Christian McCaffrey has come a long way since his days at Stanford when the school’s athletic department had to remind Heisman Trophy voters of his existence.
Just look at him now, though. Unless you’re being paid to tackle or guard him, it’s nearly impossible to miss the Carolina Panthers star running back.
Whether it’s NFL player rankings, the covers of football magazines or atop fantasy football league drafts, the 24-year-old McCaffrey is usually the first player you see.
McCaffrey can’t even go to the beach with his girlfriend without escaping widespread notice on social media. (OK, a contributing factor could be the fact his girlfriend is a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.)
Yet, as popular and noticeable as he may be, it’s been surprisingly easy for NFL defenders to lose track of him. Come Sunday, containing McCaffrey is the Raiders’ main concern during their season opener against the Panthers.
The Raiders, though, have reason to believe they may be equipped to at least slow down the fourth-year star. Their belief is tied to the $35.25 million deal they gave free-agent linebacker Cory Littleton, considered one of the very best in covering running backs sneaking out of the backfield.
“Littleton, as you know, as an underneath coverage linebacker is exceptional,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden told reporters. “And we’re going to need that against McCaffrey and (Alvin) Kamara and some of the beasts that we’re going to see in our division.”
Nonetheless, no test is bigger than the one teams face when lined up against McCaffrey.
In just three years in the NFL, McCaffrey has already twice set the single-season record for most receptions by a running back — he caught 107 passes in 2018 and broke the mark last year with 116 catches. He also has a league-best 5,443 yards from scrimmage in his three seasons, including nearly 3,000 yards rushing.
Those accomplishments helped McCaffrey find himself No. 1 on another list earlier this off-season. That came when he signed a four-year, $64 million contract extension making him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. That was just months after he made NFL history on the field as just the third running back — and first in 20 years — to rush for 1,000 yards and catch passes for 1,000 yards in a season — joining ex-49er Roger Craig and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.
49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said figuring out what makes McCaffrey so special is easier than designing a way to stop him.
“He runs through arm tackles, he’ll make you miss, he’ll run right through you and he’ll outrun you,” Saleh said last season. “He can do everything, and that’s what really makes it hard (for defenses).”
Aside from keeping our eyes on No. 22 on the Panthers, here are some other things to watch for in the Raiders’ first game while based in Las Vegas:
GAME ESSENTIALS: Raiders (0-0, 7-9 in 2019, 3rd in AFC West) vs. Carolina (0-0, 5-11 in 2019, last in NFC South) at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C., Sunday at 10 a.m. (PT) on CBS-TV. ODDS: Raiders -3.
THREE REASONS FOR RAIDERS’ OPTIMISM:
A ‘non-hostile crowd’ for the opener
In yet another reminder we’re living in strange times, like most road teams the Raiders won’t be dealing with a raucous crowd — or anyone in the stands at all, for that matter — when they travel to Charlotte. Without a boisterous crowd, the homefield advantage theoretically takes a hit. The decision was made a couple of weeks ago in North Carolina to prohibit fans from attending games due to COVID-19 restrictions, at least early on. That should be music to the ears of a visiting quarterback like Derek Carr, right? Not necessarily. “I know that there will be noise,” Carr said recently about not having fans in the stadiums. “I think most of these stadiums pump it in anyway and they don’t tell you about it. All of a sudden, it’s loud and you look around and you can’t hear anything, yet no one is screaming in the stands, so it’s pretty interesting. So, we’ll see.”
Facing the NFL’s worst-rated defense
The Panthers’ secondary is a work in progress and could be susceptible against Carr, who may have in rookie Henry Ruggs III the home run hitter his offense has lacked since Antonio Brown’s downward spiral after burning his feet and struggling to find a legal helmet. Free safety Tre Boston figures to be a busy man trying to help cover for Carolina’s young and unproven cornerbacks Donte Jackson and rookie Troy Pride Jr., a fourth-round pick. Jackson is their No. 1 corner and he’s ranked just 38th out of 51 qualifying cornerbacks in the past two seasons. Those in Carolina are dreading a Week 2 matchup with Tampa Bay’s star receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but they might be advised to first watch out for Ruggs, fellow rookie receiver Bryan Edwards and second-year slot Hunter Renfrow this coming Sunday.
Luke Kuechly is retired
For the first time in nine years, the Panthers will be without superstar linebacker Luke Kuechly after the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year announced his retirement in January at age 28. Beset by concussions after other debilitating injuries, Kuechly decided to end his career despite still leading the NFL in tackles over the past eight years. His absence is a blow to a defense that comes into the season as the league’s 32nd-rated unit. Kuechly’s replacement is former Raider Tahir Whitehead, who had a so-so two-year stop in Oakland before signing with Carolina in the off-season.
THREE REASONS FOR RAIDERS’ PESSIMISM:
Ruhle not made to be broken
Puns aside, first-year NFL head coach Matt Ruhle is no joke. He gets things done. Maybe not fast enough to turn things around in Carolina this week or even this season, but his teams in college were quick learners. At Temple, his teams went from 2-10 to 10-4 in two years. At Baylor, Ruhle’s program went from 1-11 to 11-3 two years later. He’s not afraid to shake things up. Heck, he’s bringing the RPO (run/pass option) to Carolina. The Raiders are at a disadvantage in that with no preseason games no one’s yet seen Ruhle’s team in action. In addition, he may have a little insight to the Raiders since he considers Jon Gruden his mentor and the two spoke often when Ruhle was coaching in college. “It’ll be an honor to take the field against him,” Ruhle told reporters earlier this week.
A sneaky good receiving corps awaits
In D.J. Moore and ex-Jets speedster Robby Anderson, the Panthers have a pair of receivers who can cause some damage to opposing secondaries. They conceivably could create trouble for the Raiders’ young corners, Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette. Moore, who had 1,175 yards on 87 catches, was the 15th-ranked receiver last season, according to PFF.com. The analytics also had Moore ranked sixth in the NFL with 957 yards on throws up to 20 yards downfield. While Moore is elusive off the line, Anderson provides the straight-line speed. Anderson has 18 touchdowns over the last three seasons, including five on 52 catches for 779 yards a year ago.
Panthers’ beefed-up offensive line
The Raiders’ hopes of finding easier paths to the quarterback this season may run into a roadblock from the start as Carolina added talented left tacke Russell Okung in an off-season trade. Okung had a pulmonary embolism last year, but he’s been an above average tackle when healthy. He’ll pair with solid right tackle Taylor Moton, owner of the league’s 10th-best PFF.com pass-block grade on passing downs. Having Okung and Moton guarding the flanks may make finding a path to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater a losing proposition.
PROBABLE DIFFERENCE-MAKER: Teddy Bridgewater. After spending the past two years as Drew Brees’ backup in New Orleans, Bridgewater was the perfect person to bring in to run the Panthers’ new offense, which is borrowed from the Saints. New Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady came from New Orleans, where he worked with Bridgewater. The 27-year-old Bridgewater won all five games he started in relief of Brees last year and the Panthers hope his steady style can have a settling influence on their young offense. Bridgewater completed a career-high 68 percent of his passes last year while throwing nine touchdowns with just two interceptions. Ironically, Bridgewater has heard some of the same criticisms Derek Carr hears — that he’s not aggressive enough throwing the ball downfield. The former Vikings’ first-round pick had the league’s lowest rate of passes traveling 10 yards or more, 21 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.