Greg Cosell's NFL draft preview: Christian McCaffrey has great skills, but what's his NFL fit?

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey will be polarizing in NFL draft rooms, but not necessarily because of his skills.

McCaffrey has outstanding traits for an NFL back. But teams will debate how he can be best deployed in the pros, and if he’s a fit in their offensive philosophy.

Some will see the 202-pound McCaffrey as a complementary back, like a bigger Danny Woodhead. Others will see him as a back who can handle 20 touches a game through running, receiving and even as a returner.

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Christian McCaffrey rushed for 1,603 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. (AP)
Christian McCaffrey rushed for 1,603 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. (AP)

McCaffrey is an interesting player, to say the least. But he has very enticing skills. Here are his strengths and weaknesses:

STRENGTHS

There is a lot to like about McCaffrey.

McCaffrey is outstanding as a runner and receiver. He has the ability to line up anywhere in the formation. He ran a variety of runs inside and outside from different alignments, and showed a good feel for the different nuances of each run. He can be a north-south downhill runner with decisive reads and cuts, a patient runner with vision and he has a great feel for the pace and tempo of both one-back and two-back power-counter plays. He’s a controlled runner with quick cutting ability and change of direction in confined space. He has short-area burst to get through small cracks at the point of attack, with the natural feel and instincts to work through traffic and anticipate the next defender.

Let’s take a look at some runs that show off these skills, starting with this 35-yard touchdown against Kansas State in Stanford’s season opener in 2016. He shows patience, vision, anticipatory instincts and feel, and lateral quickness to make defenders miss in space. He also showed understanding of the little details and nuances by switching the ball to his outside arm. This is an impressive play.

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Here’s a staple NFL run that McCaffrey ran for 33 yards against USC. On a two-back, straight I-formation counter he had patience, vision and short-area burst through a small crease.

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On this 90-yard touchdown, it’s an iso-lead out of a two-back straight I-formation, McCaffrey shows good vision and lateral quickness in the hole.

(Twitter.com/GoStanford)
(Twitter.com/GoStanford)
(Twitter.com/GoStanford)
(Twitter.com/GoStanford)
(Twitter.com/GoStanford)
(Twitter.com/GoStanford)
(Twitter.com/GoStanford)
(Twitter.com/GoStanford)
(Twitter.com/GoStanford)
(Twitter.com/GoStanford)

One of the things that will draw teams to McCaffrey is his receiving ability. On this touchdown, he aligned in the inside slot to the trips side, and beat a linebacker on a shake route.

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McCaffrey has outstanding hands with the ability to run the full route tree, with vertical routes like the wheel out of the backfield or stutter-go routes from split alignment.

One more thing that stands out about McCaffrey is his toughness. He has a finishing mentality, getting the most of out every run.

WEAKNESSES

You have to take into account McCaffrey’s size-speed-power profile. It’s not what teams are ideally looking for at the NFL level.

At a rocked-up 202 pounds, he’s not likely to get any bigger. He’s not big enough to be a foundation back in the NFL, like an Ezekiel Elliott. He runs with toughness but he’s not a power back that can shock the box. He’s more of a measured, methodical runner than an explosive runner.

McCaffrey is a team- and scheme-specific player.

TRANSITION TO NFL

McCaffrey can play 60-70 percent of the snaps in an offense that is shotgun-based and features the passing game as its foundation (the Green Bay Packers’ scheme is one example of this type of offense). He won’t be a foundation back like Elliott or DeMarco Murray. But he can be a matchup weapon in the passing game with his ability to align anywhere in the formation and run routes at all three levels of the defense.

He can line up in any personnel package and be effective with his running instincts, scheme versatility and competitiveness. There are some similarities to Tevin Coleman of the Atlanta Falcons – with the ability to play in the base run game and be multi-dimensional in the pass game – though McCaffrey has a different body type.

McCaffrey can be a valuable player in the NFL. He has a lot of exciting skills. Where he’s drafted will come down to which teams see him as the right fit in their offense.

More NFL draft breakdowns from Greg Cosell
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky
Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes and Cal QB Davis Webb
LSU RB Leonard Fournette

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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.

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