By Shan Reddy
In February 2017, NFL senior draft analyst Lance Zierlein published a scouting report evaluating a running back prospect hoping to be picked high in that year’s NFL draft. “Lacks desired size of an every-down back. Has some tread worn off his tires. Average burst may not be enough to race past NFL speed on second level. Inconsistent squaring up blitzers in pass pro, and ducks his head into contact. Doesn’t have NFL-caliber power to break tackles and create yardage for himself through power.”
When Christian McCaffrey entered the 2017 NFL draft process, scouts considered him to be a skilled returner and offensive chess piece but not a full-time starting NFL running back. Some said he was too small, some said he’d taken too many hits in college, and some said he was simply not athletic enough to make it as a halfback in the pros.
Needless to say, Christian McCaffrey was utterly dominant for the Cardinal. In 2015, McCaffrey shattered Barry Sanders’s NCAA record of 3,250 all-purpose yards, finishing with 3,864. He was also the first Stanford player to ever rush for 2,000 yards in a single season, and also set team records for rushing yards in a single game with 243 and for all-purpose yards in a game with 461.
On April 27, 2017, McCaffrey was picked eighth overall in the draft by the Carolina Panthers. But it didn’t take long for the critics to resurface. A few minutes later, CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco released an instant grade of the pick. Prisco wrote, “[the] Panthers get a D for selecting Christian McCaffrey No.8 … it’s a back in the top 10. Hate that.” Draft analysts across the nation echoed the criticisms, insisting that the Panthers should have addressed other positions on their team and that McCaffrey was being vastly overvalued.
For many, McCaffrey’s rookie season was a confirmation of these predictions. He put up 651 yards receiving but only rushed for 451 yards and two touchdowns. Despite using a first round pick on McCaffrey, it was clear that the Panthers were unsure of whether or not they could trust him as their full-time running back. In May 2018, the team brought over former Broncos’ Pro Bowl halfback CJ Anderson to split carries with McCaffrey.
This season, McCaffrey has done far more than prove his critics and the Panthers management dead wrong. McCaffrey is on pace to demolish the Panthers’ all-time record for yards from scrimmage in a single season and is averaging a whopping 113.1 yards per contest. He’s still shredding opposing defenses as a receiver as he did last year. But this season, McCaffrey has been a near-dominant runner as well. This year’s Norm Turner-led Carolina offense de-prioritizes the starting halfback, incorporating designed quarterback runs and sweep running plays for the team’s shifty wide receiver corps; nonetheless, McCaffrey ranks 10th in the league in total rushing yards and is well on his way to cracking the 1,000-yard rushing mark by the end of the season.
C-Mac has simply been too effective for Carolina Panthers to not feature him as their full-time starting running back. This past weekend, McCaffrey was in the end zone for every one of the Panthers’ three touchdowns against the Steelers, rushing for one and receiving the other two. He also led the team in rushing with 77 and in receiving with 61.
McCaffrey was not the only former Cardinal player in the NFL to carry his team this past Sunday. Tight end Zach Ertz led the entire NFL this past week 10 in receptions with 14, receiving yards with 145 and receiving touchdowns with two. Ertz continues his record-breaking season and leads all NFL tight ends in receptions with 75 and in receiving yards with 789. He is on pace to have the most yards and most receptions ever by a tight end, breaking the records currently held by Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten, respectively. Quarterback Andrew Luck also drove the Indianapolis Colts to victory over the division rival Jacksonville Jaguars, passing for 285 yards and three touchdowns despite throwing to a painfully poor receiving corps that ranks second in the NFL in dropped passes.
Stanford players continue to make their mark in the NFL, whether they’re passing, rushing or receiving. And as if to award McCaffrey’s stellar performance Sunday, the Panthers cut CJ Anderson from their roster Monday, finally affirming Christian McCaffrey as their full-time, every-down running back — doubted no longer.
Contact Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu.