Fantasy Football: The Case Against Christian McCaffrey
Christian McCaffrey entered the league with a bang last season. He had an immediate impact in the Panthers’ offense and exceeded first-year expectations. As far as his run game goes, he had only 117 rushing attempts for 435 yards and just 2 touchdowns. Where McCaffrey did most of his damage was in the receiving game. He finished his rookie season leading all RBs in targets (113) and was 3rd in receptions (80) which resulted in 651 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. At the end of the day, with 1,000+ total yards and 7 TDs, you can’t ask much more from a rookie running back that isn’t viewed as the “workhorse” type.
The truth is, there were some things that had to happen last year for McCaffrey to get the volume and opportunity he did. It’s difficult to take last year and translate that success into 2018 simply because the offense has changed from what we saw in 2017. The public may disagree as he is currently going late in the 2nd round of 0.5 PPR drafts as the 12th RB off the board, projecting him to be an RB1! His average draft position (ADP) is clearly a case of recency bias. Let’s explore why you shouldn’t be as excited for Christian McCaffrey as you were last season.
Players That Can Impact McCaffrey’s Production
Yes, Cam Newton can negatively impact the production of Christian McCaffrey. Newton is a mobile quarterback. He is not shy about keeping rushing touchdowns for himself. If there isn’t something he sees in the passing game, his instinct is to run with the ball which limits the opportunities for any running back on his team. Newton will have plenty of weapons this year that he did not have for the majority of the 2017 season or at all for that matter. Time to talk about those weapons.
As mentioned above, certain things had to break just right in order for McCaffrey to receive the volume he did in his rookie season. First, Greg Olsen (Cam Newton’s favorite target) suffered a foot fracture in Week 2 and would miss the next 8 games. Olsen continued to deal with his injury after returning in Week 12 and even missed another game Week 13. This injury-plagued season for Olsen set the stage for McCaffrey to make up for the lost targets in the passing game. How many targets were lost? Since Greg Olsen and Cam Newton joined forces on the Carolina Panthers in 2011, Olsen has averaged 113 targets per season. If you are thinking that Olsen will just get hurt again and free up those targets for McCaffrey in 2018, I have bad news. Greg Olsen had only missed 2 games in his career before last year and they both came in Olsen’s rookie season in 2007. Olsen should return as Cam Newton’s #1 target in 2018 and that most certainly means, McCaffrey will not be.
It’s important to bring up the options in the passing game (including Greg Olsen above) because as we all know, Christian McCaffrey was vastly more productive as a receiver than a running back last season. Let’s take a look at the wide receivers from 2017 and the new targets Cam Newton will have in 2018 that could detract from McCaffrey’s strength.
In 2017, Curtis Samuel was slated to catch passes out of the slot. He was a promising young talent out of Ohio State and drafted by the Panthers with the 8th pick in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL draft. If healthy, Curtis Samuel could have developed chemistry with Newton and possibly earned more targets out of the slot, leaving fewer opportunities for McCaffrey. Unfortunately, for Samuel, that was not the case. Samuel missed a game early in the season due to a lower back sprain and then went on to miss the final 6 games of the season after he fractured his ankle and suffered ligament damage in the process. Another target down for Newton, another opportunity for McCaffrey to increase his volume. Samuel is already off to a rough start in 2018 as he failed his physical and finds himself on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list to begin training camp.
It’s a good thing the Panthers went ahead and drafted D.J. Moore, wide receiver out of Maryland, with the 24th overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. A team doesn’t spend that type of draft capital on a wide receiver to have them not heavily involved. Moore is expected to have an immediate impact in this offense alongside Devin Funchess and Torrey Smith, which will give Cam Newton plenty of quality targets at the wide receiver position, something he did not have in 2017. This isn’t complicated. As the number of targets Cam Newton has to throw to in 2018 increases, the number of targets for McCaffrey will naturally take a hit.
Jonathan Stewart had been with the Panthers since 2008. He has had an up-and-down career but hasn’t truly wowed since his last 1,000+ rushing yard season back in 2009. He hasn’t been a factor in the passing game much at all as he averaged just 22 targets and 98 receiving yards per season in the last 4 seasons. Stewart turned 31 years old in March and with that, the Panthers decided to move on and make an upgrade at the position.
The Panthers signed C.J. Anderson this offseason. Anderson, coming off his second 1,000+ yard season in the past 4 years, is ready to make an impact for the Panthers’ early-down work. Anderson is an upgrade to what the team had in Jonathan Stewart as a receiver. C.J. Anderson averages 40 targets and 244 yards per season. These are not outstanding numbers by any means but Anderson provides double the production in his receiving game than Stewart has for the Panthers. As a result, we could see more scenarios where the Panthers decide to leave Anderson on the field in passing down situations a lot more than they had with Stewart.
Although McCaffrey did finish as the RB11 in 2017 in 0.5 PPR, he wasn’t the most consistent option on a weekly basis. In half of the games last season, McCaffrey scored fewer than 10 fantasy points. In 6 of those games, he scored fewer than 8 fantasy points. When you draft a running back at an RB1 value, you expect double-digit performances week-to-week. If he could not provide that consistent production in a season where all the chips fell his way, how can we expect consistent production in a season where he is sure to have fewer opportunities?
As previously mentioned, McCaffrey was an impact player last year because of his heavy involvement as a receiver. It’s obvious this Panthers offense is in a much better situation than they were last year, at least to begin the season. A lot can change and things could open up for him once again as they did last year but the odds are stacked against him. He is a talented player, there is no doubt about it, but he is not a featured back and that in itself has its limitations.
C.J. Anderson is a younger Jonathan Stewart with better pass catching abilities. You can expect that Anderson at times this season, depending on game flow, to step on McCaffrey’s opportunities in 3rd down situations. Greg Olsen’s return should be concern enough for McCaffrey’s workload but combine that with the upgrades at wide receiver and the sirens should be going off in your head. Christian McCaffrey should be owned in all fantasy leagues but given his draft cost and likely decline in production, he is unlikely to return the investment you’ve made on him in 2018 leading to disappointment for all that do own him.