Christian McCaffrey Is the Top Running Back in This Year's NFL Draft

With such a strong running back draft class, should Christian McCaffrey be the top running back off the board?

NFL draft analysts have been calling this year's running back class "loaded" for a while now, so being the best within the group is no easy task.

Congratulations, Christian McCaffrey, for being that guy.

Or, maybe I should say, congratulations, Christian McCaffrey, for looking like that guy.

Look, determining how well a particular college football player will translate to the pros is somewhat of a crapshoot. We all know this. That's what makes the draft nearly impossible to beat. But that shouldn't stop any of us from analyzing and trying to figure out who the best players are in the draft.

You know, like Christian McCaffrey-type players.

Top-Notch Production Profile

Top NFL running backs are almost always good at the college level.

Mind. Blown.

I dug into this about a month and a half ago, showing that the college production profiles of "successful" NFL running backs is really, really strong. For instance, the number of rushing yards the successful running back cohort rushed for during their final season in college was 1,330.62 yards. The percentage of rushing attempts these backs saw in their respective backfields (attempt market share) was 47.28%. The average number of rushing touchdowns among the group during their final collegiate year was 13.68.

The list goes on and on.

After using these baseline numbers for successful running backs, I was able to find eight rushers from the incoming class that matched the successful running back criteria. Unsurprisingly, Christian McCaffrey made the cut.

Player Year School Att. MS Ru. Yds MS Rec. MS Rec. Yds MS
Leonard Fournette 2015 Louisiana State 59.41% 63.37% 12.75% 11.69%
Donnel Pumphrey 2016 San Diego State 54.96% 57.95% 17.42% 11.42%
Aaron Jones 2016 Texas-El Paso 56.27% 79.47% 14.36% 10.42%
Matt Dayes 2016 NC State 49.40% 57.44% 12.17% 7.89%
Dalvin Cook 2016 Florida State 55.60% 67.11% 13.52% 14.21%
Jeremy McNichols 2016 Boise State 63.69% 75.35% 14.62% 12.22%
Christian McCaffrey 2016 Stanford 48.47% 59.02% 20.67% 15.08%
Kareem Hunt 2016 Toledo 51.17% 58.19% 14.09% 9.60%

That's the first good sign.

Strong Combine Numbers

Probably one of the biggest knocks on McCaffrey is his size, as he weighed in at just 202 pounds at the NFL combine earlier in the month. He ended up running a 4.48 40-yard dash, though, giving him an above-average Speed Score for the class, which adjusts 40 times for weight.

Outside of the 40, McCaffrey crushed his vertical jump (37.5 inches), 3-cone (6.57 seconds), and 20-yard shuttle (4.22 seconds). And that placed him as the fourth-best athlete at running back, according to Zach Whitman's SPARQ rankings.

Our comparables model doesn't give him a ton of strong matches, especially when you filter to only first- or second-round running backs. Neither does's. And the reason for that could simply be that he's not really like many backs we see coming into the league, let alone highly-productive and highly-touted ones.

But don't be fooled: the man is athletic.

Receiving Matters

For the most part, McCaffrey wins the measurables and production game. Other backs may have a more attractive overall profile, especially if you're looking for an early-down bruiser. In that case, maybe Leonard Fournette is who you'd rank first, or possibly even D'Onta Foreman.

But a huge piece to all of this is that McCaffrey gives you what matters in today's NFL: receiving.

It's safe to assume that McCaffrey is one of the best (without getting into it, he's the best) pass-catching backs in this class. Among the backs, he was first in reception market share, first in receiving yards market share, and second in yards per game (behind Alvin Kamara, who doesn't have close to the rushing profile) this past year.

He's good at catching footballs.

How important is that, though?

In short: very.

We use a metric at numberFire called Net Expected Points (NEP), which tells us the number of points a player is adding or losing for his team across all the plays he's involved. It's a much accurate way of showing the true impact of a player versus traditional statistics. For instance, a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-9 has a lot bigger impact on a game than a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-20. Net Expected Points accounts for that. For more on the metric, check out our glossary.

Net Expected Points is able to show us what's valuable. And what's valuable, undoubtedly, is throwing and catching.

For every drop back in 2016, for example, a random NFL team was averaging 0.12 expected points. That number is up from the -0.01 mark we saw back in 2000.

Meanwhile, for each running back run, a team this past year lost 0.02 points on average. In other words, the difference between an average pass and an average run in 2016 was roughly 0.14 expected points.

This isn't to say that running the football can't work or that teams should never use a ground game. You need a rushing attack to have some semblance of balance offensively, but it certainly shows us that passing is needed and is a big deal in today's NFL.

Let's break this down further and look at a typical running back's contribution on the ground versus through the air over the last five years:

YearRushing NEP per RushTarget NEP per Target

Rushing NEP per rush measures the number of points added with each rush, while Target NEP per target takes the number of points added on all targets (includes things like incompletions and interceptions) and divides it by the number of targets seen. Essentially, it's telling us what happens, on average, with each target.

The table itself does all the talking -- the difference here is staggering.

Again, this doesn't mean that teams should relentlessly feed third-down backs and never call a rushing play again. Instead, our expected points model directs us to the realization that passing and receiving the pigskin is a huge freaking deal at the NFL level.

Why wouldn't we put a premium on that?

Why wouldn't we want Christian McCaffrey?

The Complete Package

Leonard Fournette caught a grand total of 41 balls in 32 games at LSU, and his pass protection needs work as he moves to the league. Dalvin Cook had an awful combine, ranking in the ninth percentile in Whitman's aforementioned SPARQ rankings. And he joins Joe Mixon with off-the-field issues of his own.

McCaffrey doesn't weigh enough.

But considering the league favors pass-catchers more than early-down bruisers, I'm just not sure size is enough reason to think Christian McCaffrey isn't the top running back in this year's class.