Panthers should trade Christian McCaffrey at his peak value

The Panthers are poised for a long and challenging rebuild. Trading Christian McCaffrey for valuable draft capital could help accelerate that process.

Matt Rhule is inheriting a roster in the midst of a serious transition in Carolina. It’s very likely the Panthers are going to lose more veteran talent than any other team in the NFL this offseason. That’s one large reason why the Panthers need to sell high on star running back Christian McCaffrey.

Luke Kuechly’s retirement and the team’s decision to part ways with Greg Olsen are the most high-profile moves the Panthers have made since Rhule’s hiring. The roster carnage in Carolina may not be complete though. Many people believe Cam Newton has played his last down with the franchise.

Owner David Tepper insists that the quarterback’s future hinges entirely on his health. It’s hard to imagine he will be declared 100-percent healthy before the 2020 regular season kicks off. That means the Panthers will be in the market for a new starting quarterback.

This likely means Rhule and his coaching staff will use a high draft pick on their franchise quarterback of the future in April’s draft. That hard reset of the Carolina offense puts McCaffrey in a very awkward position.

He’s squarely in the prime of his career as a versatile, not to mention elite, NFL running back. No one can question his qualifications to be a perennial Pro Bowler the way he’s played for the Panthers since being drafted in the first round back in 2017. The rationale for trading McCaffrey has nothing to do with his productivity or talent.

It is, however, a question of value. McCaffrey is entering the last year of his rookie contract. Despite the depressed value put on running backs in the league today, he’ll expect a significant raise over the $5 million and change he’s set to earn in 2020. He could be looking to triple that salary via free agency.

That would immediately make McCaffrey a poor investment for the Panthers. Again, it’s not a statement about his talent level. It’s just an honest assessment of the value (or lack thereof) that the league places on running backs in the modern game. Carolina would be much better off finding a young player who could give them 75 percent of McCaffrey’s production for 10 percent of his salary cap hit.

Trading McCaffrey ahead of this year’s draft would allow the Panthers to sell him at the peak of his value. The team acquiring the former Stanford star would still get one season of elite production from him on a bargain contract. Their ability to re-sign him to a reasonable offer in free agency is not a problem Carolina should concern themselves with.

The correct tactic for the Panthers would be to jettison McCaffrey in exchange for additional draft picks. That would give Rhule and his coaching staff a chance to bring in a wave of new talent that fits their scheme to perfection. It’s unlikely they’d be able to find a superstar on McCaffrey’s level with any of those picks, but coming away with a couple of new, quality starters would qualify as a major success for a team in desperate need of a talent infusion.

Admittedly, trading McCaffrey would be an unpopular decision for the team’s fan base. Losing Kuechly, Newton, Olsen and McCaffrey in the same offseason would be a major shock to the system for season-ticket holders.

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That doesn’t make it the wrong move. The Panthers need to understand where their franchise is in the competitive cycle of the NFL. It’s time for Carolina to rip their roster down to the studs and start over. Selling McCaffrey as a premium asset would give the Panthers more chances to stock their roster full of future stars in April’s draft.