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McCaffrey and the future of the RB position

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Eventually every team will want a running back that’s basically a hybrid receiver.

Stanford v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Over at The Ringer, Kevin Clark had an insightful piece that dovetails with much of what we’ve been discussing over here in the lead-up to the 2017 NFL draft. Clark profiles Jabrill Peppers and Christian McCaffrey and the way that their hybrid skill sets has given NFL scouts pause in projecting them to the pros.

The great irony the article examines is that while both players seem thoroughly modern and tailor-made for the today’s NFL but the lack of easy analogs across the league give people pause. I wrote that Pepper’s closing speed and football IQ could make him comparable to Troy Polamalu, but that’s not exactly how he was used at Michigan last year so there’s great uncertainty in projecting him that way. We’ve also discussed McCaffrey in the past and how he presents nearly unsolvable dilemmas for defenses.

The difficulty seems to be coming from the NFL’s rigid reliance on specialization to carve out roles and the lack of versatility that franchises have in their own organization and deployment that then causes them difficulty in utilizing versatile players on the field.

But in the same way that 7-foot athletes who can shoot are overhauling the NBA game, hybrids are going to be a huge part of the future of football. It’s already happening at the high school level and the NFL’s increasing demand for these players will make them more common at the college level as well.

The evolution of football tactics is bizarre and for the reason we broached last week when talking about Josh Allen and QB development, the NFL doesn’t run the process of skills development. They rely on the school system to do it for them, like most non-entertainment industries such as software engineering. High school teams often push strategic innovations while the NFL’s developments dictate the demand for what sorts of skills aspiring pro athletes need to have. These two different tectonic plates of change in the game meet at the college level and crazy stuff happens.

Of course the NFL is still sorting out what sorts of skills they want from star athletes and they’ll probably need Christian McCaffrey to help make clear to them why he’s the future of the RB position on the field in the coming years.

The inevitable follow-up to flex tight ends

I’ve made at least a dozen references in this column to the NBA’s evolution towards the spread pick’n’roll. It started with teams playing wings that could shoot at the power forward position to force defenses to extend to the three point line and create space for athletic guards to attack the basket in the pick’n’roll.

The inevitable next step after that was for teams to start using wings at center as well and the last two NBA Finals have featured teams that could play a 6-7, 230 pound hybrid and a 6-8, 250 pound legend at power forward or center as needed.

The spread has also been slowly and methodically overtaking the game of football as offenses have realized that the upside of getting the ball to athletes in space as opposed to getting them the ball behind a wall of blockers is simply too great to overlook.

At the NFL level, spacing is invaluable but everyone has athletes that can move and matchups become increasingly important. The next step after getting athletes into space was creating matchups with tight ends that can run routes and be big targets in the middle of the field.

The same specialist-oriented defenses that are unsure of how they’ll use Jabrill Peppers (face palm.gif) are put in a dilemma when they need guys on the field that can cover tight ends on routes out wide but won’t then be blown away if the tight end comes back into the box and blocks them on a running play.

Between that and the growing reliance on the modern passing game to overcome professional defense, tight ends need to be first good at running routes and then just good enough as blockers to punish defenses if they try to match up by putting coverage-oriented players on the field to stop them. They need guys that are majoring in receiving with a minor in blocking.

The next step is for offenses to look for RBs with similar qualities, like Christian McCaffrey.

What if a great running back is a WR that’s “good enough” at running the ball?

Christian McCaffrey got an average “speed score” per Football Outsiders. Speed score is a brilliant metric that takes seriously the importance of the F=MA equation in determining outcomes on the football field. For instance, is it better to be a guy that can run the 4.5 at 200 pounds or a guy that can run a 4.6 at 250?

In the F=MA equation, mass and acceleration are variables of equal value so giving away a little in one can be okay if matched by a major increase in the other variable. Since we’re talking about violent collisions that can have a negative impact on the people involved, running backs that can move quickly while carrying a lot of weight are the true treasure in the draft.

McCaffrey’s 4.48 at 202 pounds is good but it isn’t terrifying to run defenses like Leonard Fournette running a 4.51 at 240. That’s a minor difference in A with a huge advantage in M for Fournette.

If the best way to move the ball in the NFL was still to line up and hand off repeatedly to a big, freak athlete that’d be a really noteworthy advantage for Fournette over McCaffrey in the draft. However, that isn’t the best way to move the football in the NFL.

In Super Bowl LI, both the Patriots and the Falcons were fielding as many flex TEs as they could, but only one team had taken the next step in the spread revolution.

The lead back for the Falcons was Devonta Freeman, a 1k yard back who got 11 carries for 75 yards and a TD against New England in the Super Bowl. He also added two receptions for 46 yards.

Meanwhile New England countered by leaning on former Wisconsin RB James White, who had only 166 rushing yards in the regular season! White got six carries for 29 yards in the Super Bowl (two of those carries went for TDs) but he had 14 receptions for 110 yards (and another TD!).

The key is that James White could split wide and run effective routes, which combined with Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots offense to make for an offense that simply couldn’t be held down for four quarters.

White was recently rewarded for his 600-yard regular season and brilliant Super Bowl with a three-year extension.

Christian McCaffrey could enter the NFL next season and immediately become the best receiving RB in the entire league, which will inevitably lead some people to ask why he shouldn’t just move to WR. The reason is that he’s “good enough” as a RB that he offers more value to his team by staying there.

If McCaffrey is on the football field, you have to call defenses and put personnel on the field that can stop the run, otherwise you’re looking at a potential “Tavon Austin vs Oklahoma” situation. My first column here at Football Study Hall detailed how Oklahoma made the mistake of matching West Virginia with dime personnel only to realize (though not in time) that they needed personnel on the field that knew how to play the run in order to keep pace with Tavon Austin running zone up the middle of their defense time and time again.

That’s what McCaffrey will offer to an NFL team next season, a player that may not be the best receiver on the field or the best runner, but who’s better at either skill then any of the specialists that an opponent would put on the field to try and match him.

Handling a guy that could line up out wide and run double moves on one play and then run downhill through the A-gaps on power the next would be difficult, you’d need an ultra-athletic DB that also knew how to handle run fits in order to match up. Someone like Jabrill Peppers.

The value of hybrids like this shouldn’t be so hard, but there are enough of these players heading towards the league now that NFL franchises have to figure it out soon if they don’t want to continue spending Super Bowl Sunday watching Tom Brady and the Patriots win for another decade.