Should Carolina Panthers trade or keep Christian McCaffrey?

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The losses are taking their toll on Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.

You could see it on his face after Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, Carolina’s fifth defeat in six games this season and 12th in their past 13 going back to last season. The Panthers haven’t had a winning season since McCaffrey’s rookie campaign in 2017, when they were 11-5. They have gone 23-53 since.

You could hear it in his voice when he was asked why it’s been so hard the past two years for the organization to turn around.

"Every loss sucks," McCaffrey said.

On top of the losses, and on top of seeing coach Matt Rhule fired a week ago and replaced by Steve Wilks, McCaffrey now is the topic of possibly being traded to another team before the Nov. 1 NFL trade deadline.

While a source close to the situation said that’s unlikely to happen without a team giving up something substantial -- likely a first-round draft pick -- McCaffrey is the most valuable trade prospect the Panthers have. He showed that again Sunday at SoFi Stadium, accounting for 74.5 % of Carolina’s yards from scrimmage, the highest percentage by a player in a game this season and the second highest in a game over the past 20 seasons.

McCaffrey rushed 13 times for 69 yards and caught a team-high seven passes for 89 yards, the 24th time he’s had at least 50 rushing and 50 receiving yards in the same game. Only Marshall Faulk in NFL history has more with 41.

The defending Super Bowl champion Rams could use a back like McCaffrey, but they don’t have a first-round pick in 2023. Neither do the San Francisco 49ers, another team in need of a star player to elevate an anemic offense to make a Super Bowl run.

That both are in California, where McCaffrey made a name for himself as a Heisman Trophy candidate at Stanford University, and have teams capable of making a title run could make him a good fit.

The Denver Broncos also could be a good landing spot for McCaffrey, who grew up in the Denver area. But they don’t have a first- or second-round pick.

The Buffalo Bills, a genuine Super Bowl contender, do have a first-rounder in 2023.

“All that stuff’s out of my control,’’ McCaffrey said. “My job right now is to be the best Carolina Panther I can be and do everything I can for my teammates.’’

Trading McCaffrey arguably makes sense in some ways with the Panthers at 1-5 and likely looking ahead to next season. More draft picks would allow general manager Scott Fitterer to continue building the roster so it’s ready to win when the team finds a franchise quarterback or possibly move up in the first round to draft a potential franchise QB.

McCaffrey’s contract runs through 2025. Trading him this year wouldn’t be a problem for teams because of his $1,035,000 salary under a restructured deal. The issue is 2023, when McCaffrey has an $11.8 non-guaranteed salary and a $19,550,750 cap hit.

Trading McCaffrey, however, arguably doesn’t make sense from the standing that he’s still young (26) and the next head coach and quarterback could use the do-it-all back to build around.

McCaffrey has five straight games with 100 yards from scrimmage, the longest active streak in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to make more plays and execute,’’ McCaffrey said.

Coming into the season, the biggest issue with McCaffrey was staying healthy. He’d missed 23 of 33 games from 2020 to 2021.

Now the issue is whether the Panthers would benefit more from a healthy McCaffrey or trading him.

With starting quarterback Baker Mayfield back in a walking boot on Sunday and his immediate availability unsure, 2021 starting quarterback Sam Darnold set to come off injured reserve with an ankle injury but likely a few weeks away from being ready to play, and Sunday's starting quarterback PJ Walker nursing a neck injury that kept him from finishing the game, McCaffrey really is the only legitimate offensive threat Carolina has.

That was magnified Sunday when Wilks threw wide receiver Robbie Anderson out of the game late in the third quarter and wide receiver DJ Moore was limited to three catches for 7 yards.

McCaffrey didn’t want to talk about Anderson nor what it’s like having the offense all on him.

“I just want to win,’’ he said.