The Carolina Panthers’ season was circling the drain even before Matt Rhule became the NFL’s first head coaching casualty of 2022 last week. The post-Rhule era dawned Sunday with an embarrassing performance in a 24-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, who’d hardly looked like defending Super Bowl champions in their two previous outings.
One of the few bright spots for a Panthers team sporting a league-worst 1-5 record is former All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey. Only 26, “CMc” – he missed 23 games combined between the 2020 and ’21 seasons – has served reminder he’s one of the premier multi-dimensional talents at his position when healthy. Against the Rams, he rushed for 69 yards and caught seven passes for 89 more – his 158 combined yards representing 78% of Carolina’s total output. It also marked the 24th time in McCaffrey’s six-year career that he posted both 50 yards rushing and receiving in the same game; only Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk (41) has done that more times in the NFL’s 103-season existence.
Despite his suboptimal circumstances, McCaffrey’s 670 yards from scrimmage in 2022 currently rank fourth in the league. His 33 receptions through Sunday’s games lead all running backs.
His resurgence combined with the Panthers’ implosion continue to fuel speculation he could be a prime trade chip for a team clearly with an eye toward the future. Carolina made its first significant post-Rhule transaction Monday, dealing disenfranchised receiver Robbie Anderson to the Arizona Cardinals.
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So where might McCaffrey end up if Carolina GM Scott Fitterer – the Panthers currently have just five selections in next year’s draft (pending what Anderson fetches) – gets an offer he likes before the league’s Nov. 1 trade deadline?
“All that stuff’s out of my control,” McCaffrey said Sunday. “My job is to be the best Carolina Panther I can be and do everything I can for my teammates.”
The best thing he might be able to do now is facilitate a rebuild or reset by bringing assets back to Charlotte.
Here are seven feasible destinations for McCaffrey:
It’s the nightmare scenario for the rest of the league. The Bills are riding high atop the AFC following Sunday’s win at Kansas City and may already be plenty good enough to win their first Super Bowl. But they’re also obviously all in on that mission given the six-year, $120 million deal they gave to 33-year-old pass rusher Von Miller, who’s been busily recruiting additional upgrades – namely free agent WR Odell Beckham Jr.
Yet if there’s an area that could use fortification, it might be Buffalo’s run game. Since QB Josh Allen was drafted in 2018, he’s been the team’s leading rusher in two seasons, including this year (257 yards). The Bills haven’t had anyone run for more than 900 yards since LeSean McCoy in 2017, and Devin Singletary (1,098 yards in 2021) is the only back to exceed 1,000 yards from scrimmage in a season during Allen’s tenure. Buffalo currently owns the league’s No. 1 overall offense but ranks 17th in rushing. Imagine adding McCaffrey to that equation.
From a salary cap standpoint, no team should have much trouble absorbing the balance of McCaffrey’s $1.04 million base salary in 2022, though the Bills would have to adjust their payroll structure to accommodate the $36.2 million he is owed from 2023 to 2025 (including $12 million next year). But the bigger question would be what Buffalo would be willing to pay – in terms of draft capital – to the Panthers, who will incur an $18.4 million cap charge for 2023 by trading CMc and want multiple first-round draft picks for their trouble, according to a report, and a star performer who should have several prime years ahead of him.
Two footnotes worth mentioning: Bills general manager Brandon Beane was the Panthers assistant GM when they made McCaffrey the eighth overall pick of the 2017 draft. However, according to an NFL Network report last week, the Bills had not yet engaged Carolina in trade talks regarding him.
It’s worth considering on a few levels. McCaffrey is a Colorado native, whose father, Ed, was a starting receiver on Denver’s 1997 and ’98 Super Bowl champions. CMc would also theoretically fit into a backfield that lost Javonte Williams for the foreseeable future after he tore multiple knee ligaments in Week 4 and is trying to endure Melvin Gordon’s recent rash of fumbles. McCaffrey could also placate a fan base already disillusioned by an offense that’s sputtered under rookie coach Nathaniel Hackett and struggling QB Russell Wilson.
Conversely, acquiring McCaffrey would be a major swing for a team under new ownership that’s already trying to work through so many issues. And GM George Paton would have to face going into serious draft debt given the deal for Wilson already stripped the Broncos of next year’s first- and second-rounder.
