NFL1000 Week 7 Notebook: Why Isn't Christian McCaffrey Panning Out?

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistOctober 23, 2017

NFL1000 Week 7 Notebook: Why Isn't Christian McCaffrey Panning Out?

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    Week 7 provided a host of unexpected results.

    We did not expect, for example, the previously invisible Amari Cooper to go off against the Kansas City Chiefs defense Thursday night, but that’s just what Cooper did—catching 11 passes on 19 targets for 210 yards and two touchdowns as the Oakland Raiders saved their season with a thrilling last-second goal-line stand that marked one of the craziest games of the year.  

    We may have expected the New Orleans Saints to beat the Green Bay Packers with Brett Hundley replacing Aaron Rodgers, but for Drew Brees to throw two interceptions to one touchdown and the Saints run game to take over? That was unusual, as was Green Bay’s ability to run the ball even with New Orleans’ newly efficient pass defense shutting down Hundley.

    And we most certainly did not expect the Chicago Bears to beat the Carolina Panthers, 17-3, despite the fact that rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky completed just four of seven passes for 107 yards. It took Cam Newton throwing two picks and Bears rookie safety Eddie Jackson returning a fumble and an interception for a touchdown. Who needs a passing game, anyway? The Bears have a two-game winning streak, and in that time, Trubisky has completed 12 of 23 passes for 220 yards…total.  

    It was a fascinating Sunday, and B/R's NFL1000 scouts were all over the tape.

    Lead Scout: Doug Farrar
    Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
    Running backs/Fullbacks: Mark Bullock
    Receivers/Tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
    Offensive Line: Ethan Young
    Defensive Line: Justis Mosqueda
    Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
    Secondary: Ian Wharton

    Here's what else stood out to our scouts during Sunday's Week 7 action.

Jaguars Finally a Contender Behind League’s Best Defense

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    When the Jacksonville Jaguars put up 10 sacks in their 27-0 Week 7 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts, it marked the first time a team had put up 10 sacks in a game more than once in a season since the 1984 Chicago Bears did it. That was one season before the Bears put perhaps the greatest defense in NFL history on the field. And while it’s too early to put the Jaguars in that category, there is absolutely nothing about this Jacksonville defense that is a fluke, nor are there multiple examples of it beating up on bad opponents.

    Yes, Jacksonville’s other 10-sack game came in its opening contest against the Houston Texans and their subpar line, but this is a defense getting pressure against every opponent in ways that feature the talents of its front four. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash is using veteran Calais Campbell as a super-sized end, bookending him with Yannick Ngakoue, who’s been one of the more underrated edge-rushers in the last couple of seasons. Campbell leads all 4-3 ends with 35 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus, and he presents a unique problem with his bull-rush and pass-rushing moves. Ngakoue ranks third with 31 total pressures, and pure speed off the edge is his game. Malik Jackson leads a rotation of interior defenders who can blow up inside protection on a regular basis.

    With so much pressure coming from the front four, the Jaguars don’t need to blitz a lot—they can send their linebackers into different run fits and coverages, and Telvin Smith is one of the best and most versatile linebackers in the business.

    But the thing that makes Jacksonville’s defense so special in this era of the high-volume, multifaceted passing game is a cornerback duo without peer in the league. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye lock down every receiver combination they face, forcing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer and fold under all that pressure.

    Bouye leads all cornerbacks with a 41.1 opponent passer rating allowedhe’s given up just 18 catches on 45 targets for 261 yards and two interceptions. He’s the technician who is just as comfortable facing up with a top receiver as he is reading a running back in bail coverage. Ramsey is the alpha of the group—poised to be as physical as possible with receivers, he can run step-for-step with anyone in the league and erase his targets. He ranks second in opponent passer rating allowed at 41.4, and he has allowed 19 catches on 42 targets for 216 yards and two interceptions. Neither of Jacksonville’s outside cornerbacks have allowed a touchdown all season.

    Add in the fine play of safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson (four picks, no touchdowns on 25 targets between them), and you have a defense that is playing ridiculously well at all levels. Each player fits the low-blitz Cover 1 and Cover 3 concepts.

