Is Putting McCaffrey at Returner Too Dangerous?

Matt Rhule is entertaining the idea of putting Christian McCaffrey at returner. Is it worth the risk?
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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey has quickly emerged as one of the top players not only at his position, but in the league. His versatility and ability to be a threat in both the run and passing game is what makes him so dynamic and exciting for football fans to watch, regardless of what team they like.

McCaffrey's explosiveness really caught people's attention during his time at Stanford where he was rushing for crazy amounts of yardage, being a factor in the passing game, and at times in the return game as well. Over the last couple of seasons, McCaffrey's usage rate in the Panthers' offense has continued to increase and fans have begun to become concerned about how much he is being utilized. Now, McCaffrey could be seeing even more time on the field by being put in on special teams.

“Yeah, Christian goes back and he works on catching punts. So does D.J. [Moore]. I think it depends on how good he is compared to the next guy, compared to the next guy. If there’s a significant upgrade by anyone, we could use them in the right situation," Rhule said. "It’s a little bit harder this year evaluating the punt returners not having preseason games where you can really get the live bullets. You guys saw us on Tuesday really working hard on the kickoff returns, semi-alive reps, so we’re trying to simulate those things. We think we’ve got something really good in Pharaoh [Cooper], but McCaffrey, D.J., anybody will be used if it gives us an advantage.”

Obviously the first thing that comes to mind is the heightened risk of injury. To this point in his career, McCaffrey has been fairly healthy, but at some point the constant beating his body takes will take a toll on his body. Rhule addressed the concern with the media on Friday.

“Yeah, I think anytime you step out on the football field, there’s a risk of injury. You know, I think punt return, because of the ability of a fair catch and all that, it’s maybe a little safer, but with kickoff return though, I don’t really know. I’d have to look that up analytically. So I think anytime you have the chance to get the ball in your best player’s hands, it’s something you have to think about. Again, it’s not something that I’m sitting here saying we’re doing, so what you asked me is would I consider it and I obviously would consider it, but it’s not in our immediate plans. I think one of the reasons for that is that Pharaoh Cooper, he’s a Pro Bowl returner that we got and so I think we’re really going to exhaust that. We are repping Christian, we are repping DJ at times and if it’s the right situation, if it’s a punter who is giving us returnable balls and the ball is backed up, then I think you’d consider it just a little bit more.” 

I certainly see what Rhule is saying. However, I'm not sure it's worth putting your best player out on punt/kick return, even if he can do damage with the ball in his hands. Pharoh Cooper is a former Pro Bowler, so to me it's a no-brainer. McCaffrey shouldn't see any reps in the return game unless it is the team's last resort. 

If you ask McCaffrey about it, he's all for it - unsurprisingly so.

"Wherever they want to put me is where I'm going to be, so whether that's punt return, kick return, I don't care where it is, if they want me on the field, I'm going to be there."

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