Christian McCaffrey A Trade Candidate?

The Panthers are off to a slow start, and Baker Mayfield ranks last (by a considerable margin) in QBR exiting Week 4. Rumors of Matt Rhule‘s Carolina exit continue to swirl.

Christian McCaffrey‘s name is now coming up in trade rumors again. The former All-Pro running back should be monitored ahead of the trade deadline, according to various NFL executives (via the Washington Post’s Jason La Canfora). McCaffrey remains attached to the four-year, $64MM extension he signed in 2020. Nearly 2 1/2 years after it was finalized, McCaffrey’s deal still tops the running back market.

Although McCaffrey’s AAV leads the field at the position, the Panthers restructured his contract in March. As a result, CMC’s 2022 base salary checks in at just $1MM. An acquiring team would be on the hook for that figure, along with the remaining three years of this contract. Those would morph into nonguaranteed years for an acquiring team, though the deal does include lofty future base salaries of $11.8MM (2023 and ’24) and $12MM (2025). The Panthers would take on some dead money this year and next.

Potentially seeking to add draft capital for their post-Rhule period, the Panthers could be open to taking on some of McCaffrey’s money. Two GMs informed La Canfora the Panthers would likely be prepared to take on some salary to move McCaffrey “and others” to stockpile future assets. It would be interesting if the Panthers would eat any part of McCaffrey’s 2023 salary to move him. As of now, the Panthers would be hit with $7.6MM in dead money by trading McCaffrey before the Nov. 1 deadline.

Carolina being willing to pick up some of CMC’s future salary would stand to make him a more valuable commodity, and teams have called on the sixth-year back before. Rhule called McCaffrey to inform him he was not part of the Panthers’ Deshaun Watson trade talks before last year’s deadline, but the team listened as CMC trade interest came in this year. The Panthers wanted a first-round pick and a cap-friendly player for McCaffrey in March; that would be a tough ask given the ex-Stanford superstar’s injury history. But if the Panthers continue to struggle, McCaffrey’s name could continue to circulate.

Rhule authorized the record-setting payment to McCaffrey, a Dave Gettlemen-era draftee. Owner David Tepper was not in place when the Panthers selected McCaffrey eighth overall, but he obviously greenlit the extension. McCaffrey, 26, has battled extensive injury issues in the years since. After multiple maladies led to the second-generation NFLer playing in just 10 games between the 2020 and ’21 seasons, however, he has played in each of Carolina’s four contests this year. McCaffrey has two 100-yard rushing games thus far this season, and after he missed practices due to a quadriceps injury last week, the dual-threat back caught nine passes for 81 yards and a touchdown in Carolina’s Week 4 loss.

David Johnson was part of a trade that sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, but running back trade hauls do not generally produce much. The only other back to be traded for even a third-round pick over the past eight years was Duke Johnson, who fetched a third-rounder in going from the Browns to the Texans in 2019. In-season Dolphins deals sending away Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake respectively produced fourth- and fifth-round compensation. Then again, backs of McCaffrey’s caliber are not readily available. While a first-round pick along the lines of the price the Colts paid the Browns for Trent Richardson during the 2013 season would be difficult to envision, McCaffrey would still generate considerable interest — if he can remain healthy.

Of course, Rhule fighting to keep his job would seemingly put CMC trade talks on hold. It would be quite odd if the Panthers dealt one of their best players with their coach on perhaps the NFL’s hottest seat. Then again, La Canfora adds some within the organization are sensing a game of chicken between Rhule and Tepper.

Rhule signed a monster contract in 2020 (seven years, $62MM), which will leave Tepper on the hook for a rare sum if he fires his third-year HC. Rhule, 47, will also be a candidate for high-profile college vacancies, given his success crafting turnarounds at Temple and Baylor. Rhule being axed before the trade deadline would make a McCaffrey trade more logical. Going into Week 5 — against a No. 1-ranked 49ers defense — the Panthers’ Rhule-Mayfield-McCaffrey setup remains intact.

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