    You’d best get used to this Jaguars defense; it looks very much like the NFL’s next great version. Could they match the '85 Bears? Perhaps not, but could the '85 Bears deal with today’s offenses?

    — NFL1000 lead scout Doug Farrar    

Why Isn’t Christian McCaffrey Panning Out?

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    The Carolina Panthers selected running back Christian McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft because they estimated that, as he did at Stanford, McCaffrey would greatly increase their offensive production with his ability to run inside like a power back, run outside like a scatback and run routes like a true receiver.

    So far, it hasn’t really panned out. McCaffrey has rushed 45 times for just 114 yards this season, averaging 2.5 yards per carry. He’s been somewhat effective as a receiver, with 44 catches for 329 yards and two touchdowns, but the big plays have been few and far between. Most of McCaffrey’s receptions are quick dump-offs in one form or another as opposed to the outside and seam routes he ran so well in college.

    Protection is one issue, both in the run and the pass—Carolina’s offensive line has been problematic at best, which has prevented Cam Newton from throwing downfield with any measure of consistency. There’s a feast-or-famine element to Carolina’s aerial assault, and it’s put McCaffrey in the more traditional role of escape hatch as opposed to a cog his coaches could use creatively. McCaffrey has the skills to be used as Alvin Kamara is in New Orleans and Kareem Hunt in Kansas City, but those teams block well enough to allow enough time for that creativity.

    As an open-field runner, McCaffrey does match speed and power well enough for his 5'11", 202-pound frame—he has caused six missed tackles as a runner and nine as a receiver, per Pro Football Focus. But he has no runs of 15 yards or more on the season, and when you take a running back eighth overall, you want more than that. Hunt, for example, has 10 runs of 15 yards or more for 233 total yards, and he was selected in the third round.

    Most of McCaffrey’s carries come out of the shotgun, and he’s running a lot of straight dive and wham plays without much creativity. This is a function of the poor offensive line play—McCaffrey often has to deal with more than one defender in the backfield as he’s taking the ball—and that poor blocking also eliminates the success of slower-developing plays like draws and counters that would allow McCaffrey to use his field vision and acceleration. When offensive coordinator Mike Shula designs plays with extra blockers at the edge of the formation and Newton pitching out to let McCaffrey get around defensive ends and linebackers, you can see the potential for bigger plays.

    Since Carolina’s line isn’t up to protecting McCaffrey as a traditional power back would prefer, the Panthers have to stop treating him like one. Shula and his staff must find more creative ways to get their first-round pick free in open space, where he can utilize the talents they drafted him for.

    — NFL1000 lead scout Doug Farrar    

Is It Time for Jay Cutler to Retire Again?

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    The network executives over at Fox might be wise to keep a spot open for him next week.

    With the Dolphins trailing, Jay Cutler left Sunday’s game after taking a shot on a deep throw early in the third quarter. Matt Moore came in and threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead Miami to a come-from-behind victory over the New York Jets.

    Statistically, there is at least an argument that Cutler was the better quarterback for Miami on the day. Both QBs threw a pair of touchdowns with an interception, but Cutler completed 12 of 16 passes while Moore completed 13 of 21. Moore had the better yards per attempt with 9.0, contrasted with 8.6 for Cutler. But that is just part of the story.

    Despite their record of 4-2, the Dolphins offense was less than inspiring over the past few weeks. Entering this week, the Dolphins were dead last in the NFL in passing yards per game with only 155.4. The Miami offense has been the subject of much discussion around the league, including in these NFL1000 recaps and previews. Something has seemed to be missing the past few weeks. I made the argument a few weeks ago that the scheme might be off, but after watching Cutler in action Sunday, it seems that some blame needs to be placed on his shoulders.

    Cutler’s two touchdowns were each short-yardage plays, a designed rollout and a seam/slant combination, where the field was cut in half for him and the decision was simplified. But his interception came when he tried to throw an out route on a slant/flat combination, and even with a blitzer coming off the edge, Cutler attempted the throw and his pass nearly hit the unblocked defender in the face. Cutler needed to do a better job of adjusting his arm angle or trying to get the ball around the blitzing safety. On a deep pass to Kenny Stills where his receiver made a juggling catch, Cutler threw the ball falling away, off his back foot, when it did not seem necessary. So while Cutler's numbers were OK, the overall execution was not at a level you would hope from the quarterback.

