The return of Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey this upcoming season will be a welcome sight to Carolina faithful, but another group of people might be just as excited — fantasy football owners.
In 2019, McCaffrey scored 354 fantasy points, leading the league with one of the greatest tallies of all time while becoming one of three players ever to record 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. The next year, he was on track to have the greatest fantasy season ever before he was sidelined due to a series of injuries.
With his 2021 return on the horizon, fantasy owners are expecting the Colorado native’s performance to come back in full, with Pro Football Focus Senior Fantasy Analyst Nathan Jahnke ranking him as the top overall fantasy draft pick this coming season.
Because of McCaffrey’s effectiveness and high usage rate, Jahnke took it a step further, calling the pick a “no-brainer.”
“His 116 receptions (in 2019) rank in the top 20 in NFL history regardless of position,” Jahnke wrote. “Players like (Green Bay Packers WR) Davante Adams, (Kansas City Chiefs WR) Tyreek Hill, (Arizona Cardinals WR) DeAndre Hopkins and (Chiefs TE) Travis Kelce have never reached 116 receptions in a season.”
But a high usage rate also comes a high risk for injury. That possibility, along with a coaching change from Ron Rivera to Matt Rhule in 2020, gave some fantasy owners pause when drafting McCaffrey in 2020. And while he did eventually get injured, his on-field numbers were off the charts.
“McCaffrey either touched the ball or was targeted on 42.0% of his offensive plays in 2019, and that increased to 48.8% in 2020,” Jahnke said. “McCaffrey would have been on pace for the greatest fantasy season of all time if that usage continued and he wasn’t hurt.”
After injuries took him out of commission for most of the 2020 season, one might think that fantasy owners should have even more caution when drafting McCaffrey first overall. If usage leads to injury, McCaffrey’s legs should look like Jell-O compared to most other skill position players.
But all the signs this offseason — even statements from the team itself — point to McCaffrey returning to his best this coming year.
“My mindset has not changed with Christian McCaffrey,” Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said in June. “… I told Christian, I don’t need Christian to be anything more than Christian McCaffrey. I think that’s important for him to know, that he doesn’t have anything to prove to me, to prove to anybody else, he just needs to be Christian McCaffrey.”
And that freedom to be himself and to play football the way he’s always played it has been encouraging for McCaffrey, who’s ready to bounce back and play with no mind to his past injuries.
“You just get out there and go,” McCaffrey said in June. “There’s no thinking, there’s just doing. Football to me is a meditation. When you’re out there, you’re not thinking ever. You’re just using your God-given talents to be the best player you can be, and the more you think, the worse you play. And so for me, it’s just going out there and being mindless and having fun playing football with my teammates.”
McCaffrey wasn’t the only Panthers halfback to make Jahnke’s list of top fantasy running backs.
Rookie fourth-round pick and Oklahoma State star Chuba Hubbard also made Jahnke’s list at number 56 — the ninth tier of the list — putting him ahead of veteran backs like the New England Patriots’ Sony Michel, the Houston Texans’ Mark Ingram II and the Indianapolis Colts’ Marlon Mack.
“These are all end-of-draft dart throws,” Jahnke said about the backs listed in Tier 9. “All of these backs are backups, in some cases third-string.”