Matt Waldman shares a sample scouting report on Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey from the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (5-11, 202)
Depth of Talent Score: 81.5 = Rotational Starter: Executes at a starter level in a role, playing to his strengths.
McCaffrey’s ranking is the result of a Combine-validated process and not a Combine-initiated reaction. Stanford’s offense has always been problematic for evaluating running back play. Although it’s as old-school pro-style as it gets with the West Coast Scheme, the line splits are tight, and many of its heavy formations turn the ground game into a rugby scrum.
It made Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor difficult evaluations. Andre Williams, who starred in a similar scheme at Boston College, also tripped up many evaluators for similar reasons.
McCaffrey was a difficult evaluation for this reason and more. A lot of the runner’s attempts were in dense traffic, which requires multiple screenings to determine speed and quickness. When breakaway runs occurred, they happened against these packed boxes and because there aren’t as many legitimate angles of pursuit when McCaffrey reached the open field, pinpointing his speed was a guesstimate until there was stopwatch verification
This is why there is a contingent of analysts who perceive McCaffrey’s ascent as an overreaction to the Combine. McCaffrey’s 4.22-second 20 Shuttle is the 14th-best performance since 2012, and his 6.57-second 3-Cone is tops during the same span.
For analysts that place inordinate weight on data over film, it could validate that perception. Even if that were the case, I believe the analytics-dominant draft analysts who place a high value on McCaffrey will score an accurate result.
A patient runner with an elusive style, McCaffrey makes mature decisions. He gets strong depth to the line of scrimmage to press creases on zone runs and he can string together stutter steps, dips, jump cuts, and jukes to reach the hole. He reads penetration well and reacts appropriately to earn what he can when the defense foils the scheme.
This is an important piece of context to McCaffrey’s game because players with a lesser speed-burst-agility are prone to immature decisions based on overconfidence in their athletic ability. When he takes a risk, it usually pans out for no worse than a solid gain of 3-5 yards. Although not a power back, McCaffrey uses his acceleration, body lean, and strength to pull defenders with him when he gets downhill.
Because he can accelerate from a stop with good explosion, McCaffrey can lean through a defensive lineman wrapping him from the side when he is heading down-hill. He also keeps his feet moving and helps his teammates create a push for extra yards.
Sometimes, McCaffrey will pick a hole before he reads the situation. It occurs on short-yardage plays and makes him prone to tentative decision-making when he’s off his game. When this happens, he’ll appear hesitant to hit skinny creases with aggression and he runs into defenders he could have avoided.
Dense boxes at the line of scrimmage can be difficult for good professional backs for the same reasons, so it’s not a significant concern for McCaffrey, whose best fit isn’t heavy alignments with multiple tight ends. Although he’s shown that he’s a top prospect while playing in this scheme, he’ll be even better in a spread offense where he’ll face more nickel and dime looks and draw coverage mismatches when splitting from the formation.
It begs the question: why did McCaffrey go to Stanford if he could have been even better in a spread offense? Besides the fact that McCaffrey’s dad, former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey, is an alum, working in Stanford’s scheme makes it easy for the NFL to project a prospect’s value. Decision-makers feel safer about a player when he’s proven he can perform in an offense that at least half the league runs.
At Stanford, McCaffrey got exposure to NFL-style pass plays, jargon, and protection schemes. Although he has to improve his reads and reactions to Green Dog Blitzes—linebackers or safeties assigned to the back in coverage who are expected to blitz if the back stays at the line of scrimmage to pass protect—McCaffrey has shown enough refined technique as a blocker that he should develop into a solid pass protector within the course of his rookie year.
He gets proper depth into the line of scrimmage to meet blitzing defenders and shoots his arms for a quick punch. Although no one should expect him to take on defensive linemen one-on-one, McCaffrey displayed picture-perfect technique when drawing an assignment against a Washington defensive tackle. The tackle lost the battle for additional reasons beyond McCaffrey’s effort, but the runner’s execution of technique is the takeaway.
He’ll need to improve his consistency of execution as a puncher. McCaffrey has a tendency to overextend, and he loses balance and cannot sustain his block when he does. His cut blocks are sound. He shoots with his head up and works across the legs of his opponents with the proper height.
A big part of McCaffrey’s value is the receiving game. He runs a mean Whip Route (a stop-start route across the middle that baits the defender into thinking the receiver will reverse field at the top of the stem) and he routinely finds the open zones.
Although he has difficulty with high-velocity targets thrown over his head in the short range of the field, McCaffrey is a reliable option who tracks the ball well and has the athletic ability to present mismatches from the backfield, the slot and on the perimeter. Once in the open field, McCaffrey strings together moves that can turn a short play into a breakaway run.
McCaffrey is an excellent prospect, but the real reason he’s above Joe Mixon and Dalvin Cook on my list amounts to two factors that had nothing to do with the NFL Combine or off-field behavior: pass protection and ball security. McCaffrey is a more technically sound blocker with better results than Cook, and he’s a more conscientious, technically sound ball carrier either back. Most notably, McCaffrey’s fumble rate of 1 every 243.7 touches dwarfs Cooks’ troublesome rate of 1 per 63.8.
If you asked me who the better runner is today, Cook would vault Mixon and McCaffery by a small margin. However, the better football player who encompasses the responsibilities of the position? Until Cook proves he can address his woes and turn them into strengths, McCaffrey gets the nod.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: McCaffrey reminds me of Brian Westbrook, the runner that inspired me to write about football and ultimately create this publication. Like Westbrook, McCaffrey has enough between-the-tackles skill to be the lead back in an offense.
The team that drafts McCaffrey may opt for a bigger back or a competent fullback in short-yardage situations. That’s okay; you’re drafting McCaffrey early in the first round for his yardage and PPR potential. Depending on how Andy Reid and the Chiefs view the future roles of Tyreek Hill and Spencer Ware, the Westbrookian McCaffrey would be a logical fit. Cecil Lammey has been hearing since January that the Broncos want McCaffrey for their system.
The ideal fit for McCaffrey is a spread system with a hurry-up component that is multiple with its looks. Strictly looking at the system and not personnel, Green Bay and New England come to mind immediately. Regardless, there are a lot of good landing spots for McCaffrey, and it makes him a safe first-round pick for fantasy owners.
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