CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren was 10 minutes into anointing Christian McCaffrey a future NFL superstar when he was asked about the downside of arguably the most versatile running back in the draft.
“He left before his senior year, so I don’t get to coach him another year,” Bloomgren said with a laugh.
Bloomgren admittedly is biased about a player the Carolina Panthers are considering for the eighth pick on Thursday.
After three years of watching McCaffrey excel on and off the field, negatives are hard to find. For Bloomgren, they’re maybe impossible.
Bloomgren is so high on the 5-foot-11, 202-pound running back/slot receiver/kick returner that he compares him to soon-to-be Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
“I sound like I’m anointing this guy as the second coming, and I’m not trying to do that,” Bloomgren said. “But what I am telling you, as a football player, as a kid, as a guy you want around my own children … I’m probably too biased to say anything negative about him.”
He isn’t alone. New Carolina wide receivers coach Lance Taylor, McCaffrey’s position coach at Stanford the past three seasons, would like to be reunited with the player who set an FBS record with 6,191 all-purpose yards during his final two college seasons.
Taylor compared McCaffrey’s work ethic to that of Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the ninth overall pick of the 2012 draft.
“Believe me, I’ve got nothing but great reviews for the guy,” Taylor said of McCaffrey after joining the Panthers. “He’s a great player but also a great person of character.”
With LSU running back Leonard Fournette expected to be gone by the eighth pick, McCaffrey arguably is the next-highest-rated back.
McCaffrey definitely has good athletic genes. He is the son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey and former Stanford soccer star Lisa McCaffrey, who is the daughter of U.S. Olympian Dave Sime.
Because of his versatility, McCaffrey in many ways might be a better fit for the Panthers than Fournette, in terms of taking the pressure off quarterback Cam Newton in the running game.
“That’s exactly what he does,” Bloomgren said. “He’s capable of taking plays that draw up really well and you have numeric advantages for, and he’s capable of closing those things out — and, as they say in the college game, making the band strike up.”
Bloomgren points to the first play of the 2016 Rose Bowl as an example. Stanford was in a two-tight-end set with quarterback Kevin Hogan in the shotgun and McCaffrey lined up to his right. McCaffrey slipped around the line after the snap and caught a perfectly threaded pass up the middle. Then he used the 4.48 40 speed that turned heads at the NFL combine to run away from defenders for a 75-yard touchdown.
“His ability to finish has been something — gosh, that’s a nice thing to have in your pocket,” Bloomgren said.
The Panthers have an advantage in that Taylor knows exactly how McCaffrey was used and where he would benefit a player such as Newton.
“As an offensive coordinator, I wanted to overload him. I wanted to give him freaking too much,” Bloomgren said. “Lance used to be a good advocate for him and say, ‘Look, we need to make sure he’s comfortable doing X, Y and Z.’ And honestly, he’s so smart, it’s hard to overload him.”
McCaffrey could fill immediate needs for the Panthers as a slot receiver, a running back to spell Jonathan Stewart and a punt returner to replace Ted Ginn Jr. He also could carry the load as a three-down back if Stewart misses a game, as he has three times in each of the past two seasons.
Perhaps the biggest question on McCaffrey is whether he’s a true three-down back. Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman answered that with an affirmative last week. Bloomgren seconded that.
And oh, by the way, Bloomgren also touted McCaffrey as a solid pass-blocker, something Gettleman said few backs can do well coming out of college.
“There were a couple of people that were haters, for the lack of a better term,” Bloomgren said. “And when they put their eyes on him, they are, ‘Hey, wait!’
“He was a three-down back for us and would have been for any team I was on in the National Football League.”
Plays with a chip
Bloomgren’s first impression of McCaffrey was, “Hey, is this dude this serious all the time?”
“And the answer to that question turns out to be no, but he certainly attacks anything that has to do with this game with that serious mindset,” he said.
Bloomgren’s comparison of McCaffrey to Tomlinson is based on personal experience. Bloomgren was an assistant coach with the New York Jets during the final years of Tomlinson’s career, which ended with 13,684 rushing yards and 4,772 receiving yards.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera also knows what Tomlinson can do. He was with the all-purpose back for three years (2007-09) in San Diego.
The knocks on Tomlinson coming out of TCU in 2001 were the same as those on McCaffrey: size and durability. Tomlinson was 5-foot-10, 215 pounds. That didn’t stop the Chargers from making Tomlinson the fifth pick of the draft.
They weren’t disappointed. He rushed for 1,236 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 59 passes for 367 yards as a rookie.
“Think about the challenge he creates for a defensive coordinator,” Bloomgren said of McCaffrey. “On first down, he’s behind the fullback and he’s running power. On second down … he’s the base protecting back.
“Now you’re on third down. He’s in the slot. It’s completely different formations, but you never change personnel. For any defensive coordinator, he’s unsure what call to make.”
‘The perfect football player’
McCaffrey isn’t just a star on the field.
“The son of a gun is just good at life,” Bloomgren said. “All the girls think he’s the most beautiful thing in the world. He’s got those blue eyes. Then when the switch turns, he’s the perfect football player.”
McCaffrey’s trip to New York after the 2015 season for the Heisman Trophy award ceremony — he finished second — made as big of an impression on Bloomgren as anything that happened on the field.
“He was 19,” he said. “He spoke so eloquently on the mic, something I couldn’t do at double his age, with such grace and humility.”
These are all qualities most NFL teams look for in players. These qualities are particularly important to a Carolina organization that preaches character as much as athletic ability. That makes the upside on McCaffrey far greater than the risk in a league that over the past decade has shied away from taking running backs in the first round.
“He shows everybody how to work on and off the field with his practice habits, the way he finishes runs in practice like it’s the Super Bowl,” Bloomgren said. “Somebody was an average, marginal NFL talent with his work ethic, I’ve seen those guys stick in the NFL for eight years.
“Now you’re talking about somebody with elite athletic ability, elite change of direction and running a 4.4 combined with that work ethic and feel for the game, and you’re going to enjoy watching him.”