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The Panthers Have a Decision to Make on Christian McCaffrey

Back-to-back season-ending injuries could be enough for the Panthers to move on from their star running back.

At the time of the deal, I argued that paying running back Christian McCaffrey made sense. He's a special player that can impact the game in so many different ways and as we've seen, the offense is on a completely different level with him in uniform.

The problem is, he hasn't been in uniform very much since signing the contract extension in 2020. In fact, by the end of the season, McCaffrey will have played in just ten of the 33 games that head coach Matt Rhule has coached in Carolina. Last season, it was a number of different injuries. First, it was the ankle that kept him out for several weeks. He made his return against the Kansas City Chiefs and played well but at the end of the game, he injured his shoulder. After missing a few more games, McCaffrey was working his way back at the end of the season but then a quad injury popped up and the Panthers decided to just shut him down for the year, knowing that they had no chance of making the postseason.

Fast forward to 2021 and it's like the Panthers are reliving the same nightmare from a year ago. In week three, McCaffrey leaves the game with a hamstring injury and is placed on injured reserve which leads to him missing five games. Four weeks after his return, he gets his ankle rolled on in Miami and placed on injured reserve a second time, marking the end of his season.

Most general managers have refrained from drafting running backs in the first round and have also not been very willing to drop a big amount of money at their feet when their contract runs out. The reason being? Running backs just don't last in this league. There are a few who make it longer than others like Adrian Peterson, Emmitt Smith, and Walter Payton but very few last into their 30s, let alone late 20s. Running backs take the most beating on a week in, week out basis which is why when you do have someone like Christian McCaffrey, you have to limit his workload. According to research done by Statista, running backs have the shortest lifespan in the NFL with an average of 2.57 years per career. See why GMs are not chomping at the bit to throw a lump sum of cash at their star running backs?

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Christian McCaffrey, however, is different. At the time of his extension, he was coming off a season in which he recorded over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving; something that has only been achieved two other times in the history of the game. The Panthers weren't throwing some $64 million at an elite starting running back, they were also paying for an elite receiver. In all honesty, if McCaffrey would have stayed healthy, the deal could be considered a bargain in the sense that you're paying an elite running back and an elite receiver for just $64 million over four years. But with McCaffrey missing so many games, the deal looks far from a bargain. 

Could it be in the best interest of the Panthers to move on from McCaffrey? At this point? Yes. Although he is clearly the best player on the field when available, you can't count on him playing in more than ten games, much less a full season. With the Panthers' future still unclear at the quarterback position, I would fully expect Carolina to include McCaffrey in trade talks that could land them one of the big-game QBs this offseason. Finding a quarterback must be a priority for the Panthers and if it means parting with McCaffrey, you do it. 

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