Don't Be Alarmed By Christian McCaffrey's Slow Start
It’s been a great two weeks for rookie running backs in the NFL, but not all the production is coming from the places that were expected.
The two best rookie runners by Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry so far this season are fourth-round pick Tarik Cohen and third-round pick Kareem Hunt. Second-round pick Dalvin Cook is close behind, ranked seventh.
Then there’s Christian McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick, who is part of a currently struggling Carolina Panthers offense. Big things were expected for McCaffrey in Carolina as part of a shift to a more modern, fast-paced offense. There was even talk of plays specifically designed to feature McCaffrey and his strengths.
Through two weeks, though, there hasn’t been an immediate return like the other backs, at least on the ground.
Running to Stand Still
McCaffrey’s role thus far has been less of an “offensive weapon” than originally thought.
He’s mostly played like a traditional running back in a sense that he’s lined up there most of the time. He's really struggled to get going on the ground, too -- among 54 running backs with at least 10 rushing attempts, McCaffrey ranks 48th in Rushing NEP per carry (-0.24). However, his 38.10% Rushing Success Rate (the percentage of runs that positively impact NEP) is much higher at 27th.
Part of this is due to an offensive line that hasn’t created many holes for McCaffrey to find space. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, only five other backs with at least 15 carries spend a longer average time behind the line of scrimmage on a running play. He's also averaged 6.54 yards run for each positive yard gained, with only three rushers traveling more yards than him for positive gains. That’s a lot of movement behind the line of scrimmage.
However, 14 of his 21 rushing attempts have been between the tackles, per Sharp Football Stats, so it’s not like these are long developing outside runs -- though his single most frequent running lane is outside of the left tackle.
This isn’t just a unique problem for McCaffrey in Carolina -- Jonathan Stewart has seen similar issues. The veteran has more attempts (33), and while his Rushing NEP per carry is better (-0.12), it’s still well below average.
Stewart is also seeing similar struggles getting to the line of scrimmage. He's one of the backs averaging more time behind the line than McCaffrey and is just barely more efficient (5.52 yards run per positive yard gained). The running styles of these two backs would never be described as similar, and Stewart has spent even more time between the tackles (25 of his 33 rushing attempts).
Both backs have needed to break tackles in order to create yards this season. Stewart already has 12, per Football Outsiders charting, which is tied for fourth most in the league. McCaffrey has nine -- five on runs and four on receptions -- which accounts for 30 percent of his offensive touches. One of McCaffrey’s strengths is his ability to make defenders miss in space, so while that 30 percent rate is still fourth among 20 players with at least 30 touches, he might need to force a few more to the ground to really get going.
Building on a Strength
While the ground game is a little slow to get going, there’s really no reason to expect the struggles to be a long-term concern, especially when considering the production McCaffrey has already displayed in the passing game.
He's tied for the seventh-most targets among running backs (12), second among all backs in Reception NEP, and eighth among 37 backs with at least five targets in Reception NEP per target. This is also the part of his game that’s barely scraping the surface. Much of McCaffrey’s passing-game production has come out of the backfield, though he can be used on the outside and in the slot. Perhaps that changes more now with the loss of Greg Olsen as Cam Newton’s go-to option.
Newton has also looked a little rusty with his timing in the offense, which is understandable considering he did not play in the preseason. With more time playing together, the chemistry should build, and plays like the pass in the end zone against the Buffalo Bills will turn from a bad incompletion to a touchdown.
There’s still some work to be done on McCaffrey’s game, but that can be said about the Carolina offense as a whole. The Panthers currently rank 19th in Adjusted NEP per play on offense and that unit is being carried by another that ranks first in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
If the offense starts clicking, Carolina could be a dangerous team, and Christian McCaffrey will play a big role in much of that danger.