    Then, Moore comes in and there is an evident spark as the backup leads Miami to the comeback win.

    The initial prognosis is an injury to Cutler’s chest. If he is ruled out medically, that makes the decision next week an easy one for Adam Gase. But if he is healthy, the head coach faces a big decision. It is hard to change quarterbacks when you are sitting at 4-2, but the offense still is not running as well as it could. And given what we have seen to date, and how the team responded with Moore in the game, perhaps this is one of those rare occasions when it makes sense.

    — NFL1000 QB scout Mark Schofield

Where Does Marcus Mariota Stack Up Among NFL QBs?

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    Marcus Mariota is one of the top 12 quarterbacks in the NFL and is among the second tier of QBs in the game.

    It makes sense to put quarterbacks in tiers. In the first tier you have guys like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees—QBs who can carry a team. In the second tier are guys whose teams win because of, rather than with or in spite of. Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Alex Smith belong in this category. So does Mariota.

    Statistically speaking, adjusted net yards per attempt is a good place to start. Last season, Mariota finished eighth in the league in this category with 7.14. Heading into Week 7, Mariota was 10th in this category, still placing him among the league's best at 6.84, per Pro Football Reference.

    Mariota's success in the red zone is another measure of his value. Last season, he completed 36 of 59 passes in the red zone for 285 yards and 19 touchdowns without an interception or even a sack. That was good for a quarterback rating of 112.6. If you do the math on ANY/A, that's a whopping 11.27 in those situations.

    But Mariota has lagged in the red zone this year. So far in 2017, he is only 4-of-13 for 29 yards and no touchdowns. His struggles were a factor in Tennessee's narrow victory over the Browns, as the Titans failed to convert on multiple red-zone possessions.

    Against the Browns, he attempted five deep passes and completed just one, per Pro Football Focus. His underthrow of a deep pass to tight end Delanie Walker at the start of the fourth quarter was particularly glaring. This looks to be a function of Mariota getting his lower-body mechanics back together after his injury—when he's mechanically sound, Mariota doesn't generally have these issues, and several of the deep misses were pretty close in nature. 

    There is also a schematic component to Mariota's value. He is a weapon with his legs, whether on designed runs or extending plays with his feet. That helps the guys up front, as Mariota can turn missed assignments in blocking schemes into positive gains. It also helps the receivers, as he can keep plays alive and give players downfield time to find holes in coverage. However, since he returned from a hamstring injury two games ago, he has not been as mobile, which affects his complementary skill set. 

    Put that all together and it's clear Mariota is in that second tier of quarterbacks. The legendary Bill Walsh, who knew a little bit about quarterbacks, believed that a young QB needed to figure it out by his third season. Mariota seems ahead of schedule.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout Mark Schofield

Packers Need to Plan Their Offense Around Aaron Jones

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    The Packers offense has revolved around Aaron Rodgers and his ability to go off-script and extend plays for a number of years. The running game has always played second fiddle, as it should with Rodgers at quarterback, but it had been almost nonexistent this year. That was until rookie running back Aaron Jones burst onto the scene with 19 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys in Week 5.

    Now with Rodgers out injured, the Packers offense should shift toward Jones and the run game.

    Jones had another strong performance against the Saints this week. He ran the ball 17 times for 131 yards and a touchdown. He did an excellent job handling multiple types of running schemes with varying tracks and reads. His first carry was an inside zone play where he quickly processed reads from the front side defensive tackle to the back side tackle, cut back and burst through a hole on the back side for a 15 yards.

    Later, the Packers changed from zone to power, called a counter play and pulled the left guard to the right side of the line. Jones showed his patience to allow his blocks to develop before against bursting through the hole and into the open field, past the safeties for a 46-yard touchdown. 

