by NATE WELLER
On Monday, the Panthers announced a four-year $64-million extension for star running back Christian McCaffrey. The $16M average annual value clears the bar set by Ezekiel Elliott last offseason and makes McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in the league’s history.
As is customary with all things related to running back value, the move has sparked debate. Todd Gurley was supposedly the exception to the rule about paying running backs, and he was already released this offseason to try and get the Rams out of cap jail. Elliott was still one of the best backs in the league in 2019, but his contract undeniably loomed large in the decision to cut ties with Bryon Jones and the ongoing negotiations with Dak Prescott.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but McCaffrey’s situation is unique. The argument in McCaffrey’s favor doesn’t revolve around his rushing performance at all, but rather his ability in the passing game. McCaffrey is coming off of a season where he caught 116 passes for 1,005 yards. His 40 Receiving Points Earned were 14 points clear of the next best running back, Austin Ekeler, and are the most by a running back since Total Points’ inaugural season in 2016, outpacing his own 2018 campaign by nine points.
If the argument is that McCaffrey deserves to be paid like a wide receiver, though, it makes the most sense to compare his receiving numbers to other receivers. His 40 Receiving Points Earned in 2019 would have ranked him 18th among all pass-catchers.
It’s also fair to wonder how much McCaffrey’s usage has impacted his overall numbers. In 2019, more than half of McCaffrey’s catches occurred at or behind the line of scrimmage, and his 16 Points Earned on these plays was more than double the next closest player.
McCaffrey was far less dangerous when utilized in more traditional wide receiver alignments. On 27 targets from slot or wide alignments McCaffrey managed only 6.9 Yards per Target (Y/T). Put into context, among 86 players with at least 50 targets lined up in the slot or wide last season, only 12 posted a Y/T lower than McCaffrey’s.
None of this is to say that McCaffrey is a bad player. The Panthers are undoubtedly a better team with him than without him. All of his value as a receiver comes in addition to him being a top-ten rusher. He has led all running backs in Total Points two seasons running, and has produced despite playing alongside Kyle Allen and the shell of Cam Newton. The current state of the NFL, though, makes paying running backs top dollar a dangerous proposition, and the argument that McCaffrey should be valued like one of the league’s best receivers falls flat.