Kansas City Chiefs
Deep as the AFC appears, it may also be shaping up as a two-team arms race between the Bills and the team that’s knocked them out of the postseason the past two years. The Chiefs’ Week 6 home loss to Buffalo almost certainly means the venue will shift to Western New York if the clubs meet again in January.
McCaffrey is obviously a different kind of player who mans a different position than departed WR Tyreek Hill. However, McCaffrey, who averaged nearly 2,200 yards from scrimmage and 6 yards per touch between 2018 and ’19, could replace Hill’s production. And Andy Reid knows how to use a multi-threat back – Brian Westbrook, McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Kareem Hunt each taking superstar turns in his offense.
Kansas City currently ranks 20th in rushing, and McCaffrey would be an obvious upgrade to a committee presently led by Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Like the Bills, the Chiefs could offer what would probably wind up being a late first-round pick in 2023 for CMc. Yet GM Brett Veach could also sweeten the package by throwing in rookie RB Isiah Pacheco, who looks like he could be a dynamic runner but isn’t getting many touches here.
One final reason the Chiefs should consider a McCaffrey trade? Such a move would ensure he doesn’t wind up in Buffalo.
Los Angeles Rams
Blocking is their primary bugaboo, but the offensive line has time to heal. However, coach Sean McVay and GM Les Snead must strike soon in order to make one of their patented deals – and McCaffrey could solve a lot of issues for an offense that’s having, by far, its worst season since McVay’s arrival in 2017.
The Rams got an up-close look at McCaffrey on Sunday and surely saw a guy who could be the outlet receiver able to alleviate the protection problems in front of QB Matthew Stafford while reducing the burden on WR Cooper Kupp.
LA isn’t scheduled to pick in the first round again until 2024, so Snead and McVay might have to get creative on the compensatory front. An offer to Carolina could include third-year RB Cam Akers, who appears to have found his way into McVay’s doghouse.
Think about McCaffrey working in the vast spaces created by the wideout duo of Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The Fins also have major blocking deficiencies, evidenced by the controversial beating QB Tua Tagovailoa has been exposed to, and only two teams are less productive on the ground than the 81.2 rushing yards per game Miami is generating. McCaffrey could mask those weaknesses.
Rookie head coach Mike McDaniel made a lot of his bones as the run game coordinator in San Francisco for five seasons and could take this offense in new directions with a talent of McCaffrey’s caliber. That would, of course, assume the organization is definitively sold on Tagovailoa as its franchise passer – especially after being stripped of next year’s first-round pick following the league’s probe into owner Stephen Ross’ tampering with Tom Brady and Sean Payton. Miami does possess the 49ers’ 2023 first-rounder.
San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on the success of the run game, but it’s been middling this season without injured starter Elijah Mitchell. Under Shanahan, the Niners also haven’t invested much in the running back position, featuring five different leading rushers in the coach’s first five seasons.
But McCaffrey could be a game changer for a team that’s lost a Super Bowl and an NFC title game in the previous three seasons. He’d be an obvious asset to QB Jimmy Garoppolo this year, not to mention someone Trey Lance could rely on next year as he reacclimates to the starting role while trying to come back from the broken ankle that prematurely ended his 2022 campaign. McCaffrey could also beautifully supplement “wide back” Deebo Samuel while giving Shanahan the option of relying less on the All-Pro’s heavy involvement in the run game.
McCaffrey’s salary wouldn’t be a major impediment given Lance is on a rookie deal through 2025. However, the Niners’ ability to swing a deal is complicated by the fact that Lance cost them next year’s Round 1 selection thanks to that pre-draft trade with Miami in 2021.
On one hand, Ron Rivera needs to protect what projects as a high-end 2023 first-round pick to address what the coach admitted has been his franchise’s recent downfall: the quarterback position. On the other, the conditional third-round pick Rivera spent this offseason to get Carson Wentz may no longer scale up to a second-rounder given the signal caller’s broken finger may prevent him taking 70% of the Commanders’ snaps.
Maybe that creates an opportunity for Washington. The club has long embraced splashy transactions under embattled owner Dan Snyder and could try to reunite McCaffrey with Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who oversaw his best season in 2019. Carolina might also be a logical trading partner given RB Antonio Gibson’s role with the Commanders is in flux.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.