in the league: among the 45 running backs who received at least 100 carries last season, his 4.83 yards per carry average ranked eighth. He’s also probably the best receiving back in the league: he had 24 more catches than the next-closest back, and among the group of 13 who caught at least 50 passes in 2019, his yards per reception average ranked fifth. He was the only player to rank in the top 10 in yards per carry and top five in yards per reception. As such, his efficiency for a high-volume player was seemingly off the charts.
And when you take a look at similarly high-volume players, that holds up. McCaffrey was one of 51 backs with at least 100 total touches last season. His 5.94 yards per touch average ranked fifth among that group. He was one of just 27 running backs with 200 touches or more, a group among which his yards per touch average ranked second, behind only Austin Ekeler. But even among that narrower group, the gap between McCaffrey and the average player was not as large as it seems on the surface.
That aforementioned group of 27 running backs collectively averaged 4.96 yards per touch. While that’s nearly a full yard worse than what McCaffrey produced, the difference in what it means over a season’s worth of touches just doesn’t seem quite as large. Basically, if you gave the average high-volume back McCaffrey’s 403-touch workload, he would have produced 2,007 total yards.
Do those extra 385 total yards McCaffrey actually gained really seem like they’re worth $16 million per year against the salary cap?
Even if you want to lean on the (very reasonable) idea that there isn’t another single back who could handle those 403 touches on his own, well, there’s nothing stopping the Panthers from employing a two or even three-back committee and splitting the work among them. Giving two average 200-plus touch running backs 200 touches apiece yields essentially the same result as giving one of those backs the same workload as McCaffrey actually handled.
The Chargers employing Ekeler and Melvin Gordon last season, for example, meant doling out 428 touches, which resulted in 2,458 total yards. Would you want your team paying anywhere close to $16 million per year for those two players? The 49ers‘ trio of running backs (Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida) combined for 2,419 yards on their 451 touches. You might be willing to pay those three a combined $16 million per year; but as the Niners themselves showed, you don’t have to dole out that much to get that type of production.
The idea of McCaffrey is such a rare pass-catching running back that he’s essentially a running back and a receiver seems appealing, but when you compare his pass-catching production to actual receivers, it falls apart. There have been 107 instances of a wideout catching at least 100 passes in a year. Only two of those 107 averaged less than 10 yards per reception. None averaged fewer than McCaffrey’s (career-high) 8.7 mark from last season. The same is true of the five tight ends who have caught at least 100 passes in a season, each of whom averaged at least 9.5 yards per catch.
Of course, there’s also history to consider. Plenty of teams before the Panthers have thought their running back was the exception to the rule — the foundation of the offense to the point that it made sense to pay him big money. They’ve all been wrong. Every time. We just saw this in action with both Todd Gurley and David Johnson. There’s always the chance that McCaffrey finally is that one running back who proves worth it, but odds are against him.