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Is Christian McCaffrey at Risk of Becoming 2010 Ray Rice?

The article below is part of a series exploring downside possibilities for the top players in dynasty.

This series is designed to be a thought experiment about what might go wrong for the top players in dynasty, with the goal of rounding out our expectations and better preparing us for the season to come. We’ll do this by looking at a player who was being drafted similarly but who disappointed in the following season. These Downside Comparbles are based on similarly productive, high-value players, in the same part of their career arcs, who avoided major injury and whose QBs also avoided major injury. There’s no point to a series where I tell you that every top RB could get hurt or every top WR could lose their QB. This will not be that. Instead, we’ll try to uncover how things could go wrong based on historical examples where top tier dynasty assets stayed healthy, but still came up short for their fantasy teams.

In addition to looking at the drop in fantasy production in these comparable seasons, we’ll look at what happened to each Downside Comp’s dynasty value after their disappointing year. We’ll look about both the immediate impacts to their value and if they were able to recover value in subsequent years. To understand loss in value we’ll be both looking at ADP using the trade value calculation described in this article. But the simple idea behind these trade value numbers is that the dynasty market follows an exponential curve. A player with a startup ADP in the 90s can see their ADP move 10 spots in either direction with little impact on what types of assets they can be traded for. But as anyone who’s tried to trade up to the 1.01 in a startup can tell you, even movements of couple ADP spots at the top of the market lead to massive swings in trade value.

Previously covered:

Is Saquon Barkley at Risk of Becoming 2009 Matt Forte?

Christian McCaffrey

Downside Comp: Ray Rice 2010

PlayerYearAgeTmGRushYdsTDTgtRecYdsTD
Christian McCaffrey201822CAR16219109871241078676
Ray Rice200922BAL1625413397101787021
Ray Rice201023BAL163071220583635561

McCaffrey’s Rise

Christian McCaffrey entered the league in 2017 as a 21 year-old first-round pick. He was essentially tied with Dalvin Cook as the rookie 1.03 and was drafted as a mid-third round startup pick. As a rookie, his production was limited by two players (Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton), each of whom attempted more rushes and scored more rushing touchdowns than McCaffrey. However, McCaffrey showed great promise by dominating backfield receiving work with 651 yards and five touchdowns to Stewart’s 52 yards and one TD. As a result, his ADP climbed to 16 overall in 2018.

As a sophomore, McCaffrey exploded for 1965 scrimmage yards and 13 TDs. He achieved this by 1) developing into a workhorse running back, jumping from 197 touches as a rookie to 326 as a sophomore, and 2) by delivering elite efficiency, posting 5.0 yards per carry (YPC) and 7.0 yards per target (YPT).

McCaffery is now the second overall pick in startup drafts.

Rice’s Rise

Ray Rice entered the league in 2008 as a 21 year-old second-round pick. His rookie ADP was 1.08 and his startup ADP was 81. As a rookie, his production was limited by two players (Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee), each of whom attempted more rushes and scored more rushing TDs than Rice. However, Rice showed great promise by leading the backfield in targets, receptions and receiving yards. As a result, his ADP climbed to 60 overall in 2009.

As a sophomore, Rice exploded for 2041 scrimmage yards and eight TDs. He achieved this by 1) developing into a workhorse RB, jumping from 140 touches as a rookie to 332 as a sophomore, and 2) by delivering elite efficiency, posting 5.3 YPC and 7.0 YPT.

After his breakout second season, Rice’s dynasty value more than tripled, moving from a late fifth-round pick all the way to the startup 1.03 prior to the 2010 campaign.

However, Rice’s 2010 was a disappointment. After finishing as the PPR RB3 in 2009, he fell to RB7 overall and RB9 in PPG in the following season.

What Went Wrong?

Decline in Efficiency

What’s interesting about Ray Rice’s 2010 season is that, unlike what we saw with 2009 Matt Forte, his quarterback’s efficiency improved actually improved1 and he saw an increased workload. Yet, his production still declined by over three PPR points per game. This counterintuitive result had two main causes: A shift in Rice’s workload away from the passing game and a collapse in his rushing efficiency.

