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Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

Mini-Editorials

Where does Christian McCaffrey rank among active NFL running backs?

Christian McCaffrey was one of the most productive running backs in the NFL last season. Yet, he didn’t even receive a Pro Bowl invite. Fantasy football players in PPR leagues know McCaffrey’s value. However, everyday fans do not give McCaffrey the respect he deserves. The Carolina Panthers’ running back stacks up well in the running back hierarchy.

Let’s start with rushing stats from the 2018 season. McCaffrey finished sixth in the NFL in rushing with 1,098 yards. Nine backs reached the 1,000-yard mark last season. Among those players, McCaffrey’s 5.0 yards per attempt tied for second. Only Phillip Lindsay had a better average (5.4). McCaffrey’s 219 attempts were the tenth-most by a back in 2018. However, his 13.7 attempts per game ranked 17th among runners with at least 100 carries. He averaged 68.6 rushing yards per game, the 13th-most among runners with at least 50 attempts. McCaffrey also ran for seven touchdowns.

McCaffrey separates himself from other running backs with his receiving ability. He caught 107 passes for 867 yards and six touchdowns last season. That’s more receptions than Antonio Brown, more yards than Julian Edelman, and more touchdowns than Brandin Cooks. In 2018, no running back had more receptions or receiving yards than McCaffrey. The Panthers’ back now holds the record for the most receptions by a running back in a single season.

In 2018, McCaffrey finished third in yards from scrimmage with 1,965. Only Saquon Barkley (2,028) and Ezekiel Elliott (2,001) finished with higher totals. Pro Football Focus (PFF) named Barkley as a First Team All-Pro. The Associated Press (AP) named Elliott as a Second Team All-Pro. McCaffrey made AP and PFF All-Pro teams. Both outlets named him a Second Team All-Pro. No other running back received that honor from both outlets.

So, where does McCaffrey rank among his peers? We could look at NFL Network’s The Top 100 Players of 2019. On the list, which is voted on by the players, McCaffrey ranks 42nd. He’s the sixth-highest ranked running back, which is almost accurate. Almost.

The five running backs ahead of McCaffrey from highest to lowest are Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Barkley, Elliott, and Melvin Gordon. While I might disagree with the order, I can’t argue against the first four backs ranking above McCaffrey.

I think the Gordon ranking is vulnerable, but after looking at the numbers, I can’t argue with that either. Gordon played in 12 games last season. He averaged 73.8 rushing and 40.8 receiving yards per game. He finished his shortened season with 14 total touchdowns and a 6.1 yards per touch average. Gordon ran for 5.1 yards per carry, racked up 7.4 yards per target, and went for 9.8 yards per reception. He also fumbled just once.

In comparison, McCaffrey’s only advantages come in receptions per game and receiving yards per game. He was also healthy the whole season, something Gordon has struggled with in the past. However, Gordon still finished the year with more touchdowns than McCaffrey, who fumbled four times.

If you just look at the averages, Gordon had the better season. However, you can’t contribute on the bench. Even though he’s 10 pounds lighter than Gordon, McCaffrey was able to stay healthy for all of 2018. In my book, that means he had a better season. As for who is better, I’m going with McCaffrey. He’s healthier and possesses a more rounded overall game.

A lot of things can change in 2019, but McCaffrey is the sixth-best running back heading into 2019. Even though he took a year off, Le’Veon Bell is still one of those top-tier backs. Putting him ahead of McCaffrey slides the Panthers’ star back to sixth.

While I look forward to seeing if McCaffrey can move up the rankings, he has to watch his own feet. Other backs are climbing the mountain. While Nick Chubb and Joe Mixon are less versatile, they’re both hard runners who will be playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2019. We’re all still waiting on a David Johnson comeback as well. As much as I don’t agree with his off -field actions, Kareem Hunt is also a talented running back who will try to reclaim his rushing crown over the next few seasons.

McCaffrey has quickly risen through the running back rankings. Now, he has to prove he can maintain his All-Pro production.