If the owners could re-do the 2018 Fantasy Football Draft knowing the final script of the season, a lot of things would have changed.
While which specific decisions would turn out differently is a good exercise to work on as the season approaches, the moment requests an analysis of what ended up being one of the 2018 season’s biggest surprises: Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey not only had a much better second season in the NFL, but he in fact posted historical numbers; he has inserted himself as one of the best options, if not the top one, in the 2019 fantasy football season.
His evolution in the league
McCaffrey’s production as a rookie, while not as bad as his 3.7 yards per carry may suggest, brought some negative whistles around him. After all, he managed only 435 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Still, his 80 catches in 2017 helped him to finish the year with more than 1,000 scrimmage yards; it also showed the type of weapon he could be for the Carolina Panthers.
The 23-year-old running back bounced-back magnificently in 2018.
CMC led the Panthers in both rushing (1,098) and receiving (867) yards last season. Besides that, he ranked No. 1 on the team in catches (107) and touchdowns (13).
By the way, his 107 receptions broke Matt Forte’s record for most single-season receptions by a running back ever.
McCaffrey’s 187 catches thus far put him int he company of Michael Thomas, Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry as the only players in pro football history with at least 170 receptions during their first two seasons in the league.
All of this has to do with his time on the field–he played in 91.3% of Carolina’s snaps last year. By the end of December, McCaffrey played 75 more snaps than any other running back in the NFL.
Overall, Carolina’s young back totaled 326 touches, 1,965 yards (six yards per touch), and 13 touchdowns. That was good for the second-most points in PPR leagues (third in standard).
How impressive were his 300+ touches?
Well, only five other running backs were in the same class of workload in 2018: Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, and David Johnson. This shows how owners should have been looking at McCaffrey during the draft.
In two seasons in the NFL, McCaffrey totaled 187 receptions, 1,533 rushing yards, 1,518 receiving yards, and 20 touchdowns. He was targeted 110+ times in both seasons.
Why McCaffrey is such a special player
We’ve seen how impressive McCaffrey’s numbers were in his second year in pro football, but let’s see how it happened. Here are five GIFs showing how much (more than runs) CMC adds to Carolina’s offensive system:
First, we have a play that was typical of McCaffrey all season long: a screen pass in the middle of the field, which he transformed into a big gain.
But McCaffrey has also developed in regards to his route running, which puts the Panthers in position to use him in different pass-play situations. Here, he’s more than 10 yards off the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field when he stupefies his defender.
The next play might look like a simple one. However, it summarizes one of the most significant changes in how the Panthers used McCaffrey in 2018 compared to 2017.
CMC is running in a 2nd & 10 on the play. Carolina put the ball in the running back’s hands in second-down situations 74 times last season, significantly higher than the 42 carries he had in those situations two years ago; expect this to continue happening in 2019.
In addition to the increased carries, McCaffrey has been Cam Newton’s most versatile option in the red zone.
In Week 9 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers had a 1st & Goal. Here’s how they called their next two plays:
Yes, McCaffrey was initially lined as a slot receiver, and then had a reverse run play to the opposite side of the field. In the team’s next call, Carolina called on No. 22 again–this time in a run to the right side. Touchdown.
Finally, we have a trick play showing—one more time—why CMC was one of the most valuable players in the NFL.
McCaffrey’s touchdown pass against the New Orleans Saints gave him a fantasy production over 2,000 total yards in 2018, joining Barkley and Elliott as the only players in the league to do so.
What’s next for CMC
Although head coach Ron Rivera has said the Panthers might be looking for reducing McCaffrey’s workload in 2019, the team’s offseason moves don’t appear to support it. After all, Carolina didn’t add a lot of competition to the backfield by drafting Jordan Scarlett in the fifth round and signing Elijah Holyfield as an undrafted free agent.
Even slight workload management for CMC shouldn’t stop him from being a great fantasy option again; his numbers might even improve for the second consecutive season.
What fantasy owners should keep in mind, though, is an expected upgrade to the receiving corps.
D.J. Moore should be better going into his second pro year, Curtis Samuel showed great strides of improvement after a below-average rookie campaign, and Greg Olsen seems to be healthy again.
Still, McCaffrey has proven himself as a three-down back who can generate points catching passes as well. Another year in the Newton-led offense should make things even better for him, and the sky is the limit once the Panthers showed they knew how to use the RB more effectively–his catch percentage increased from 70.8% to 86.3% from 2017 to 2018.
We should also keep in mind that McCaffrey will run under the direction of Norv Turner, who has proven to be a solid coordinator for fantasy running backs. Here’s how running backs finished in Turner-coordinated offenses:
|Year||Team||Running back||Fantasy ppg. avg||Pos. Ranking|
I have five takeaways from this data:
- Turner has coordinated some Hall of Famers, who made things a little easier for him.
- Nevertheless, don’t forget to give Turner (more) credit for jobs like the ones done with Matt Asiata (2014) and McCaffrey last season.
- In case you haven’t noticed, McCaffrey (2018) had the best fantasy season for a running back coordinated by Turner since Ricky Williams in 2002.
- In 2013, Turner couldn’t figure things out with the Browns. Although McGahee was Cleveland’s best fantasy option (as a runner) during an awful season, Christopher Ogbonnaya (the team’s RB2 that year) posted 48 catches in 74 targets;
- 2018 was Turner’s first year in Carolina.
With that being said, anything is possible for McCaffrey. We are talking about one of the most interesting dual-threat running backs the NFL has seen in recent years; on top of that, he likely hasn’t yet reached his prime.
A running back who posts 1,000 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in a season is an exciting fantasy option. Separately, 100 receptions, 800 receiving yards, and six TDs would mean a very solid season for a receiver.
Meanwhile, CMC is in a position to top both of these milestones, making it possible for the NFL to witness a historic 1,000/1,000-season. He was close last year.
Even if a 1,000/1,000-campaign falls short next year, just the possibility of McCaffrey accomplishing it should entice fantasy owners.
Roger Craig (1985) and Marshall Faulk (1999) are the only players in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in the same season. Respectively, they finished second and first in fantasy points in those years.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)