Uh-Oh, Christian McCaffrey Could Be a Bust

Jul 10, 2017
Uh-Oh, Christian McCaffrey Could Be a Bust

Christian McCaffrey could very well be a fantasy bust, which runs contrary to most of the assessments I've read on him and incumbent Jonathan Stewart, such as:

  • “He could be special, especially in a PPR league.”
  • “Like Fournette, you can assume McCaffrey will be featured heavily in the offense…”
  • Christian McCaffrey, Ty Montgomery and Bilal Powell are potential breakthrough picks in PPR in 2017.”
  • “...expect McCaffrey to have a major impact in his NFL rookie season as a back whose true fantasy value is in PPR leagues."
  • “...Jonathan Stewart in the ninth round...someone who I probably wouldn’t draft at this point... it’s hard to find a role for him.”

Are those outcomes possible for the rookie all-purpose back out of Stanford? Sure. If you’re looking for a piping hot take, you won’t find it here. Go turn on Stephen A. Smith or Skip Bayless instead. On second thought, I also read this last week from the Panthers' official site:

“Everyone from head coach Ron Rivera to running backs coach Jim Skipper has insisted that Stewart’s role will not change. And Stewart himself has made it clear he’s not at all concerned. The punishing 240-pound runner will continue to see the bulk of the carries.”

It should be noted that writers working for most official team sites are only allowed to take the coach’s word at face value. (Trust me, I know; I was once one of them. The team's head coach even told me he did not want me asking him questions in press conferences. I don't know if he was nervous I’d ask him something he couldn’t answer, or what.)

But I digress. After what I read above, I wanted the actual quote from Rivera and Skipper on this one.

"It doesn't change Jonathan's role," said Rivera in June. "We're going to do what we do. (McCaffrey) is a young man who can come in and supplant some of those reps. He's a dynamic player that can do some things Jonathan doesn't do."

"Do what we do"? "Supplant some of those reps"? Hmm.

“With DeAngelo and Stew it was the same type of the thing,” said Skipper in June. “They balled.”

That might be music to Panthers' fans ears, but DeAngelo Williams and Stewart in the same sentence is a nightmare in the minds of the fantasy football community.

All of this means it’s vital to take stock of how Rivera has utilized his backfield in the past for clues as to how it could potentially impact McCaffrey before investing a third- or fourth-round pick in him.

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What if the Panthers Are Telling the Truth?

Here’s what the split between RB1 and RB2 has looked like under Rivera in Carolina:

Panthers RB1 vs. RB2 Touches (Ron Rivera era)
Year Total RB Touches RB1 Touches RB1 Touch % RB2 Touches RB2 Touch % RB2 Touches Per Game
2011 371 189 50.9 171 46.1 10.7
2012 380 186 48.9 110 28.9 12.2
2013 418 227 54.3 134 32.1 9.2
2014 404 200 49.5 67 16.6 11.1
2015 425 258 60.7 80 18.8 5.0
2016 390 226 57.9 90 23.1 5.6

For the past two years, the Panthers' RB2 hasn't been able to crack six touches per game. Obviously, if Rivera is telling the truth this offseason, it could be a disaster for McCaffrey’s fantasy value.

If McCaffrey averages the median number of touches for a RB2 in the Rivera era, he would be at 10.9 per game. For perspective, Ty Montgomery averaged 10.8 per game after he took over in Green Bay in Week 6, so fantasy production is possible in PPR leagues with that level of touches, but receptions will be key (Montgomery caught 44 passes in 11 relevant games).

Assuming Stewart is indeed the Panthers' RB1, I'm skeptical of him taking on any additional workload based on his age and heavy workload in the previous two seasons.

Panthers RB1 Production (Ron Rivera Era)
Year RB1 Games Touches Touches Per Game RB1 Touch % PPR FP/G
2011 DeAngelo Williams 16 189 11.8 51% 10.1
2012 DeAngelo Williams 16 186 11.6 49% 9.5
2013 DeAngelo Williams 15 227 15.1 54% 11.4
2014 Jonathan Stewart 13 200 15.4 50% 11.8
2015 Jonathan Stewart 13 258 19.8 61% 12.9
2016 Jonathan Stewart 13 226 17.4 58% 11.6

Stewart has topped 17 touches per game in each of the past two seasons. That’s already a hefty workload for a back that hasn’t played in a full season since 2011 (when he averaged 10.7 touches per game). Stewart missed three games last season and three in the season prior while getting the two largest workloads in the Rivera era. Perhaps it's nothing more than an educated guess, but I can’t see Rivera asking Stewart to handle more touches than he already has.

How Much Will Cam Newton Run?

In reality, Cam Newton has been the Panthers RB2 for most of the Rivera era. Newton rushed 188 more times over the past five years than Carolina’s second-leading rusher. That’s ridiculous to see from a quarterback in this modern age of pass-happy football -- the Panthers essentially run a variation of the old single-wing formation.

However, you might remember Newton getting banged up last year, followed by talk of Carolina aiming to use him less as a runner. Sure enough, he dipped to a career-low in rushes per game, losing more than two off his average from the season prior:

Cam Newton Rushing Volume
Year Games Rushes Rushes Per Game
2011 16 126 7.88
2012 16 127 7.94
2013 16 111 6.94
2014 14 103 7.36
2015 16 132 8.25
2016 15 90 6.00

Newton averaged 7.1 rushes last year in his first eight games, but only 4.7 in his last seven. If that carries over to 2017, it would potentially open up 2-3 rushes per game that could go to McCaffrey.

What if McCaffrey is the RB1?

Panthers RB1s in the Rivera era have averaged 11.2 PPR PPG. Extrapolated over 16 games, that would have been good enough to finish as RB22 in 2016 and RB20 in 2015. The most PPR PPG a Panthers RB1 has ever averaged in the Rivera era is 12.9. For context, Todd Gurley averaged 12.8 over 16 games last season as the RB15. In 2015, that number would have been slightly ahead of Darren McFadden's RB13 finish.

What is the Fantasy Value of McCaffrey and Stewart?

  • McCaffrey’s ADP as of July 2 is 3.11 overall, and he's going as the 15th RB off the board. Rivera's history suggests that McCaffrey’s price is pretty close to the ceiling for a Carolina RB1.

  • If the Panthers are telling the truth about Stewart still being the RB1, McCaffrey will need a '16 Montgomery-type season to return value in PPR leagues (and you can probably forget about him returning value in standard leagues).

  • If the Panthers are telling the truth about Stewart still being the RB1, his sub-ninth-round ADP makes him a bonafide sleeper. One thing to keep in mind, however, is Stewart’s weekly inconsistency: he had nine weeks with less than seven PPR points last season. This makes Stewart an ideal best-ball pick.

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