Could Christian McCaffrey lead the NFL in touches this year?

Carolina Panthers

Christian McCaffrey should get more work this year, but could he end up leading the NFL in touches?

Due in good part to Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers had a top-five rushing attack in the NFL last year. Otherwise Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart both averaged less than four yards per carry, and C.J. Anderson (4.1 yards per carry for the Broncos last year) has replaced Stewart as McCaffrey’s backfield mate.

The Panthers got the versatility they expected out of McCaffrey last year, with 117 carries, 80 receptions (113 targets) and 25 combined kick and punt returns. But a solid finish to his rookie season (4.7 yards per carry over the final eight games), and some added weight during the offseason, had head coach Ron Rivera putting McCaffrey in line for 200 carries this year. Stewart had 198 totes last year, so that number seems realistic for McCaffrey this year.

But Rivera is going even further with a projection for McCaffrey’s workload in his second season.

I don’t want to get to the point where everything starts through him, because it’ll always be through the quarterback [Cam Newton]. But he can be one of those guys that hopefully gets the ball 25 to 30 times a game. That would be ideal.

Over 16 games, 25 touches per game projects to 400 touches. Le’Veon Bell led the league with 406 touches last year, which was just the third time in the last 11 seasons someone topped 400 touches. So the low end of Rivera’s forecast for McCaffrey would put him in some rare recent air, though it may include some touches in the return game.

McCaffrey, even with some added muscle, is undersized at 5-foot-11, 205-210 pounds and looks smaller than that at a glance. That’s not the build of a workhorse in the mold we often think of, and it leaves out Newton and his siphoning of carries from Carolina’s running backs (139 in 2017) when projecting a workload. But the traditional workhorse that isn’t versatile, like Adrian Peterson in his prime, is an endangered species in the NFL. Backs like Bell are the new model, and McCaffrey fits that mold.

Anderson is, simply, an ordinary talent who should take a backseat to McCaffrey and be the third fiddle in the Panthers’ running game. Barring injury to McCaffrey, there’s no way Anderson gets close to replicating Stewart’s 198 carries from last year.

McCaffrey averaged 12.3 offensive touches per game (7.3 carries and five catches) as a rookie last year. So Rivera’s “ideal” forecast just more than doubles that workload, at the low end.

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The most confident projection for McCaffrey this year would be 280-300 touches, with a baseline catch total along the lines of last year’s 80 and the expected uptick in carries. Much more than that is a big ask, but McCaffrey is a key part of the Carolina offense and it’s fine Rivera has set a high bar.

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