With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at how the workload of the Carolina Panthers’ 2017 first-round pick will shake out in a new offense.
The Panthers made some notable moves this offseason, releasing longtime running back Jonathan Stewart and acquiring C.J. Anderson in free agency to serve as his replacement, and also letting go of longtime offensive coordinator Mike Shula and hiring Norv Turner, who himself has 26 years of NFL head coaching/coordinating experience.
Volume is crucial for running backs in fantasy, so it’s important that we unpack how these changes will affect Christian McCaffrey’s fantasy value in 2018.
Turner and Anderson Aren’t Great News for McCaffrey’s Rushing Volume
The most effective approach when evaluating the effect of a new play caller is to look at past tendencies. Turner tends to be pass-happy, and he likes to use the power running game to open up play-action opportunities at the second level and above. He prefers his outside receivers to consistently run deeper routes, which in turn isolates backs and tight ends on linebackers to create mismatches underneath. This means that the Panthers are absolutely going to run Anderson between the tackles early and often in order to set up the passing game, with McCaffrey being one of the mismatches Anderson is running inside to set up.
McCaffrey earned 117 carries and 113 target receptions in Shula’s offense last year. This season, many fans and fantasy analysts alike are hoping he gets more carries, but unfortunately, I’m not sure that will happen.
McCaffrey’s assets are his versatility and agility; he operates best in space, and thus doesn’t necessarily need to take handoffs to maximize his talents. Given his strengths, many of his snaps come not as a true halfback positioned deep in the backfield to take handoffs, but as a slot receiver, passing-down back, and even H-back. While his strengths allowed him to post a strong 8.1 yards per reception, rushing efficiency wasn’t his forte, as he managed a subpar 3.7 yards per carry.
And since Turner’s emphasizes the power run game to set up the pass rather than for the sake of running, it’s unlikely McCaffrey finds his way to more carries. In fact, Turner’s offenses rank just 20th in running back touches per season since 2012.
That said, McCaffrey’s receiving volume shouldn’t change much. Turner’s offense is specifically designed to feature guys like McCaffrey in space, and I think it’s fair to project him to reach or exceed 75 catches again in 2018.
What we’re left with, then, is a situation where any change in McCaffrey’s 2018 production will likely come from a change in rushing volume due to one of two scenarios.
Scenario 1: McCaffrey’s Carries Increase (Less Likely)
If McCaffrey somehow exceeds my expectations by carving out a larger role in the rushing game than anticipated, it’s still extremely doubtful that he’ll exceed 200 carries. Given Anderson’s role and Turner’s historical running back usage, it would be unprecedented for McCaffrey to carry the ball over 200 times. Let’s assume McCaffrey’s receiving volume remains the same (75+ catches) and his rushing volume falls in the range of 117-200 carries. Since 2002, there have been just five running backs with this kind of distribution of touches:
If McCaffrey achieves this kind of production in 2018, he would become the only player in NFL history to handle between117 and 200 rushes and 75+ receptions for two consecutive seasons. More importantly, the floor of his comps is RB23 (Pierre Thomas in 2013) and the ceiling is RB4 (Alvin Kamara in 2017). These players had a 92% correlation between total touchdowns and fantasy points. Put simply, these players were extremely touchdown-dependent.
For McCaffrey to challenge for RB1 status in standard leagues, he’ll have to improve his touchdown total after scoring just seven in 2017, including only two on the ground. Unfortunately, Turner ranks 19th among 26 active coaches in running back rushing touchdowns and 22nd in running back receiving touchdowns. As is the case with McCaffrey’s rushing volume, the odds are against him making a jump in the touchdown department — especially since he’ll likely remain behind Cam Newton and Anderson for goal-line carries.
Frustratingly, it seems that even if McCaffrey’s rushing volume improves in 2018, it likely won’t be sufficient to substantially increase his fantasy ceiling, which in this scenario would remain in the high-end RB2 range.
Scenario 2: McCaffrey’s Carries Marginally Decline (More Likely)
Let’s be clear: McCaffrey is officially a running back, not a slot receiver. He’s also more than just some gadget player who gets the occasional jet sweep like Tavon Austin. So when I discuss his carries decreasing, keep in mind they’re never going to go away entirely.
To evaluate what McCaffrey’s fantasy production would look like if his rushing volume decreased, let’s look at his player comps with a similar distribution of touches. Since 2002, there have been just four running backs who have earned fewer than 117 rushes but exceeded 75 receptions in a season:
As you can see, a high volume of receptions tend to act as a stabilizing force for fantasy production in the face of low rushing volume. Even with Theo Riddick’s poor 2015 season included, McCaffrey’s comps still averaged a positional ranking of 19.5.
This is great news — it means McCaffrey’s fantasy value isn’t necessarily tied to his rushing workload. He’s going to be resilient to moderate changes in rushing usage, and his median outcome in this scenario is still a mid-range RB2.
The Bottom Line
Despite what seem like pretty significant offseason moves for Carolina, it’s highly likely that McCaffrey’s value will remain largely unaltered in 2018. The range of outcomes for a player with his kind of workload simply isn’t that wide.
McCaffrey remains a mid-to-high end RB2 with low-end RB1 upside and a low-end RB2 floor, and his best suited for drafters with a conservative mindset looking to make high-floor selections early in the draft.
Those that wish to take on greater risk to secure a a player with a more realistic shot to finish as the No. 1 overall running back should consider targeting backs like Jerick McKinnon, Dalvin Cook, and Kenyan Drake.
Credit: Bob Donnan – USA TODAY Sports