In recent times in the NFL, running backs have had it tough. A gradual shift in focus towards pass-heavy offenses, enhanced by rule changes that continue to protect the QB, and his receivers, has meant running backs have become increasingly undervalued.
The stark and fast turnover of many a bell-cow back -- a runner who takes the majority of the carries for his team, week in, week out, until he's burnt out -- has created a different landscape to the one we saw 10 to 15 years ago in the pros. There are many good running backs, but not many great ones.
This Sunday, in London, we're going to see one of the latter, up close and personal: Christian McCaffrey. The Carolina Panthers star may be on course to be the first running back to the win the NFL MVP award for nearly ten years.
McCaffrey's numbers so far this season are extraordinary. He leads the league in rushing yards (587) and total yards from scrimmage (866), with his closest rival, Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings, over 100 yard behind. His 279 receiving yards place him in the Top 50 in that category ahead of a host of wide receivers including Cook's teammate Stefon Diggs.
If McCaffrey keeps this pace up, he's on course to beat the single season record for yards from scrimmage (2,509) held by Chris Johnson, who set it in 2009.
McCaffrey's versatility is instrumental to these prolific numbers, and indeed representative of the emergence of multi-threat running backs who double up as impressive receivers out of the backfield. Interestingly, out of the Top 5 running backs this season (based on rushing yardage), only one -- Marlon Mack -- has less than 100 yards receiving, with both McCaffrey and Cook each clocking 200 or more. McCaffrey's 107 receptions last season is an NFL record for most catches by a RB in a single NFL season.
Indeed, in his rookie season at the Panthers, he had more receiving yards than he did rushing.
Different types of players can find a home in the NFL because of the emergence of a new model running back. It is not only necessitated by teams shifting to more pass-heavy outputs, but because offenses have evolved to incorporate a range of college style looks. Where previously some running backs have been overlooked due to a more binary style of offense, and therefore recruitment process, they now display premium quality. McCaffrey is very much this type of player.
"He was the most versatile and dynamic player in the nation, but he still had a few doubters going into the Draft. A handful of critics said he was too small or couldn't break tackles. I'm not at all surprised he's proved them wrong," says college football expert, and regular on my ESPN pod, Ben Isaacs.
A prolific kick returner whilst at Stanford, McCaffrey smashed NCCA records and was a runner-up for the 2015 Heisman Trophy.
"He came second in the voting to Derrick Henry but really should have won it," says Isaacs.
After an impressive rookie season, McCaffrey matured in his sophomore NFL year as the Panthers offense changed.
"With Jonathan Stewart gone, his number of carries almost doubled, and he hit nearly 2,000 yards," says Isaacs.
His Carolina teammate Gerald McCoy -- who faced him over recent seasons when at the Bucs -- summarised McCaffrey's range and the problem he poses for defensive co-ordinators.
"Christian is not just a great running back. To have a guy who can run in between the tackles, run outside the tackles, throw him screens and split him out wide, and then that same person doesn't drop no passes. None all season. That's a weapon."
The Panthers' reliance on him has become even more accentuated with the loss to injury of former MVP QB Cam Newton. Kyle Allen -- the backup who has deputised with great success thus far -- has limitations, and certainly doesn't carry the playmaking ability of Newton, meaning the emphasis on McCaffery to deliver is greater than ever before. If Carolina are going to contend for the playoffs, then McCaffrey must perform.
If they are to reach the post-season, wins against divisional rivals are a must, and McCaffrey's quietest game of the season came against Sunday's opponents at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, their NFC South rivals the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he averaged only 2.3 yards per carry, totalling just 37 yards on the ground, and two catches for 16 yards.
Football Outsiders rank the Tampa run defense as the No. 1 in the NFL. News that McCaffrey has had limited practice due to a sore back has also emerged this week, and it will be fascinating to see whether the Bucs can keep him in check once again.
Another stand out performance and McCaffrey's MVP bandwagon will grow bigger still. As Mike Carlson explained on the Wednesday edition of my podcast, quarterbacks usually win the award because they are singularly the most instrumental player on the field. In McCaffrey's case, the sheer volume of offense he's generating, and critical plays turning a game that he's delivering, present a tangentially comparable case.
This is also enhanced by the absence of a stand out QB candidate. Both Patrick Mahomes and (increasingly) Russell Wilson have to be in the conversation but neither are having the kind of year Mahomes did last time around, when the reigning MVP had it pretty much locked down by Thanksgiving.
MVP or not, McCaffrey is delivering enough to get paid. As an extension of the diminished value placed on running backs, contracts offered are significantly inferior in relation to other skill positions, such as quarterbacks and wide receivers. Out of the 32 NFL teams, not one has a running back as its highest paid player this season. Even Zeke Elliot's new contract doesn't come near to the Top 20 in the league.
McCaffrey may just be one of the young running back's in the NFL that redresses the balance.