    He also displayed great balance. On an inside gap play in the third quarter, Jones stayed on his track up the middle, but an offensive lineman had failed to work up to the second level to pick up a linebacker, who attacked the gap and met Jones in the hole. But Jones bounced off the tackle attempt, took his run to the edge and turned the corner for a 15-yard pick up.

    With Brett Hundley now in at quarterback, the Packers should look to build on the running game foundation. They have a back in Jones who can run multiple schemes effectively, which isn't as easy as it sounds. This will be a huge asset to assist to Hundley's development over the course of the season and might just help keep the Packers stay competitive in Rodgers' absence.

    —NFL1000 RB Scout Mark Bullock

It's Just the Beginning for Amari Cooper

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    Before Week 7, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper was one of the biggest disappointments in the entire NFL. In his previous five games, Cooper combined for just 84 receiving yards and zero touchdowns. He was a big reason why the Raiders struggled as a team in the first six weeks of the season. 

    However, on Thursday Night Football against the Kansas City Chiefs, Cooper exploded for one of the biggest games of the season by any receiver in the NFL. He racked up 210 receiving yards on 11 catches  with two touchdowns. 

    And his game could have been even bigger if it weren't for a few drops. That has been one of the biggest reasons he has struggled this year. Concentration drops have plagued him throughout his college and NFL career, and his self-confidence and have wavered. His problems seem more mental than physical.

    Coopers' Week 7 performance wasn't a fluke, as the Raiders finally found an effective way to get him involved. In the first six weeks, Cooper played just 15 percent of his routes of the slot, according to Graham Barfield of Fantasy Guru. But in Week 7, Cooper ran 35 percent of his routes from the slot and most of his big plays came from the inside.

    Moving Cooper all over the field allows the Raiders offense to exploit weaknesses. More importantly, it allows Cooper to get involved frequently. Cooper is one of the most talented receivers in the NFL. Expect Week 7 to mark the start of his breakout this year.

    —NFL1000 WR Scout Marcus Mosher

Raiders Offensive Line Keeping Oakland Afloat

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    While the Raiders' season hasn't started off like the team would have liked, the offensive line has lived up to its elite billing so far.

    Though the offense doesn't look the way many anticipated stylistically, the line is still playing well by going to its calling card: pass protection. This unit has arguably been the best pass-blocking group in the league so far this year.

    The hype of Marshawn Lynch coming out of retirement has fallen flat. And while a portion of the blame should go to Lynch, the blocking hasn't been stellar there, especially on the right side. This isn't to say right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Marshall Newhouse are playing poorly though, as they have both done well at keeping Derek Carr clean. 

    The rest of the OL has been terrific. Left tackle Donald Penn, left guard Kelechi Osemele and center Rodney Hudson are all playing at a high level and are winning their matchups consistently in pass protection.

    The unit gives Derek Carr consistently clean pockets, even as Oakland's offense has become more one-dimensional.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young

Sack Race Is Getting Tight

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    Seven weeks into the season, players have begun to separate themselves from the pack. Almost every franchise in the league is currently within a game-and-a-half of a .500 record, but individuals are having standout years.

    This season, the race for the NFL sack title is a tight competition between two defensive ends: Dallas Cowboy Demarcus Lawrence and Jacksonville Jaguar Calais Campbell.

    After posting eight sacks as a 23-year-old in 2015, Lawrence started off his 2016 season with a suspension and stumbled into just a single sack for the year. In a bounce-back effort, he currently has 9.5 sacks (a career high) after six games in seven weeks.

    Campbell, a 31-year-old former 3-4 defensive end with the Arizona Cardinals, has posted ten sacks in seven games. In his previous nine seasons in the NFL with the Cardinals, his career high was nine sacks. Both he and Lawrence are having the seasons of their lifetimes already.

    To say that there isn't much precedent for this level of success in recent seasons would be an understatement. Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks last season with 15.5. Lawrence and Campbell are about three-fifths of the way to Beasley's 2016 mark with ten weeks to go in the season.

    Looking into each player's schedule may give us a hint at who has the edge. One of the best ways to measure the value of an offensive line is to not only look at how often it gives up sacks, but to note how many times it allows tackles of no gain. Rarely does the loss of yardage in the running game lay totally on the shoulders of a running back.