Rushing efficiency is always a bit of a crapshoot, but there were warning signs that Rice’s 5.3 YPC in 2009 was an outlier. In fact, it would prove to be his only season above 4.7 YPC. Rice averaged a respectable, but not otherworldly, 4.2 YPC as a rookie. Moreover, Rice never profiled as an elite breakaway threat, with a forty time of 4.47 at 199 pounds.

However, 2010 drafters could be forgiven if they expected Rice to make up any losses in rushing efficiency with even more usage in the passing game. Rice did profile as having elite short area quickness, with a ridiculous three-cone time of 6.65, and was coming off a 100-plus target season. But, unexpectedly, 2010 saw Rice’s usage swing the other way. That season, Rice saw 53 more rushing attempts but 18 less targets. As a result, Rice’s yards per touch dropped from 6.1 to 4.8.

New Competition for Targets

What’s interesting about this reduction in passing game usage is that Rice’s two backfield mates, McClain and McGahee, also saw their targets decrease in 2010. So Rice wasn’t losing targets to other RBs. Instead, he was losing them to wide receivers: A WR corps that had just added Anquon Boldin.

In 2010, Boldin joined the Ravens and immediately became their WR1. 2009’s WR1, Derrick Mason, remained heavily involved as well. That revamped WR corps demanded around 50 more targets from the year before, and the top three RBs earned 24 fewer. It’s worth noting that this change occurred with the same head coach, offensive coordinator, QB, and RB corps as the previous season. So, the shift in targets was likely a combination of Boldin’s arrival and simple variance.

Poor Touchdown Equity

The final nail in the coffin for Rice’s 2010 was that he scored two fewer TDs than in 2009 — despite receiving four more red zone rushing attempts and three more attempts from within the 10-yard line.

Impact on Dynasty Value

After 2010, Rice’s ADP fell from third to fifth overall. However, just this small drop in ADP is still significant. Historically, it affects a player’s trade value as much as moving from the 20th overall pick to the 30th, or from the 75th pick to the 110th.

However, a top-five startup pick is obviously still quite valuable. Because Rice was entering his age 24 season with a stable situation on offense and having still turned in a top-10 RB season in a down year, drafters seem to have partially overlooked his disappointing 2010.

Subsequent Seasons

Rice’s targets continued to fluctuate over the following seasons. In 2011, Rice’s targets bounced right back up to over 100 again. Then his targets fell back into the 80s in 2012, which coincided with Torrey Smith’s breakout. In 2013, Rice’s targets fell off again to 72. Even worse, Rice was straight up bad in 2013, managing a YPC of just 3.1 and a YPT of just 4.5. In 2014, he was suspended and ultimately didn’t play again.

After Rice’s bounce-back 2011 season, his ADP recovered to third overall. His 2012 season was reminiscent of 2010, but this time coming from a 25-year old instead of a 23-year old. Following that second down year, his ADP dropped to 10th, causing Rice to losing roughly the trade value of a mid-first round rookie pick. His ADP then cratered in 2014 to 78th overall as a result of his poor 2013 season and his impending suspension for domestic violence.2

How it Applies to McCaffrey

Rushing Efficiency

McCaffrey, like Rice, has insane short area quickness but does not possess elite long speed. At the combine, McCaffery posted a ridiculous 6.57 three-cone time but only a 4.48 forty at 202 pounds. However, in 2018, McCaffery broke off six 20-plus yard runs and three 45-plus yard runs. Somehow, none of these went for TDs. His longest TD run was just 11 yards. Despite not finishing his long runs with TDs, his overall YPC was an outstanding 5.0.

In 2017, McCaffrey had a 40-yard scamper against the Jets in Week 11. It was his only run of 20 yards or more in his rookie season, when he recorded a YPC of just 3.9.

Given his athletic profile and rookie year efficiency, it wouldn’t be a surprise if McCaffrey’s rushing efficiency falls off considerably in 2019.

