Matt Rhule is betting very, very big on Christian McCaffrey

Carolina Panthers

Matt Rhule has let a lot of talent leave during his brief tenure with the Panthers. Keeping Christian McCaffrey speaks volumes.

The Panthers and Matt Rhule are trying to do one of the most difficult things in the NFL this offseason. Instead of rebuilding, Carolina is trying to rebuild on the fly.

That’s precisely why the first-year head coach signed off on making Christian McCaffrey the highest paid running back in the NFL. His new four-year, $16 million per season extension might raise some eyebrows around the league, but it’s actually a natural progression of Rhule’s offseason.

The period began by the Panthers absorbing the bitter blow of Luke Kuechly’s retirement. Make no mistake about it, that stung everyone associated with the franchise. Rhule was no exception. It wasn’t a decision he had any control over, but the new head coach still had to deal with the fallout.

In retrospect, Kuechly’s decision might have made it easier for the Panthers to let so many of their high-priced veterans walk in free agency. The organization made little to no effort to re-sign defensive stalwarts like James Bradberry, Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. Then came the franchise-altering decision to move on from Cam Newton.

Of course, the Panthers didn’t just choose to release Newton without lining up a direct replacement. Signing Teddy Bridgewater was an indication that the Panthers were not setting up to tank in 2020. They still want to be competitive in Rhule’s first season at the helm.

The subsequent decision to add Robby Anderson in free agency was another move towards respectability next season. It would have been easy for Rhule to sit back and say that wide receiver wasn’t a position of need. After all, but D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel return from last year’s receiving corps.

Instead, Rhule moved to take advantage of a perceived inefficiency in the free agent market. The strength of this year’s draft class at the wide receiver position pushed down the asking price of good veterans like Anderson. The fact that the two worked together at Temple only made the deal easier to consummate once the talks began.

Monday’s decision to lock McCaffrey up for the next four years is the move that tips the scales towards retooling rather than rebuilding for the Panthers’ offseason. Conventional NFL wisdom would have argued against paying a running back big money. The Rams’ failed deal with Todd Gurley is the poster child for avoiding the temptation to overpay stars at the position.

Rhule chose to go against the grain though. He views McCaffrey as a player who can transcend the limited value of traditional running backs. The boost he gives the Carolina passing attack is the real reason why Rhule believes he’s worth such a bold bet.

McCaffrey caught 116 passes in Ron Rivera’s relatively conservative offense in 2019. That’s an even more impressive feat when you consider the lack of talent he had to work with at quarterback. The chances of him improving on that total with Bridgewater at the helm are good. The chances of him becoming an even more dynamic pass catcher in Rhule’s offense are even better.

That room for growth is what Rhule is counting on to justify this deal in future years. It won’t sink the franchise’s salary cap if McCaffrey keeps doing what he’s always done during his brief time as a professional. It has the chance to turn into a relative bargain if McCaffrey cements his status as the team’s No. 1 receiver in both quantity and quality in the years to come.

Next: Panthers elect to give McCaffrey the Gurley treatment

No matter what, this contract is a clear sign that Rhule is placing his faith on the former Stanford running back. This decision isn’t just a nod to Panthers fans desperate to see one of their stars retained. It’s a signal that Rhule is betting on McCaffrey to defy conventional wisdom and cast a positive light on his early years with the Panthers.

It could well be the move that makes or breaks Rhule’s tenure with the organization.

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