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Mel Kiper: Do-it-all Christian McCaffrey 'would be great pick' for Panthers at No. 8

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The more video you watch on Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, the more you watch all he can do from so many positions, the more he makes sense for the Carolina Panthers with the No. 8 pick of the NFL draft.

At least, that is, in terms of an immediate impact.

In politics this would be called a flip-flop from a reporter that has been pushing Alabama tight end O.J. Howard over LSU running back Leonard Fournette.

So the question was posed to ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay:

Knowing Carolina’s need at running back and slot receiver and how the goal offensively is to evolve as a more traditional offense to take the pressure off quarterback Cam Newton to run, what might be the value of the Panthers taking McCaffrey at No. 8 even if Fournette and Howard were still on the board?

Neither would be surprised if the Panthers went with McCaffrey, who can play running back, slot receiver, wide receiver and return kicks.

Both would have been surprised to say that a month ago.

“I think McCaffrey would be a great pick,’’ Kiper said Tuesday during a conference call with ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters. “I thought that all along. . . . I mean, if you watch him play he just knows the game. He’s so instinctive of a football player.

“I think McCaffrey goes somewhere in the top 10.’’

McShay calls McCaffrey the “most versatile offensive weapon in this entire draft class.’’

He ranked McCaffrey 10th among all draft prospects, up from No. 17, in his latest top 32 players. He gave McCaffrey an overall grade of 91, one point behind Fournette, who came in seventh.

“I don’t think he’s out of the question at 8,’’ McShay said of McCaffrey. “Fourteen is a possibility with the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s more likely he’ll be a top 15 today than I would have thought two months ago.’’

McShay still believes Carolina hopes Fournette drops to eight.

“He would be a great pick for what they want to do,’’ he reminded. “Over 70 percent of their offense last year was inside zone and power, and that’s just the team they want to be.

“If you don’t get Fournette . . . take the best available player there. If it is McCaffrey, great.’’

You can make the case that Fournette or Howard would be better long-term fixes for Carolina.

Fournette is a younger and perhaps more powerful version of Jonathan Stewart, 30, who recently signed an extension through the 2018 season. He could be a force for the next six to eight years.

But unless the Panthers plan to greatly reduce Stewart’s carries this season, Fournette’s immediate role could be limited. He wouldn’t be the featured back he’s been.

Howard has been compared to Greg Olsen, who turned 32 in March. He could play immediately opposite Olsen and be a future replacement for the three-time Pro Bowl selection.

That’s why he’s been the big push until now.

But nobody potentially would have a bigger instant and more widespread impact offensively than McCaffrey.

He could get 10 to 12 touches as a running back and that many or more as a slot receiver, expected to play a bigger role as the offense evolves. He rushed for 3,622 yards and 21 touchdowns the past two seasons, and caught 82 passes for 955 yards and eight touchdowns.

McCaffrey also could fill the void left by wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., now with the New Orleans Saints, as a punt returner. He averaged 11.2 yards a return at Stanford.

He also could return kickoffs, where in college he averaged 26.4 yards.

He easily could get 25-35 touches a game, more than you can envision Fournette getting unless Stewart is injured.

“I think McCaffrey [would be a good pick] for any team looking for a multi-dimensional weapon who is not just a running back,’’ Kiper said.

The Panthers already have hired McCaffrey’s college position coach, Lance Taylor, to coach the wide receivers. Taylor compared McCaffrey’s work ethic and leadership to that of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

“He’d look great in Panther blue and black,’’ Taylor said in February.

Then McCaffrey was considered a middle- to low-first round pick. He began surging up draft boards after the NFL combine, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds, better than Fournette (4.51) and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (4.49).

McCaffrey blew away Fournette in the vertical jump, 37.5 inches to 28.5. He posted a time of 6.57 seconds in the three-cone drill that was the second fastest by a running back at the combine since 2003.

“He has rocketed up because people look at him and say safe pick, high value,’’ Kiper said. “He can do so much for you in today’s NFL. He’s got great value.’’

His value to Newton and the Panthers may be worth the eighth pick.