CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One of the lighter moments of Matt Rhule’s news conference at the NFL combine two weeks ago came when the new Carolina Panthers coach explained how no player is untouchable when it comes to trades.
“I would trade my son Bryant if it was for the right people," Rhule said with a laugh. “I’m just saying you have to have that mindset, especially early on as a coach."
Rhule also said some players are “highly unlikely" to be traded. He didn’t mention running back Christian McCaffrey by name, but the eighth pick of the 2017 draft has to fall into that category.
Or does he?
There are countless reasons why the Panthers should extend McCaffrey’s contract, making him one of the highest-paid backs in the NFL. Perhaps the highest paid.
He’s become the face of the franchise with quarterback Cam Newton’s status still in limbo. McCaffrey is the third player in league history to have 1,000 yards receiving and rushing in a season. He would take the pressure off whomever is at quarterback, particularly if it’s a young player. His relentless work ethic rubs off on teammates. He’s durable.
He’s only 23.
But there's one good reason the Panthers could consider trading McCaffrey: value. Why might it make sense?
The Panthers already parted with arguably their second-biggest asset in terms of trade value when they sent Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner to the Chargers for 31-year-old left tackle Russell Okung. Short-term, that was a wash in terms of a 2020 cap hit, with both players scheduled to count about $13 million.
However, Turner has two more years left on his deal and wants an extension after five trips to the Pro Bowl. Okung’s deal is done after this season, so the Panthers' cap situation improves in 2021. Carolina also could pick up a compensatory pick for Okung if he moves on after this season.
And what the Panthers really need beyond cap space as they are about to enter free agency (March 18) is draft picks. They have only seven this year, including the No. 7 overall pick. Trading McCaffrey could bring in an additional first-round pick and perhaps more, either in this year's draft or a future one.
Those picks could be used to trade up for a quarterback, say LSU’s Joe Burrow or Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, if the Panthers decide to move on from Newton. Or they could stockpile promising young players who would be cheaper and under team control as they rebuild.
But the days of trading a running back for six draft picks, as the Cowboys did in 1989 with Herschel Walker, are over.
Gil Brandt, a Hall of Fame executive for the Cowboys (1960-88), doesn’t believe the Panthers could get more than a first-round pick for McCaffrey.
“If you make a trade like that, it has to be a blockbuster trade in your favor," Brandt said. “The reason it has to be that, you have to pay attention to your fans. If you want to trade a player who may one day be a Pro Football Hall of Famer, not knowing what you’re going to get with that choice, you'd better be right."
The Panthers already are below the league average ($44,607,719) in salary-cap space, with just shy of $34 million. McCaffrey will be looking for a long-term deal along the lines of what Ezekiel Elliott got from Dallas last year and Todd Gurley got from the Rams in 2018.
Elliott is averaging $15 million on a six-year deal and Gurley $14.375 million on a four-year deal.
Paying $15 million a year for a running back, even an elite one such as McCaffrey, could put a long-term strain on the cap. Running backs have the shortest average career of any position (2.57 years) and often are the poorest return on investment. That makes extending McCaffrey's deal a bigger risk, as most teams are not devoting that high a percentage of their salary cap to running backs.
Most of the backs who recently signed big deals underperformed from their previous season. Elliott had almost 100 fewer rushing yards in 2019 than 2018 despite playing one more game. Gurley also played in one more game this past season than in 2018 and had almost 400 fewer rushing yards.
He also has been dealing with a chronic knee issue that has limited his carries.
McCaffrey has avoided injuries despite playing 93.2% of the snaps – more than any other back -- in the past two seasons. But there’s always the risk, particularly when you dedicate a huge segment of the cap to that position.
Nobody expects McCaffrey to do what Chargers back Melvin Gordon did last season and hold out through training camp and the first three games in order to force a new deal. However, it’s not out of the realm for McCaffrey to skip offseason workouts until a new deal is reached, and that’s not ideal for a team with a new staff and a lot of new players.
If that were to happen, it could force the Panthers to rethink McCaffrey being in that “highly unlikely" group of untouchables.
The 2020 draft class is deep at running back, so the Panthers could get a more-than-serviceable replacement for McCaffrey in the second or third rounds and at a low price for the next four years.
LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, for example, is projected to go on the second day of the draft. New Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady is more than familiar with the skills of Edwards-Helaire as the Tigers’ passing coordinator last season.
One of the more versatile backs in this year’s draft, Edwards-Helaire described himself as “exclusive.’’
McCaffrey is exclusive as well. Whether he is still untouchable remains to be seen.