    Based on how often teams were allowing penetration on offense heading into the weekend, we have a clear leader.

    Five of Lawrence's remaining 10 games are against teams that avoid penetration on offense at an above-average level. Playing Washington and Philadelphia twice, along with Atlanta, could hurt Lawrence in this sack race.

    Campbell, on the other hand, only plays two teams (Cleveland and Tennessee) that are preventing penetration at an above-average rate in his remaining nine games. He also gets a rematch against Indianapolis and Houston, whom he has already posted six sacks against in 2017.

    Advantage: Campbell.

    —NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda

Joey Bosa Gets the Headlines, but Melvin Ingram Is an Equal Star in LA

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Melvin Ingram's image continues to be tarnished by injuries from early in his career. Season-ending injuries in 2013 and 2014 put Ingram's rise to power on hold, and fans grew wary of the lack of return on their team's investment. Ingram came back healthy in 2015 and racked up 10.5 sacks, but it never felt like that saved his reputation.

    The Chargers then drafted Joey Bosa in 2016 and Bosa immediately stole Ingram's shine. Bosa, a younger player with a higher profile than Ingram had coming out of college, immediately proved to be a star. Of course, Bosa deserves his applause, but it should not come at the price of forgetting about Ingram.

    Ingram is a lightning strike off the edge. The way Ingram can burst off of the snap and force offensive tackles to expose themselves early is a massive advantage. Once Ingram has sprung tackles into a panic, he can dip his shoulder low to the ground to race around the edge. Ingram's combination of burst and flexibility makes him a menace, even for the best bookends in the league.

    In seven games this season, Ingram has 8.5 sacks. Ingram is firmly entrenched in the race for the sacks crown with other elite pass-rushers such as Calais Campbell, Demarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffen. Given his skill set and history of producing when healthy, there is no reason to assume Ingram will slow down.

    It is no longer acceptable for Ingram to be the afterthought or sidekick in Los Angeles. He is every bit as valuable of a pass-rusher as Bosa, and may be one of the most valuable in the league. Pass-rushers of Ingram's caliber hardly go unheralded the way he has. Cliff Avril and Ryan Kerrigan come to mind as other under-appreciated star pass-rushers, but they are the exception, not the rule. It is time to recognize just how good Melvin Ingram is.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout Derrik Klassen

Bears' Young Secondary Continues to Blossom with Experience

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    The Chicago Bears stayed alive in the NFC playoff picture by claiming victory over the Carolina Panthers in their 17-3 contest on Sunday.

    The 3-4 Bears have won two in a row despite getting little from their offense, largely thanks to their young, blossoming secondary. This week, it was fourth-round rookie Eddie Jackson who was the difference-maker for the Bears.

    Jackson picked up a fumbled option pitch and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown, which not only gave the Bears enough points to win but stifled the Panthers' long drive. Later in the game, veteran cornerback Prince Amukamara deflected a pass meant for receiver Kelvin Benjamin, and Jackson sprinted underneath it. This time, he had to run 76 yards through would-be tacklers for his second defensive touchdown of the game.

    The splash plays were key but shouldn't overshadow the stellar play from the unit as a whole in recent weeks. Kyle Fuller, a 2014 first-rounder, has been excellent this season for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. he has allowed only 10 receptions for 102 yards in man coverage entering this week, per my own charting. Amukamara has also looked more spry than last season in Jacksonville—likely a benefit of getting a full offseason to train without injuries. Strong safety Adrian Amos also seems to be settling in a little more. He notched six tackles this week.

    Fuller and Jackson could represent the future for the unit, considering their impactful play so far. Fuller wasn't even a lock to make the roster this year, but his health has improved and he's fulfilling the expectations set for him as a first-round pick. Jackson, a surprise Day 3 selection from Alabama, is looking like a terrific value for the Bears with his range and nose for the ball.

    Chicago's competition will increase next week as they play the New Orleans Saints. But there's reason for great optimism as the second half of the season nears with these recent picks hitting their strides.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton