When I planned to write this piece last week, the idea of drafting Christian McCaffrey at #20 was a bit more provocative. Since then, his stellar combine makes this a bit more mainstream.
For those not quite on the bandwagon, here are some reasons why McCaffrey makes perfect sense for Denver in the first round.
Let’s start with the combine.
McCaffrey put on an absolute show this weekend in Indianapolis. He tested at the top of the charts in most of the athletic drills, while also looking very smooth during both the running and passing drills.
In the RB drills section of the Combine workout Christian McCaffrey was the best in my opinion. @nflnetwork— Charley Casserly (@CharleyCasserly) March 3, 2017
Not only did he clock in one of the top 40 yard dash times for a running back this year, his 3-cone time, which is a test of agility, was the 2nd fastest time for a RB since 2003.
He showed he belonged in the conversation with the top backs at the combine.
When you talk about a first round draft pick, you want a guy that contributes both a high level of snaps, and contributes them right away. There’s obviously exceptions, but that’s the hope for every first round pick.
With McCaffrey, you get contributions at three major positions, that all happen to be positions of need for Denver. The Broncos have needed a slot receiver since Wes Welker left, and they’ve needed a returner since Trindon Holliday left. Christian fills both of those needs while also providing a great option to catch or run out of the backfield.
The biggest concern about or knock against McCaffrey is people wondering if he can be an every down back in the NFL. The right question is “can he be an every-down player” and the answer to that is a resounding “yes”.
At the combine this week, draft guru Mike Mayock, called him a “chess piece” and “matchup player”.
That’s the new NFL. It’s all about exploiting matchups. Look at both teams that made it to the Super Bowl this year. Both Atlanta and New England had backs that caused major matchup problems not only running, but catching the football.
Look at what James White did with New England in the Super Bowl: set a record for most points with three touchdowns and a two-point conversion, and set a record for most catches with 14, gaining a game high 110 yards.
While people might scoff at the idea of drafting a mere “scatback” so high, do you think that kind of production is worth a first round pick? Because that’s the kind of impact McCaffrey could have in a game as well if utilized properly.
Now, under a Gary Kubiak offense, I wouldn’t touch McCaffrey, but with Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator, I think there is some exciting potential for McCaffrey in this offense.
David Shaw, the Head Coach at Stanford sat down with Peter King on the MMQB podcast last year for a great interview. I walked away from listening to that interview wanting to A) hire David Shaw, and B) draft Christian McCaffrey. The whole thing is worth a listen, but I’ll pull a few relevant quotes in here from him.
One of the biggest things they talked about with Christian was the sheer numbers he put up while in college. Not only did he break Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yardage record, but the next year he led the nation in total yards without much kick or punt return yardage, because no one would kick to him.
McCaffrey was one of the most decorated college athletes during his time at Stanford and, in David Shaw’s opinion, will go down as one of the top ten greatest college football players of all time.
Christian McCaffrey is unreal pic.twitter.com/C9njsyUT8v— Athlete Motivation™ (@MotiveAthletes) March 3, 2017
Feature Back Potential
I want to touch on this topic a little more. Most people’s argument against drafting McCaffrey in the first round is that it is too high for a “change-of-pace” type back. However, I believe McCaffrey could absolutely be a featured back in an offense. Now there are obviously some qualifiers and a lot of it would depend on the offense. He will not be an Ezekiel Elliot, 300 carry guy, but his size and measurables are pretty comparable to some other #1 running backs.
In his interview, David Shaw compared him to LeSean McCoy as they are the same size with roughly the same speed and athleticism. McCoy has had a great NFL career so far as a featured back in his offense.
Another comparison is Jamaal Charles. Bronco fans for sure know how dangerous he is. While Charles has struggled with health as he’s aged, he was absolutely a featured back in the Chief’s offense.
Now featuring McCaffrey might look different because of all the other things he can do that we already mentioned. A team would be stupid to line him up in the I-formation and handoff to him 30 times a game like you would Adrian Peterson.
But, again, in the right offense, McCaffrey could definitely be a featured running back, just like McCoy and Charles.
Off the Field
This term has become synonymous with trouble and the dreaded “character concern” label. In a running back class littered with character concerns, what McCaffrey brings off the field is almost as important as his performances on the field.
Elway likes to get guys that eat, sleep, and breath football. That was one of the big positives from Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams when they were drafted, that they were hard workers who loved to play the game. Christian is one of those guys.
Sports Illustrated recounts a story from Christian’s freshman year at Stanford.
Last winter McCaffrey went undefeated in the 6 a.m. training competitions, from the obstacle course to the 10-yard fight. Strength coach Shannon Turley tries to break all prized recruits over the course of their first year with a series of grueling tests, including a VersaClimber death march. McCaffrey was the first player Turley couldn't rattle. "He basically had a Navy SEAL sniper response," the coach says. Turley now designs a special workout just for him.
Another anecdote they shared shows just how dedicated he is to his craft.
As a true sophomore, he gained 3,864 all-purpose yards, breaking the NCAA mark of Barry Sanders, whose posters adorned his childhood wall. Because McCaffrey is a perfectionist, however, when he came out in the fourth quarter after a seven-yard reception, he was pissed because he hadn't slipped one last tackle. Cardinal coach David Shaw wrapped an arm around him. "You just broke two Rose Bowl records," Shaw said. "You're going to stand here and enjoy it."
There are many more gems like this in that article linked above, an in depth look at McCaffrey off the field. While reading that, you can see a Peyton Manning-esque manic work ethic and devotion to the game.
Traditionally, Stanford's leader has been a senior or a quarterback. Now, for the first time in memory, a sophomore running back is in charge. "He is a manifestation of everything you preach as a coach," Shaw says. "It makes it easy for me. I just say, 'Do it like him.'" McCaffrey has already won the locker room. Last year he became the first underclassman chosen to carry the flag onto the field for games. He's currently leading voluntary spring workouts.
That’s the kind of player I want on my football team, if I’m John Elway.
Is he worth a first round pick?
So the question remains: is he worth a first round pick? I think to answer this you have to throw out all the preconceived notions about what positions you can and can’t pick in the first round, and ask yourself: is he a special talent and will he succeed in the NFL?
I have no doubt the answer to those two questions are yes, and those are the kinds of players you spend first round picks on.
One thing is certain to me after digging into his game: Christian McCaffrey will be a star somewhere. I hope it’s in Denver.