Fantasy Football: What to Expect from Christian McCaffrey in 2018
After posting his first 1,000-yard season, C.J. Anderson was rewarded by getting cut by the Denver Broncos this offseason. Such is the cruel life of the underappreciated, undervalued NFL running back.
As the numbers prove out, teams just aren't paying up for elite backs. These days, they are either opting for a committee approach at the position or they're turning to younger, cheaper options in the former of rookie rushers.
The Carolina Panthers just drafted Christian McCaffrey a year ago, so they decided against taking another youngster in this April's draft. McCaffrey was set to benefit in a big way, but it didn't take long for Carolina to add some depth in the backfield, signing the veteran Anderson to a one-year deal.
According to reports, the 27-year-old signed for $1.7 million with roughly $800,000 in extra incentives. It's short-term and team-friendly, but what will Anderson's presence mean for McCaffrey and the fantasy value in the Panthers' running game?
The 2017 Backfield
Aside from Cam Newton, who got his usual share of carries (139), the Carolina backfield was essentially a two-man show between Jonathan Stewart and McCaffrey a year ago. Looking exclusively at the 15 games in which they both played (Stewart missed Week 17 due to a back injury), the Panthers gave their running backs 329 carries. In those games, Stewart received 60% of the running back carries while McCaffrey soaked up a 34% share of his own.
The Panthers didn't draft McCaffrey with a top-10 pick to serve as a backup running back, though. They utilized him where he is most effective, as a receiver out of the backfield. In fact, McCaffrey led the team in targets with 113, good for a 23.0% overall target share in the limited Panthers passing game.
McCaffrey had nearly as many opportunities as a runner (117) as he did as a receiver (113). But, heading into the 2018 offseason, the team planned to utilize the versatile back even more in year two.
Even before the Anderson signing, McCaffrey was almost certain to see fewer targets than he did last year. In 2017, he and Devin Funchess were very much the only shows in town in the receiving game. But with Greg Olsen back from injury, Torrey Smith signed in free agency, and D.J. Moore added in the draft (with Curtis Samuel also coming back from his own injury), there will be more mouths to feed in Carolina.
Of course, McCaffrey will still get his. As we've heard, offensive coordinator Norv Turner wants to get him the ball and has compared him to one Darren Sproles. But he might not receive the same type of wide receiver-like market share as a season ago.
There was also an interesting but subtle role change that occurred as McCaffrey's rookie season unfolded. He received about 14 opportunities per game throughout the course of the season, but he was used more as a receiver in the first half of the season than the second half.
In the first half of the season, McCaffrey averaged 6.1 carries and 8.25 targets per game. In the second half of the season, McCaffrey received 8.5 carries and 5.9 targets per game. This is especially noteworthy considering that the Panthers were without Kelvin Benjamin and Olsen during the second half of the season, so while they were in need of receiving help they instead chose to use McCaffrey more as a traditional running back.
Furthermore, we often see running backs with an increased workload in year two. However, since most backs come into the league as better ball-carriers than precise route runners, this leap has typically come via the receiving game, as we've seen with fantasy assets like Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Ezekiel Elliott.
While Bell and Johnson doubled their receptions from year one to year two, Zeke finished 2017 with 26 catches in the 10 games he played in, averaging 2.6 receptions per game to his 2.1 in 2016. Of the three elite backs above, he was the only one to not double his year one receptions, and that could be a product of external factors, including his suspension and Dak Prescott's regression.
Needless to say, McCaffrey is not like the others, so CMC owners will be hoping for the opposite effect in 2018.
Not Another Reggie Bush
McCaffrey's role in the receiving game does not have much room for expansion, but what about additional carries?
This is a tough question to answer since McCaffrey is such a unique back. Possibly the best comparison is Reggie Bush. Similar to McCaffrey, Bush was taken with a top-10 selection in the draft and was used right away as a receiver, drawing 121 targets as a rookie with the Saints. He received just 9.7 attempts per game, however, as he struggled with per-carry efficiency (3.6 YPC), just as McCaffrey did as a rookie.
In his second season, Bush took on an additional three-plus (13.1) carries per game while still drawing 8.2 targets per game. Considering that the Panthers did not prioritize finding a compliment to McCaffrey by staying pat through the initial wave of free agency and the draft, instead opting to pick up Anderson on the cheap, it is reasonable to expect McCaffrey to shoulder a heavier workload in Year 2 as well.
Plus, unlike Bush, McCaffrey has demonstrated the ability to take on a large workload in college. Bush never received more than 240 total touches in a season in college, while McCaffrey eclipsed 250 carries in both his sophomore and junior seasons as a Stanford Cardinal.
If you're concerned that McCaffrey was too inefficient for the Panthers to consider expanding their role, JJ Zachariason has explained that McCaffrey was, in fact, better than you think he was last year.
This plot shows Rushing Net Expected Points per rush (x-axis, a measure of efficiency) versus Success Rate (y-axis, percentage of positive EP runs) among 100-plus attempt rushers. I've highlighted McCaffrey and J-Stew -- CMC had a decent Success Rate last year. pic.twitter.com/m0S6girl7e
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) May 8, 2018
McCaffrey's excellent prospect profile (81st-percentile College YPC and 98th-percentile College Dominator) should also encourage you to look past a single year of inefficiency.
All the factors -- the comparison Bush, the shift in workload in 2017, the Panthers' lack of urgency in free agency, and the natural leap from year one to year two -- point to a larger workload for McCaffrey in 2018. While some may assume that Anderson will simply walk into the 200 carries Stewart once occupied, this does not appear to be the case.
A more realistic split in the Carolina backfield is demonstrated by ESPN's Mike Clay.
Updated 2018 Panthers running back projections with C.J. Anderson now in the mix. pic.twitter.com/yIwqxAdSdI
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) May 7, 2018
With McCaffrey getting an uptick in carries but still soaking up just about all of the running back targets, Anderson will likely receive about 150 rushing attempts but not much else.
Don't be scared off. Keep targeting McCaffrey in the second round, and do it with confidence.