Target Volume

The Panthers passing attack will also look quite a bit different this year — not because they brought in new WR talent, but because their existing young talent may be on the verge of breakouts. D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel each led their draft classes in Jon Moore’s Phenom Index, declared early for the draft, and played their rookies seasons at 21-years old (both of which Blair Andrews has found are strong predictors of success). They each showed well in smaller samples last year, and could (if both emerge simultaneously) pull targets further downfield than McCaffrey might like. And, though camp buzz should always be taken with a grain of salt, there appears to be no debate that a Panthers WR will be breaking out this year. The only debate seems to be which Panthers breakout WR to prioritize.

Touchdowns

Touchdowns played a small role in Rice’s reduced productivity in 2010. But, McCaffrey may face substantially higher risk for TD regression than Rice did. The simplest reason is that McCaffrey scored 13 TDs in his breakout 2018, which is generally the type of total we expect to regress to the mean.

But, there are also schematic reasons to expect less TDs for McCaffrey this season. While Rice actually saw more red zone opportunities in his down year than in the year prior, McCaffrey is likely to see fewer red zone rushing opportunities this year. And, unfortunately, I’m not just saying that because the Panthers reportedly want to use a different RB at the goal line.

In 2017, Cam Newton had 26 red zone rushing attempts but just 15 in 2018. That, in combination with Jonathan Stewart’s departure, is what allowed Christian McCaffrey’s red zone rushes to increase from 12 to 44. But, crucially, McCaffrey’s increased red zone workload coincided with Cam Newton’s shoulder injury, which first popped up after Week 7. Through Week 7, McCaffrey had 12 red zone rushes to Newton’s 11. But from Weeks 8 to 15, McCaffrey had 26 red zone rushes to just four for Newton.3

That increased opportunity had a major impact on McCaffrey’s fantasy output, as you can see below. 

Before Newton showed up on the injury report with the shoulder soreness that would eventually end his 2018 season, McCaffrey had managed one total TD through six games. Following Newton’s injury and progressive decline, McCaffrey began scoring rapidly, racking up 14 TDs in his final 10 games.4 Given how dramatically McCaffery’s red zone rushing increased with Newton banged up, it’s hard not to see a connection between Newton’s health and McCaffrey’s 2018 TD total.

Again, even if McCaffrey simply saw more red zone work in the second half of the season by simple variance, the Panthers are making noise about ensuring that doesn’t repeat in 2019.

How to Play It

With a hopefully healthy Newton and potential breakout stars manning the top-two WR spots, the Panthers offense could be in much better shape than it was in 2018. But, like we saw with Rice in 2010, it’s possible for a passing offense to improve while it’s star three-down RB disappoints.

Rice also serves as a reminder that RB production can be short-lived. Despite finishing at the RB3 as a 22-year old, he only had one more 20-plus point per game season left in his legs before falling off a cliff in 2013.

My take on McCaffrey is that — even at his expensive price tag — he’s a solid target in dynasty for truly contending teams.

But, even entering his age 23 season, I wouldn’t recommend rebuilding around McCaffrey (or any other RB). McCaffrey’s value has nearly doubled since this point last year, and you can easily ask for any WR in the game plus extra for him right now.

For contenders, however, he’s a fairly safe way to gain exposure to season-winning upside at RB.

Image Credit: John Byrum/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Christian McCaffrey.

  1. Joe Flacco’s AYA increased from 7.2 to 7.4.  (back)
  2. The video of Rice assaulting his fiancée, triggering his same-day release by the Ravens, didn’t surface until September 8th. However, the incident was known about in less detail for the entire pre-season draft period. Rice’s ADP actually moved up slightly after the two-game suspension was handed down in late July, presumably because the suspension was less than some expected.  (back)
  3. McCaffrey racked up six more red zone rushes in Weeks 16 and 17 with Newton deactivated.  (back)
  4. Although, McCaffrey was scoreless without Newton on the field over the final two weeks.  (back)

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