NFL

The Panthers Could Be Gambling With Christian McCaffrey’s Health This Season

Christian McCaffrey is not only one of the best running backs in the NFL today, but he is also one of the best players at any position. In 2019, McCaffrey became just the third player in history to rack up 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving over the course of a single season.

The Carolina Panthers depend so heavily on McCaffrey’s production that this year head coach Matt Rhule is even considering using McCaffrey as a returner. Critics have warned that that approach could represent a serious health risk. Here we take a look at McCaffrey’s NFL career so far, his potential new role, and how it could be a dangerous move for both McCaffrey and the team.

Christian McCaffrey’s NFL career so far

Christian McCaffrey celebrates after a run
Christian McCaffrey celebrates after a touchdown | David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Panthers drafted McCaffrey with the eighth pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. The 5-foot-11 running back put together a solid rookie season, rushing for 435 yards, with two touchdowns, and receiving for 651 yards, with five touchdowns. In his second season, those numbers leaped to 1,098 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns, and 867 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns.

That performance earned McCaffrey Second-team All-Pro honors in 2018. 2019 was McCaffrey’s true breakout year, with the hyper-athletic running back racking up 1,387 rushing yards and 1,005 receiving yards. Among receivers who were targeted more than 100 times, McCaffrey had the second-best catch percentage, at 81.7%.

As a result, he earned his first Pro Bowl selection. After just three seasons, McCaffrey has also set numerous franchise records with the Panthers, including single-season records for most receptions, most scrimmage yards, and most receiving yards by a running back. Provided he can remain healthy, McCaffrey should be the Panther’s core player for many years to come.

A potential new role this year

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As Christian McCaffrey’s considerable talent on the field became apparent, his usage rate climbed correspondingly. That increase already had some fans worried about increasing McCaffrey’s risk of injury. And how Panthers’ head coach Matt Rhule is openly discussing the possibility of using McCaffrey for kickoff and punt returns as well.

Rhule made it clear that he hadn’t yet decided to use McCaffrey in that role — just that he was keeping the possibility open. So long as Pro Bowler Pharoh Cooper remains healthy and productive, the Panthers will likely stick with him as their primary returner.

As Rhule himself put it to the media (per Sports Illustrated): “We think we’ve got something really good in Pharaoh [Cooper], but McCaffrey, D.J., anybody will be used if it gives us an advantage.”

The risks of using Christian McCaffrey for kickoff returns

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Many pundits have already weighed in on Rhule’s comments, with most of them agreeing that using McCaffrey as a returner would be a risky move. Simply put, it increases his injury risk profile to an unacceptable level.

For one thing, taking the field with special teams would increase McCaffrey’s playing time even more. With that increased utilization comes a higher risk of injury.

The risks increase even more when you consider that kickoffs and punts are the two most dangerous plays in professional football — and the two most likely to result in concussions. The reason is simple: players have a huge runway, and as a result, they slam into each other at top speeds. For years, commentators have been clamoring for the league to do away with kickoffs entirely.

To utilize a player as talented as McCaffrey as a returner represents an unacceptable level of risk for the Panthers. Whatever they might sacrifice by losing out on his returning abilities, they would more than make up for by keeping him healthy during the rest of the time he spends on the football field.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference