Fantasy Football: Why Christian McCaffrey May Not Reach His Ceiling in 2019

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the NFL’s few bell-cow players.

It's not even a debate anymore.

Last season, McCaffrey ranked first in snaps, 10th in carries, first in targets, and third in total touches among all running backs. His 966 snaps and 124 targets were both the second-most by a running back in the last 15 years behind only Matt Forte's marks in 2014. McCaffrey will likely play fewer snaps in 2019 for the Panthers but isn’t expected to see a decrease in usage.

In addition to the elite volume, McCaffrey was also extremely efficient with the workload he received in 2018.

McCaffrey ranked third in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry, seventh in Reception NEP per target, and second in Total NEP per touch among qualified running backs. NEP indicates expected points added to a team's anticipated point total.

Additionally, McCaffrey ranked top-10 in PFF’s elusiveness grade, breakaway percentage, and overall positional grade among qualified running backs. His 6.0 yards per touch ranked seventh among all running backs.

As a result of his monster workload and superior efficiency, McCaffrey finished as fantasy’s RB2 in PPR leagues and RB3 in non-PPR leagues. He likely would have finished as the top PPR fantasy running back if he’d played more than just 10 snaps in the season finale against the Saints.

McCaffrey, then, enters 2019 as a game script-proof workhorse with one of the highest floors in fantasy. He is almost a sure bet to be a top-five fantasy running back. There is only one foreseeable factor that would prohibit McCaffrey from an RB1 finish in 2019.

His name is Cam Newton.

The Cam Newton Effect

As noted above, McCaffrey had one of the largest workloads in the NFL last season. He was especially productive in the second half of the season. From Weeks 1 through 7, McCaffrey averaged 18.5 fantasy points per game and was the RB10. From Weeks 8 through 17, he averaged 27.5 fantasy points per game and was the RB1.

McCaffrey’s second-half surge was not by coincidence. After Week 7, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton appeared on the injury report as a limited participant with a right shoulder injury.

The next week, backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke was substituted into the game to attempt a Hail Mary -- instead of Newton. Newton was eventually shut down and did not play the final two games, and the Panthers finished the season 1-7.

Newton’s shoulder injury was a mystery for much of the season, but what wasn’t a mystery is the effect that it had on Newton and McCaffrey’s production. Each player played significantly differently after Newton first appeared on the injury report.

Newton clearly wasn’t able to throw downfield after his shoulder injury. Per Sports Info Solutions, Newton’s completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown-interception ratio on throws of 15-plus yards drastically worsened. His 9.1 yards per attempt on passes traveling at least 16 yards down field ranked 29th among 31 passers with at least 50 such attempts in 2018, and he had more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5) on deep throws.

Even more importantly (for the purposes of this article), his rushing production also took a hit.

From Weeks 1 through 7, Newton averaged 8.7 rushes and 0.5 rushing touchdowns per game. He posted a 0.41 Rushing NEP per carry and a 62.2% Rushing Success Rate, the percentage of carries that increased expected points for the Panthers.

The rest of the season, he averaged 6.1 rushes and 0.1 rushing touchdowns per game. His per-carry Rushing NEP fell to 0.21, and his Rushing Success Rate dropped, as well, to 51.1%. His team rushing share in the red zone decreased from 38% to 13% in this split.

Through the first seven weeks of the season, McCaffrey averaged 13.0 rushes and didn't score on the ground. His per-carry Rushing NEP (after factoring out fumbles) was 0.08, and his Rushing Success Rate was 39.0%. These compare to the league-average of 0.00 and 41.2%, respectively.

The rest of the season, McCaffrey averaged 17.6 rushes and 0.9 rushing touchdowns per game. His team rushing share in the red zone increased from 38% to 64%. In the process, his Rushing NEP per carry bumped up to a sterling 0.17, and his Rushing Success Rate became 50.4%.

McCaffrey was more heavily utilized in every aspect of the game after Week 7, not just rushing. His numbers increased in literally every single running back statistic. But his red zone splits were certainly the largest difference.

In Weeks 1 through 7, McCaffrey ranked just 33rd in red zone carries and 31st in carries within the five-yard line. The rest of the season, he ranked second and first in those respective categories.

This may be the most important statistic from McCaffrey’s 2018 season, as red zone production is one of -- if not -- the most important indicators of fantasy football success. Last year, the top four fantasy running backs were also the top four leaders in red zone carries. The number-one fantasy running back has ranked top-three in red zone carries and carries within the five-yard line each of the past three years and top-10 in both categories each of the past nine years.

McCaffrey saw more red zone opportunities and, consequently, more fantasy success, as a direct result of Newton’s shoulder injury.

In his career, Newton has averaged 25.3 red zone carries and 6.8 carries within the five-yard line. Last season, through Week 7, he was on pace for 21.3 red zone carries and 8.0 carries within the five-yard line. He ended the season with just 16 red zone carries and 3 carries within the five-yard line.

Newton averaged 2.7 scrambles per game through Week 8, a mark that dropped to 1.1 afterward, per ProFootballFocus.

Maybe Newton dialed back his rushing last season on his own. Maybe it was a direct order from offensive coordinator Norv Turner or head coach Ron Rivera. It’s unclear how much of Newton’s rushing decline was his own decision and what his 2019 workload will look like. But while it wouldn’t be a surprise if Newton runs less often than he has in his career thus far, it would be a mistake to assume that his workload on the ground will be drastically different.

Since entering the league in 2011, Newton has received 31% of team carries both in the red zone and within the five-yard line. He has ranked top-three in rushing attempts by a quarterback every year of his career. He has the most rushing touchdowns and the third-most rushing yards by a quarterback in NFL history.

Don’t mistake it: Cam Newton can and will run the rock.

2019 Outlook

McCaffrey holds the two cards that matter most in fantasy football: opportunity and efficiency with that opportunity.

His role as a three-down back in a good offense behind a strong offensive line makes him possibly the safest pick in fantasy drafts, and he's the RB2 in numberFire's projections.

However, as you're reading this, Cam Newton is in a telephone booth changing into his Superman costume.

Newton's rushing dominance -- and his personal affinity for giving touchdown balls to young fans in the stands -- is likely the only thing standing in the way of a Christian McCaffrey overall RB1 finish in 2019.