Christian McCaffrey believes he can be an every-down running back in the National Football League. McCaffrey also believes he can be an impact return man. And, oh yeah, if you need a wide receiver, he can be that too. The Stanford product and son of former standout NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey might be the most intriguing offensive player in this year's draft.
"I don't think there's anybody else that can do all the things I can, as far as run between the tackles; [run] outside; pass protect; play X, Z, slot; do a bunch of stuff in the return game as well," said McCaffrey on Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine, with the X, Z and slot designations referring to receiver positions. "I think that's what sets me apart."
The thing is, there's a pretty good reason for McCaffrey's confidence. Though hampered somewhat by injuries this past fall, he still ran for 1,639 yards. In 2015, he was a Heisman Trophy finalist after racking up a record 3,864 all-purpose yards – 2,019 on the ground, 645 through the air and another 1,070 in the return game. That year he won the Paul Hornung Award which is given, appropriately, to the nation's most versatile player.
McCaffrey is in the running backs group at the Combine and will focus on all the drills attached to that position. At his Stanford Pro Day, he plans to run routes as a receiver to give scouts a look at that side of his game. What is important to note about McCaffrey's notion about what he can accomplish at the next level is that he is not saying he's a standout pass-catching back.
"Something I really pride myself on is not just being a running back, not just being a running back that can catch the ball," he said. "If I move out to the slot, I become a receiver. If I move out to X or Z, I become a receiver, not just a receiver. I really try to pride myself at route-running, catching, being able to be a mismatch anywhere on the field."
In addition to the running back drills, McCaffrey is also going through the team-interview gauntlet in Indianapolis. He says the teams with which he has met have discussed a potential role on offense that looks a lot like what he's already used to doing.
"It's basically the same stuff I've been doing at Stanford as far as…", says McCaffrey, pausing to find the right term, "…everything."
McCaffrey's draft appraisal, at least from the media, is all over the board. He might be a first-round pick, but he happens to be part of a deep running back class that might see LSU's Leonard Fournette, Florida State's Dalvin Cook and Tennessee's Alvin Kamara all go in the first round. Of the five expert mock drafts currently posted on NFL.com, one has McCaffrey going 14th, one has him going 26th and the other three do not have him in the first round.
Could the Tampa Bay Buccaneers be interested in McCaffrey with one of their early picks? It's no secret that the team is looking for more playmakers on offense, and the return game has needed a spark for years. Again, however, this year's running back corps is deep and the Bucs might be looking for a more traditional receiver to add explosiveness to their attack.
Of course, McCaffrey is clearly confident he can provide whatever his new team needs on offense.
As a Stanford alum, Buccaneers Ring of Honor member John Lynch appreciates what McCaffrey has done for his alma mater. As the new General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Lynch is in charge of the #2 overall pick in this year's draft. The 49ers may or may not be interested in McCaffrey – quarterback seems to be San Francisco's most pressing issue – but the versatile Cardinal does fit into a category that is important to Lynch on draft day. McCaffrey is a productive player from a successful college program.
Lynch and new Niners Head Coach Kyle Shanahan will have some very important decisions in late April as they attempt to resuscitate a roster that has seen a serious talent drain in recent years. In making these decisions, Lynch can draw from his experiences as a player on another team that successfully rose from the depths of the league to the championship podium. A third-round pick by the Buccaneers in 1993, Lynch was a key figure in that franchise's turnaround and their Super Bowl victory in 2002.
Lynch was just one of many astute picks the Buccaneers made in the mid-'90s to set the table for their championship run. He was followed by the likes of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and Mike Alstott. Hall of Famer Tony Dungy is rightly credited with playing a big role in the Buccaneers' turnaround, but an organizational philosophy shift started before Dungy's arrival after the team had suffered through a string of poor draft picks.
"If you remember, before Tony even came in, Rich started to draft guys from winning colleges and winning programs, guys that were captains, things like that," said Lynch. "Those things stick with you. Obviously, what's been going on hasn't been working so you've got to change the culture somehow, and the way you do that is with people. You start investing with people and we did that with players. You obviously need talent as well but you've got to look for certain characteristics. You want winners, you want leaders."
Lynch will be looking for new leaders for the 49ers in the months to come.
McCaffrey said he would be happy to play for any team in the NFL, but if he's picked by Tampa Bay or another Eastern team he'll have to make a cross-country move. In contrast, South Florida running back Marlon Mack wouldn't even have to change home stadiums if he became a Buccaneer.
Mack, the Bulls' all-time leading rusher, wouldn't mind that scenario.
"I'd love to stay home," he said.
Mack confirmed that he has spoken with the Buccaneers on several occasions during the current pre-draft lead-up, but also noted that he has had multiple conversations with a lot of teams. It's easy to understand why, given the explosive speed that led to six touchdowns of 43 or more yards last year.
"I think it's my second-level burst," said Mack. "Not too many times did I get caught from behind, and my speed, man, once I get to the second level I like to picture myself going to the end zone."
Mack wouldn't predict a time for his 40-yard dash at the Combine, but he clearly expects to be among the fastest in the running back group. Where his game needs work, according to the team representatives with which he has spoken, is in pass protection.
"It's something I just need to do more [and] didn't really do much on the college level," said Mack of his backfield blocking. "Once I really focus on it, I think I'll be really good at it. I talked with a few teams and they mostly told me it was just technique, and once you get the technique down you'll be fine."