It's Time to Put Christian McCaffrey's Fantasy Season Into Historical Perspective

LaDainian Tomlinson’s 31 touchdowns in 2006. Chris Johnson’s 2,509 yards from scrimmage in 2009. Christian McCaffrey’s 490 fantasy points in 2019?

Those first two are NFL records that you may have heard of, but the last one is what the Carolina Panthers running back is currently on pace for in Point Per Reception (PPR) formats and deserves more attention. We are officially past small sample size territory now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, so let’s put McCaffrey’s standout season into perspective and compare it to other great running back seasons.

After another 34.3 points this past weekend, McCaffrey is up to 336.9 fantasy points through 11 games - a 30.63 average - so he is well on his way to breaking Tomlinson’s record of 481.1 points that averaged 30.07 PPR points per game. The way he is racking up his stats with such a complete profile is perhaps what’s most impressive - and what lends credence to this production remaining sustainable.

With 1,123 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, and 68 catches for 586 yards and another four scores through the air so far, McCaffrey’s dual-threat ability can impact games whether his team is ahead or trailing. That has him on pace for 1,633.45 rushing yards, 17.45 rushing touchdowns, 98.91 catches, 852.36 receiving yards, and 5.82 receiving touchdowns. That’s an average of 155.36 yards from scrimmage, 1.45 touchdowns, and 6.18 catches per game to provide three strong sources of points each week.

As a comparison, Johnson averaged 156.81 YFS when he set the record a decade ago, but he only averaged one score and 3.13 catches per game to finish with 392.9 fantasy points. McCaffrey isn’t likely to join CJ2K as a 2,000 yard runner, but he could come close to his overall yardage record on his way to dwarfing his fantasy points total.

The big total mentioned earlier is LT’s 481.1 when he won MVP in 2006, so let’s break down how he accrued those points and how it compares to CMC.

On the ground, Tomlinson averaged 21.75 carries per game for 113.44 yards (5.22 yards per carry) and 1.75 TDs as he set the record with 28. McCaffrey is at a comparable 20.09 carries for 102.09 (5.08 YPC), but he won’t come close to the scoring record with 1.09 per game. Where he does have the advantage is as a receiver, where he turns 7.45 targets per game into 6.18 catches for 53.27 yards and 0.36 touchdowns. Tomlinson was always a more than capable receiver in his own right with 100 catches in his 443.8-point 2003 season, but in his monster year he only averaged five targets, 3.5 catches, 31.75 yards, and 0.19 touchdowns. The former Charger did tack on some extra points through the air by throwing for an additional two scores and 20 yards, something that McCaffrey couldn’t manage in his lone pass attempt in the red zone this season (though he threw a 50 yarder last season). The difference in catches and total yards is enough for the points per game edge, though, and McCaffrey also adds to that slight lead by having a 2-point conversion and zero fumbles lost to his name while Tomlinson had no 2-point tries and one turnover. Thus, if McCaffrey can maintain his current pace over his final five games, he will own the fantasy crown.

And that is the potential issue: can a running back hold up under this workload? ESPN’s Sportscenter ran a graphic on Sunday night that McCaffrey became just the 5th player ever to have over 1,700 yards from scrimmage through his team’s first 11 games, and that gives you an idea of how rare this sort of performance is. That list contains three Hall of Famers (Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Eric Dickerson) and former fantasy darling Priest Holmes, whose 2002 season at the top provides a telling story.

In his second year after signing an unheralded free agent contract with the Chiefs, the former undrafted free agent was actually scoring 31.48 points per game but missed the final two games of the season with a hip injury. Holmes averaged 163.36 YFS, 1.71 touchdowns, and five catches per game to finish with 440.7 PPR points and win Offensive Player of the Year. Yet it’s a tale of “what could have been” since he missed the final game of the regular season (fantasy championship week), a game Kansas City lost to finish 8-8 and one game back of a Wild Card spot in the AFC. With 313 carries and 81 targets, the 29-year-old received 28.14 opportunities per game, but the following season they limited him to 25.63 to help get through 16 games. Holmes went on to rush for a then-record 27 touchdowns en route to 445 fantasy points (27.81 per game) and a AFC West division title at 13-3.

However, the best comparison for McCaffrey has always been Marshall Faulk due to their similar size and skill sets. The Hall of Famer's 2000 season actually produced the highest points per game average ever at 32.85. In the middle of a remarkable three straight Offensive Player of the Year awards, Faulk was named MVP after averaging 156.36 YFS, 1.86 touchdowns, and 5.79 catches to finish with a record-setting 459.9 fantasy points despite missing two midseason games due to a lingering knee issue. Losing one of those games caused the Rams to eventually finish as a Wild Card team rather than division champs, but that didn’t stop them from featuring Faulk heavily the next year with his 26.14 opportunities per game. In 2002 at age 28, Faulk had 26.00 opportunities per game and averaged 29.98 points, but again missed two contests.

McCaffrey is currently averaging 27.55 opportunities, so whether or not he can maintain both health and efficiency down the stretch under that workload is a real question. Perhaps the biggest factor in his favor is youth: the Stanford product only came into the league two years ago and is still just 23 years old. Carolina did rest him for most of their meaningless Week 17 game last year, lowering his points per game average from 25.37 to 24.09. He may need to stay ahead of the pace heading into the final week since their heartbreaking loss over the weekend leaves them at 5-6 and three games out of the playoff picture. In any case, McCaffrey will remain must-watch television with the type of historic run he is on.

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