It’s a strong statement coming from one of the NFL’s weakest run games, but it’s true. There are good reasons for the Buffalo Bills to pursue Christian McCaffrey. There are better reasons to stay put. We’d like to believe that a star running back would push this run game over the top… but would they?
The Buffalo Bills Run Game Woes
At a glance, you might think our run game is average. The Buffalo Bills are putting up 116.4 rushing yards per game, good for 14th in the NFL, but that statistic is misleading. Once you factor in that our leading rusher is Josh Allen, providing 45.0 yards per game on the ground, the running back room looks far from threatening. Without our quarterback, the Bills have rushed for only 71.4 YPG this season. Is it the fault of our RBs, though, or poor blocking?
Through four weeks (pending Week 5 statistics), the Bills sat at dead last with a pitiful 65% run-block win rate. Oftentimes, our running backs get the ball with pressure in their face already. They’re handed the ball and sent towards running lanes that either never opened or closed too fast. A majority of our yardage on the ground has come from broken plays or broken tackles. The league-best win-rate is 75%, owned by the Cardinals, Raiders, and Broncos and CMC currently sits behind a line that provides a 74% win-rate when rushing.
You see, our problems running the ball go deeper than the ball-carrier. The number of running backs in the NFL who can put up impressive numbers despite a poor supporting cast can be counted on one hand. Is Christian McCaffrey one of them? So far this season, he hasn’t had to be. He would upgrade the RB room, but is the cost of the upgrade worth it?
Christian McCaffrey: A Value Proposition
To justify this trade, one has to make several assumptions. First, we assume that his skillset is directly translatable into this offense. Second, we assume that he’s capable of the same level of production behind a worse run-blocking offensive line. Thirdly, we assume we can handle the hits financially in the upcoming thin-walleted offseason. The last assumption we make is that his usage would justify the current and future cost of this trade. Of these assumptions, only one seems reasonable.
Assumption #1: Translatable Skillset
This first, and most reasonable, assumption is that he’d fit into the offense. We would need to adjust our running back room somewhat, but it’s fair to believe that he could fill a similar role to what he plays in Carolina currently.
Assumption #2: Production
McCaffrey is a great running back, but he needs space to operate. Can we reasonably believe that he’d provide the same yardage per attempt behind significantly worse run-blocking? The answer is no. When the blocking succeeds, so do the RBs we already have. If we want to fix the run game, we need to find more reliable blocking to elevate everyone in the group, not slap a band-aid on the problem and hope it goes away.
Assumption #3: Long-Term Cost Management
Christian McCaffrey will not be expensive this year, but he won’t stay that way. The Panthers converted his salary to a bonus earlier this year, meaning he would only count for $600K against the 2022 salary cap. In 2023, his cap hit leaps to $19.5M. It stays there for 2024, and drops to $15.4M in 2025. We’d either be on the hook for a three-year, $54M contract for a running back with heavy recent injury history, Luckily, the guarantees and dead cap are largely covered by Panthers. The contract boils down to a $12M average annual value (AAV), which is still expensive. Also, in order to have the Panthers assume so much dead cap for a player not on their roster, they’d need significant compensation, namely draft picks. The Bills cannot afford to seperate with long-term cost-controlled capital to assume another expensive asset.
Cutting him in 2023 is possible, but considering the assets required for that move, this trade would be a long-term investment. If we took him on, this situation would be lumped into an already-murky salary cap situation for the Buffalo Bills.
Assumption #4: Justifying Value with Usage
Perhaps the most important part of this discussion is whether or not we’d even want to put him out there. To justify giving up current and future assets that this team needs in order to get a better running back, we must make the assumption that we’d use McCaffrey enough to make it worthwhile.
Unfortunately, giving Christian McCaffrey the ball means taking it away from Josh Allen. In the modern NFL, a strong passing game can overcome any obstacle. We have one of the best in the league. We only get so many snaps in a game, and this team would be hard-pressed to put a cap on Josh Allen’s incredible week-after-week dominance to give the ball to another running back behind a suspect offensive line.
This sunk cost fallacy is one I’d rather avoid. The offense shouldn’t have to lean away from our unrelenting passing attack in order to justify tricky accounting. We can still improve the team, but not like that.
An Alternative to CMC
On a positive note, we still have attractive options on the horizons. This offense should be leaning into the passing game even further, and there’s a particular free agent who can do their part for us once November rolls around… Odell Beckham Jr.
For starters, he won’t cost us anything beyond 2022. A one-year deal to join us for a postseason run means no long-term financial commitment. Secondly, the Buffalo Bills use their receivers more than just about every team in the NFL, and adding depth to that position group holds far greater value to this offense.
Lastly, OBJ is a decision that we can think on. He remains a free agent for now, and can be signed when he’s fully recovered from his ACL tear in February. The lack of rush allows the franchise to make an informed decision, instead of one with a short timer.
The NFL’s trade deadline is November 1st, and if they intend to make a move for CMC we’ll know before then. Still, don’t expect any big moves just yet. The Buffalo Bills will be saving their fireworks for on the field.
The Buffalo Bulletin on Buffalo Fanatics is a weekly editorial by Iestyn Harris. For last week’s installment, click here! Check back regularly for hot topics, riveting discussion, and, occasionally, some actual insight.
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