Stanford Running Back Christian McCaffrey’s Fit in the NFL

While the 2016 NFL Draft is in the rearview mirror, it’s never too soon to start thinking about next year. With that in mind we turn our eye toward a running back who looks to make an impact in the NFL much like Ezekiel Elliot hopes to. Joseph Ferraiola takes a look at Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey who should be one of the first running backs taken in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey is a weapon with the ball in his hands. McCaffrey, who measures 6’0” and 205 pounds, is the son of former Denver Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey and Lisa Sime, who played soccer at Stanford. Coming from an athletic family it is no wonder why he possesses such an unique skill set.

McCaffrey possesses both the vision and patience to explode through rushing lanes along with the physicality to run between the tackles and the elusiveness to make a man miss in space. Additionally, he has proven to be a threat in the passing game with 45 receptions for 645 yards and 5 TDs last year. There is no doubt that McCaffrey displays the necessary traits to be a successful running back in the NFL. He has shown he can gain positive yards in the running, receiving, and return game, leading him to break Barry Sanders’s single-season all-purpose yards record with 2,664 total yards in 2015 en route to a second place finish for the Heisman trophy.

McCaffrey was used in myriad ways for Stanford during the 2015 season, so it will be interesting to see how he will be used in the NFL. At Stanford he ran the ball from traditional formations: Shotgun, wildcat, and was also split out wide on occasion as a receiver. A perfect example of how McCaffrey could be used was displayed by the New England Patriots during Week 2 of this past season.

The Patriots faced a 2nd and 20 in their own territory and called an empty set with Deon Lewis (#33) lined up at wide receiver at the top of the screen. Lewis is a shifty playmaker and also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Yet, on this play, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels split him out wide to gain a favorable matchup against a slower linebacker.

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Lewis simply beats the coverage, using his speed while Tom Brady throws a fade. The ball is placed perfectly and the shifty running back reels in the catch for a 1st down and more. On the next play, Tom Brady threw Lewis’s way again – only this time he was set up on the outside for a screen and he picked up another 1st down.

McCaffrey can do many of the same things as Lewis in the pass game, but McCaffrey is a better athlete – especially for his size – and an overall more talented running back. He has the hands, mental processing, and separation ability to win against linebackers and safeties as a receiver and he’s athletic and quick enough to beat slot corners. Below are two plays of McCaffrey excelling in the pass game.

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The Cardinal has 12 personnel with trips to the left and a single wide receiver / running back set to the right and McCaffrey lined up in the backfield. Before the snap the safety creeps towards the line of scrimmage and is the man responsible for McCaffrey should he run a route –  which he does. Once McCaffrey gets to the line of scrimmage he recognizes that he will have to beat the safety. He is able to set up the safety by faking outside and running to the inside of the safety. The RB then splits the inside linebacker and the safety as quarterback Kevin Hogan puts a perfect ball on McCaffrey.

McCaffrey kicks it to another gear, displaying his breakaway speed beating the Iowa defense to the end zone on Stanford’s first play from scrimmage in the Rose Bowl.

Later in the game the Stanford offense splits McCaffrey out as a wide receiver lined up a few yards behind the line of scrimmage at the top of the screen in an empty set. The play call is a designed WR screen for McCaffrey. Once the ball is snapped, McCaffrey is immediately targeted and snags the catch while the second wide receiver on his side of the formation blocks in front of him. He makes the first man miss and is able to fight his way to convert the 3rd and 9.

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Overall, McCaffrey is going to at least be a solid player in the NFL. He has a high ceiling because of the many different ways he can be used: He is a running back first, but he definitely adds more value to a team if he’s also able to play wide receiver as well. McCaffrey’s schematic flexibility allows for his play caller at the next level to be creative with their offense. For at least one more season David Shaw and Stanford have that luxury.

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All video courtesy of NFL Game Pass and DraftBreakdown.

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