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Fantasy Wild Cards: The Christian McCaffrey Conundrum

The Panthers running back enters his second NFL season with high expectations and an even higher average draft position in fantasy football leagues. But given the state of Carolina’s offensive line and the team’s offseason turnover, is he worth a high second-round pick?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Fantasy football is won and lost by players who wildly outperform—or underperform—expectations. Roll the dice on the right player, and you’ll cruise through your league (hello there, Todd Gurley owners!). But put too much stock in a guy who busts, and it’ll be a long wait until next year’s draft (Isaiah Crowell owners: I’m sorry). Welcome to Fantasy Wild Cards, where we’ll examine the players with the biggest boom-or-bust prospects for the upcoming season. Will these players make your fantasy season, or break it?

Last August, The Ringer’s Kevin Clark asked Panthers incoming rookie Christian McCaffrey what type of player he wanted to be.

“A playmaker,” McCaffrey responded. “I would like to line up everywhere on the field and be a mismatch, inside the tackles, outside the tackles, be an elite pass catcher, route runner, everything.

“I want to be able to make plays—big plays.”

That didn’t really happen in McCaffrey’s rookie season. Last year he averaged just 27.2 rushing yards per game on 3.7 yards per carry—good for 35th out of 48 players who had at least 100 rushing attempts—and he had just four rushing attempts that went for more than 15 yards (tied for 45th leaguewide). And while his 651 receiving yards spoke to his versatility and potential, he recorded just 14 receptions of 15-plus yards all season (tied for 59th in the league) with hardly any that would end up on a YouTube highlight reel.

But last week, in the Panthers’ second preseason game of the year, McCaffrey finally had one of those big plays:

In this clip, McCaffrey shoots between the tackles and makes a 71-yard run look like 40 as he flies by the Dolphins defense. That kind of run is everything Panthers fans have been wanting to see out of McCaffrey since he came into the NFL. As soon as he broke through that hole, the hype that had followed him last offseason returned and his average fantasy football draft position rose. McCaffrey currently sits at 17th overall in 12-player standard leagues, up from about 23rd two weeks ago, and his stock is still rising:

But even as McCaffrey shoots up mock draft boards, it’s worth asking: Should you push your chips in on him in the early part of the second round based on his preseason hype? Or should his lackluster rookie year give you pause?

A lot has changed in Carolina already this year, beginning with the team’s offensive coordinator. Mike Shula was fired in early January after another middle-of-the-pack season for an offense that, with Cam Newton and McCaffrey, had higher expectations. Norv Turner took Shula’s place a few days later. Turner has coached some excellent fantasy running backs throughout his 26 years in the NFL—Emmitt Smith, Stephen Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Adrian Peterson—but that doesn’t mean he has been a run-oriented coordinator: His offenses have been in the top half of the league in rushing attempts in 13 of his 26 seasons as an OC or head coach. Still, Turner said this offseason that McCaffrey should expect a heavy workload.

Earlier this month, Turner said it would be “realistic” for McCaffrey to see 25 to 30 touches per game this season. Only one player in NFL history has averaged 30 touches per game over a 16-game season, and that was James Wilder in 1984. So, though Turner is not being realistic here, the sentiment is promising for fantasy owners. The Panthers let Jonathan Stewart, who was 26th in the league with 206 touches last season, walk in free agency and brought in C.J. Anderson, who had more than 1,000 yards rushing with Denver last year. But it seems that it will be McCaffrey, rather than Anderson, who will fill the Stewart void. Anderson himself said Monday that the team has “got to feed” McCaffrey to be successful.

In 2017, McCaffrey ranked 22nd in the league with 222 touches, and even if he and Anderson split Stewart’s missing touches evenly, that would push McCaffrey all the way up to 325—tied with Kareem Hunt for fifth in the league. And there’s reason to believe McCaffrey should claim an even bigger share of those carries, as has already been the case in preseason:

The biggest concern heading into the season is how efficient those carries will be—especially since the Carolina offensive line is already in flux. Andrew Norwell made the All-Pro team last year as one of the best guards in football, but the Panthers let him walk to Jacksonville in March. Even before Norwell’s departure, Carolina ranked 25th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards last season, indicating that they were a poor run-blocking squad. Now Norwell’s replacement, Amini Silatolu, has a torn meniscus and there is no timetable for his return. Brendan Mahon, an undrafted rookie out of Penn State, is slated to start in Silatolu’s place.

Meanwhile, starting left tackle Matt Kalil missed practice on Sunday with an injured right knee and is now also listed as week-to-week. With barely two and a half weeks to go before the start of the regular season, the Panthers have been forced to shuffle and then reshuffle their offensive line—a concern for anyone planning to take McCaffrey in the second round.

Yet there is still plenty of reason to think that McCaffrey’s ADP is perfectly appropriate. Though his 2017 season was a disappointment, he became more productive as the season went on. McCaffrey scored 59.5 fantasy points in his first eight games—24th among running backs in that time frame—and 89.1 in his final eight, which was good for 14th among rushers over that stretch. Overall, McCaffrey finished as the 15th-best running back in traditional fantasy football leagues, and he was top 10 in PPR leagues. That’s right around where his ADP currently sits, and McCaffrey’s 2017 numbers should be his floor for the upcoming year, given that his touches are likely to increase.

McCaffrey may not have been the electrifying, efficient back many envisioned he would become last year. But for fantasy, McCaffrey’s per-play efficiency basis isn’t as important as how many times he’ll touch the ball. What matters is opportunity—and McCaffrey should get plenty of carries and receptions in 2018. It’s an old cliché, but volume really is king in fantasy football, and McCaffrey should have that on his side this season.