Despite shredding the record books as one of the most explosive all-around playmakers in college football history, Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey's draft stock is volatile.
As a versatile playmaker with a dynamic game and a sterling career resume, McCaffrey is revered by some coaches and scouts. In their minds, he's a game changer with the kind of big-play ability that energizes the offense whenever he steps onto the field. Although they might have some concerns about his ability to carry the load as a full-time starter, they point to his 731 career touches (rushing attempts/receptions) over a three-year career (25 starts) as a testament to his durability, toughness and stamina as an RB1. They also suggest that his 19 career games with 20-plus rushing attempts suggest that he is more than capable of toting the rock as a feature back at the next level.
On the other hand, McCaffrey's critics question whether the 6-foot, 205-pound playmaker is anything more than a change-of-pace back at the next level. They view him as a third-down weapon capable of making his impact as a receiver/returner in certain systems. Although those skeptics appreciate his versatility and playmaking potential, they see him as a niche player who needs to be in the right system to be a difference maker as a pro. While most players are viewed in that light, the devaluation of the running back position makes it hard for some evaluators to slap a big grade on a prospect who's viewed as a rotational player in most backfields.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at McCaffrey's game and potential at the next level.
What I'm hearing
"I'm not saying he is the best back in the draft, but I believe he can be a star in the right system. In a place like New Orleans or New England, he could be a headache because the play callers would use him all over the field to create mismatches. ... Not that he is strictly a system guy but there are some coaches in the league who understand how to maximize his talents as a versatile playmaker." -- NFC scout
"Don't make the mistake of comparing him to Reggie Bush. I don't think he is nearly as explosive or as dynamic as Bush was when he came out of USC. With that being said, I think we saw how NFL teams used Bush as a pro. I think you do the same thing with McCaffrey. ... I don't see him carrying the load. I see him catching the ball out of the backfield or getting the ball on some gadgets. I might be wrong, but I just don't see him as a full-time guy." -- NFC senior personnel executive
"You know (he's going to be compared) to Marshall Faulk, but I see him more like Brian Westbrook. He is a change-of-pace back and a returner. He will make some plays, but I don't think he can be your No. 1 guy." -- NFC area scout
"He is a nice complementary piece. I don't know how much of a difference maker he will be at this level. He has some tools (catching and return skills) that I like, so that will help his value. He is more of a balance, body-control type of runner. He's not really a dynamic slasher. He has some shake and wiggle, but I don't know if he has that special pitter pat. To me, he's a little bigger, faster (version of) Danny Woodhead." -- AFC senior personnel executive
What I'm seeing
McCaffrey might be one of the most electric triple threats to enter the NFL in the past decade. The junior is a dynamic runner/receiver/returner with the potential to score from anywhere on the field. In three seasons on The Farm, McCaffrey amassed nearly 7,000 all-purpose yards and 33 total touchdowns. He shattered Barry Sanders' single-season record for all-purpose yardage (3,249) with 3,864 yards as a sophomore while showcasing a flashy running style that looks like it's straight from a video game.
As a runner, McCaffrey is a patient with outstanding balance, body control and vision. He has enough pitter-pat to slither in and out of running lanes with nifty jump cuts, but also shows the discipline to stay in the designated running lane in key moments. Based on his exceptional footwork on powers, counters and downhill sweeps, you could argue that he was the most effective inside runner in college football. Sure, he's not a rough or rugged runner, but there are few runners who can rival his patience and vision when it comes to finding creases in traffic.
As a receiver, McCaffrey is a natural playmaker in the passing game, exhibiting outstanding hands and route-running skills. He snatches the ball cleanly with his hands and easily fields over-the-shoulder catches down the field. With more teams using running backs in the slot or out wide in empty and spread sets, McCaffrey's receiving skills could make him a nightmare to deal with on the perimeter.
In the return game, McCaffrey is like a MLB All Star in space. He tracks the ball like a centerfielder and delivers home runs when he gets the ball in the open field. McCaffrey's vision, elusiveness and burst make him a threat to take it the distance whenever he touches the ball.
From a critical standpoint, scouts will point to his size as a concern. Although he is listed at 6-foot, 205 pounds, I wonder if his frame can withstand the punishment most RB1s absorb as feature backs. In addition, I question whether he can break enough tackles or run through contact to be effective as a feature back. Despite his toughness and gritty running style, McCaffrey doesn't generate a lot of YAC (yards after contact), and that's a major concern for any NFL running back.
Finally, I worry about his explosiveness after seeing his production dip a bit during his final collegiate season. While I know he fought through some nagging injuries during the season, he didn't look nearly as explosive or electric compared to his sensational 2015 season. Thus, I need to see him work out well at the NFL Scouting Combine (March 3-6 on NFL Network) or his pro day to alleviate the concerns about his speed.
Overall, I like McCaffrey's potential as a triple threat. He has the potential to deliver a big play from anywhere on the field and that makes him a valuable commodity for a team looking for a little juice on offense. Although I don't think he is necessarily a transcendent star at the position, I could certainly envision him as a difference maker in the right scheme. If a creative offensive mind gets his hands on him, he could be the Swiss Army knife that pushes a contender over the top.
McCaffrey reminds me a lot of Lewis as a versatile threat on the perimeter. He's capable of carrying the mail as a runner in spread sets or delivering big plays in the passing game on screens or isolated routes from empty formations. Although he isn't necessarily the perfect fit for every team, McCaffrey could emerge as a special player in the right scheme (see Lewis in Philadelphia vs. Lewis in New England).
Where he should be picked
McCaffrey earns a top of the second round grade from me based on his potential to contribute as a situational starter. He will make contributions immediately as a RB2 and returner, which makes him a valuable weapon for most teams. I expect him to come off the board between picks 29 and 50. If I had to pick a few teams with coaches and schemes that would enhance McCaffrey's skills, I would point to the Packers, Patriots, Saints and Eagles. Each of those aforementioned teams/coaches have a long track record of getting key production from change-of-pace backs, and I believe McCaffrey would thrive in their respective schemes.