PASADENA, Calif. -- NFL scouts are always instructed to pay close attention to young players that jump off the screen when scouting underclassmen. Although evaluators are prohibited from issuing grades for non-draft-eligible prospects (players must be three years removed from high school to enter the NFL draft), I wanted to take a long, hard look at Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey after hearing so much about his talents during a spectacular sophomore campaign that led him to finish as the runner-up for the 2015 Heisman Trophy award. After poring over the tape from the regular season and making the trek to Pasadena to watch him showcase his talents in a 45-16 win over Iowa in the Rose Bowl, here are my thoughts on coach David Shaw's budding superstar:
McCaffrey is an electric athlete with ideal physical traits for the position. Measuring 6-foot, 201 pounds with a chiseled frame, he flashes explosive speed, quickness and agility. McCaffrey frequently appears to be the fastest man on the field, but is also capable of stopping on a dime and quickly regenerating his speed. With balance, body control, agility and speed coveted at a premium by NFL scouts, McCaffrey's athleticism will make him a prized commodity in the scouting community.
It's uncommon for a 200-pound runner to display the toughness to grind it out between the tackles and possess the explosiveness to turn the corner on outside runs, but McCaffrey is a rare find at the position. He is a patient runner with exceptional vision, balance and body control. He has a knack for slipping and sliding through creases at the point of attack on inside runs, but is just as dangerous turning the corner on plays directed to the edges. McCaffrey's combination of speed, quickness and agility makes him tough to contain even though opponents load the box with eight- and nine-man fronts. From a durability standpoint, there are naturally some concerns about his ability to handle a 20-plus carry workload due to his size, but he has notched at least 20 rushing attempts in 11 games this season and shown no signs of slowing down at the end of the season.
Against Iowa, McCaffrey showcased his electric running skills in an 18-carry, 172-yard effort that will certainly leave scouts salivating over his playmaking potential as a runner. McCaffrey not only probed the interior on an assortment of power runs from a "dot" position in an I formation, but he also showed the ability to turn the corner on perimeters from the shotgun or Wildcat formation.
The pass-happy nature of the NFL makes it imperative for running backs to display functional skills as receivers in the passing game. Despite the rise of role-specific backfield rotations, most offensive coordinators would prefer a workhorse back with "three-down" ability. Thus, McCaffrey's exceptional skills as a receiver could make him an intriguing option for creative play designers at the next level. The sensational sophomore is a crafty route runner with outstanding balance, body control and burst. He has a keen sense of timing and his ability to set defenders up with a little wiggle makes him nearly impossible to guard on option routes out of the backfield. On screens, McCaffrey's impeccable timing and spectacular open-field running skills make him a nightmare to contain. He routinely slips into the flat and turns a simple toss into an explosive gain.
Against Iowa, McCaffrey put on a show as an electric playmaker in the passing game. He scored on a 75-yard reception on the Cardinal's first offensive play, exhibiting a killer stutter-step at the top of his option route to run away from the safety. McCaffrey also provided a few splash plays on a pair of screens (bubble and slow screen) that showcased his slick running skills in traffic. With NFL coordinators coveting dynamic players in the passing game, McCaffrey's performance will pique the interest of scouts looking for a versatile game changer in the backfield.
To win in the NFL, an offense must be able to generate explosive plays (passes for more than 20 yards; runs of at least 12 yards). Thus, McCaffrey's production as a multipurpose threat will earn him high marks when evaluators dig into the coaches' tape. Watching his play throughout the fall, I was impressed with his ability to score from anywhere on the field in a variety of ways. From his electric return skills to his unique playmaking ability as a runner-receiver, McCaffrey makes scouts gasp with each touch. He is a threat to flip the field whenever he touches the ball in space, which makes him a huge asset as a multifaceted playmaker. With McCaffrey shattering Barry Sanders' single-season all-purpose yardage record with 3,496 total yards (Sanders totaled 3,249 yards in 1988), the production certainly matched his sizzling performance on the field.
In the Rose Bowl, McCaffrey lived up to his reputation as a big-play specialist with a spectacular 75-yard touchdown reception on the first offense play of the game, and he cemented his legacy with a 63-yard punt-return score. While he also added a handful of splash plays on an assortment of perimeter runs and screens, it was McCaffrey's ability to notch a rare "100-100" game (100 rushing yards; 100 receiving yards) that will resonate with evaluators intrigued by his big-play potential.
It's unfortunate that McCaffrey isn't a draft-eligible prospect at this time because I know several NFL coaches would love to get their hands on an electric playmaker capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. The spectacular sophomore is an explosive "two-phase" player with a natural feel for finding creases in the middle of the defense as a runner-receiver-returner. If I had to compare him to a recent pro, I would cite former Philadelphia Eagles RB Brian Westbrook as an apt comparison. The two-time All-Pro was a dominant multipurpose specialist in the NFL; McCaffrey could thrive in a similar role down the road.