Christian McCaffrey Has Become an NFL Superstar Before Our Eyes

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 27, 2018

Carolina Panthers' Christian McCaffrey (22) runs for a long gain past Seattle Seahawks' Shaquill Griffin (26) and Barkevious Mingo (51) during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Mike McCarn/Associated Press

The Carolina Panthers lost their third consecutive game on Sunday, which makes it hard to celebrate the undeniable reality that their best young player had a coming-out party in the process.

For those in Carolina seeking a silver lining or those not concerned with the fate of the Panthers but excited by emerging NFL stars, let it be known that second-year Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey became a superstar this weekend. 

By rushing for 125 yards and a score and catching 11 passes for 112 yards and another touchdown, the 2017 No. 8 overall pick out of Stanford became the first player this season to compile more than 225 yards from scrimmage and score multiple touchdowns in a single game. He's also the first player this year to hit the 100-yard mark as both a rusher and a receiver in the same game, and he became just the second running back in the last decade to catch every pass thrown his way on more than 10 targets. 

ProFootballReference @pfref

Christian McCaffrey is the first player since Arian Foster in 2011 (and the youngest in our DB) to have 100 rush yards, a rush TD, 100 receiving yards and a receiving TD https://t.co/B5NZtdGCFV https://t.co/o2B6uO4hBw

"He's a great running back," Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said of McCaffrey following that performance, per Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times. "You see the things he does. He did a lot of things in the run game, a lot of things in the pass game. We have some things we have to clean up, but that doesn't take away from how well he ran the ball."

But that wasn't an anomaly. It was McCaffrey's fourth consecutive 100-plus-yard performance from scrimmage, and nine of his 10 touchdowns have come in the last five weeks (despite the fact that the Panthers are just 2-3 during that stretch). And during Carolina's three-game losing streak he's averaged 5.8 yards per carry, which ranks second to only Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers among backs with more than 40 attempts within that stretch. 

Josh Norris @JoshNorris

Christian McCaffrey in 2018 Games 1-6: 1 Touchdown Games 7-12: 9 Touchdowns

Still only 22 years old, McCaffrey ranks fourth in the league in scrimmage yards, he leads all backs with 608 receiving yards, and he's one of a dozen NFL players with 10 or more touchdowns. 

Dude catches everything. His reception rate of 86.6 is on pace to be the third-highest this century among players targeted at least 80 times, but 27 percent of his uncaught passes this season came in Week 1. Since then, he's pulled in 65 of the 73 throws in his direction. 

And now, he has a decent shot at becoming the first player this century to go over 1,000 yards as both a rusher and a receiver in the same season. He's on pace for 1,100 rushing yards and 884 receiving yards, but he averaged 77 receiving yards per game in November. If he maintains that, he'll come close. 

FantasyFactor @FantasyFactor

It's time the world recognizes @run__cmc as one the leagues most talented offensive players 🤔 Christian McCaffrey is the first player in @Panthers history 100+ receiving yards and 100+ rushing yards in the same game. #nfl @nfl #CARvsSEA #SEAvsCAR #fantasysports #DFS https://t.co/XfUk9nNKyq

It's unfortunate that the Panthers have hit a skid just as McCaffrey has taken off, but it's hard to imagine them continuing to lose if he keeps lighting up defenses. And there's little reason to expect him to cool off. Just look at Carolina's remaining schedule. 

Week 13: They'll face a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that ranks 27th in the league against the pass and gave up 157 yards on 22 McCaffrey touches in Week 9. 

Week 14: They go up against the Cleveland Browns' 28th-ranked run defense, which has surrendered 140-plus scrimmage yards to an opposing back on six different occasions this season. 

Week 15: They'll take on a New Orleans Saints defense that through 11 weeks had the league's third-worst DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in coverage against running backs, according to Football Outsiders

Week 16: They meet an Atlanta Falcons defense that also ranked in the bottom seven in that category entering Week 12. Atlanta's run defense has surrendered 5.1 yards per rushing attempt, which is the third-worst mark in the NFL, and McCaffrey had 139 scrimmage yards on 22 touches against that D in Week 2. 

Week 17: Saints again!

So this could be a wildly special season for McCaffrey, which shows how far he's come. He struggled often as a rookie, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry while proving to be a liability as a blocker. And that made sense, considering that he was the youngest regular offensive starter in football and that he lacked an ideal running back frame at 5'11", 202 pounds. 

But he gained some weight in his first full offseason and looked jacked when he reported to training camp, seemingly determined to prove he could hold it down as more than just a finesse back who runs wheel routes all day.

So far, so good. 

"He's obviously not just a receiving back," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said of him in September, per ESPN.com's David Newton. "He's a total running back."


Christian McCaffrey with the HURDLE 😤 📺: FOX #TBvsCAR https://t.co/Ykpp5hY5SY

On average, 12 percent of carries result in lost yardage, and McCaffrey lost yardage on 11 percent of his carries as a rookie. But this year, that rate is just 7 percent (a lower mark than both of the league's top two rushers, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley). And in November, his lost-yardage average was just 5 percent. 

Earlier this season, Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle cited McCaffrey's shockingly superb 4.4 yards-per-attempt average on career runs between the tackles while making the argument that despite his lack of size, the former Heisman Trophy runner-up "is answering the league's call for a modern, every-down bell-cow in the backfield."

He also hasn't been penalized since he was called for a chop block in his second career game, and his blocking has improved immensely, which has caused first-year offensive coordinator Norv Turner to entrust him in all realms.

That's why McCaffrey has been on the field for 671 snaps, which is more than any other running back in the NFL.

Now, that could always change. He had an uncharacteristic three fumbles against Seattle, but he had just three career fumbles prior to Sunday, and none of the three against the Seahawks resulted in turnovers. He has two career turnovers—one in his first game as a pro and the other in his first game as a sophomore—so Panthers fans and McCaffrey fantasy owners can hope that Sunday's fumble spree was an aberration. 

Regardless, Turner is having a field day with McCaffrey as a rusher, a versatile receiver and even a pass-blocker in his misdirection-heavy offense, enabling him to join Newton as a fantasy stud.

"McCaffrey now ranks behind only Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara in fantasy points, averaging 24.1 per game," wrote PFF's Scott Barrett on Monday. "Astoundingly he ranks ninth in rushing yards (757, just three yards shy of seventh place) and would rank 18th among all wide receivers in receiving fantasy points. He's also been one of the league's most consistent fantasy options, finishing as an RB2 or better in all 11 games."

It's scary to think how much room McCaffrey has to grow. And as that happens, the Panthers just might get to a point at which losing streaks like these are ancient history. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.