Why McCaffrey deserves the Heisman over Henry, Watson

Sam Monson's Analysis Notebook takes a closer look at all three finalists, and details exactly why Stanford's standout should win.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Why McCaffrey deserves the Heisman over Henry, Watson

With the Heisman Trophy finalists announced,  it’s time to run the PFF rule over Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson. We’re going to break down each player’s game and take a look at each finalist’s body of work over the 2015 season — and share our pick for the coveted trophy.

Christian McCaffrey

McCaffrey is PFF’s pick for Heisman this season, and he’s been simply spectacular in carrying Stanford. He broke the single-season all-purpose yardage record, a mark set by Barry Sanders in one of the greatest seasons a player has ever had in 1988. Sanders’ mark was over one fewer game (even including his Holiday Bowl stats), but even so McCaffrey was a thousand yards ahead of any other player in the nation, and the fact that the record hadn’t fallen since 1988 shows its significance.

McCaffrey averaged 268.9 all-purpose yards per game with only one other player in the nation topping 200 (Tyler Ervin of San Jose State averaged 200.8), and that coming against weaker competition.

He wasn’t just a runner earning free yards as a return man for Stanford, and though his return yards make up 1,042 of his 3,496 all-purpose yards, he ended his season the second-highest-graded returner in the nation. McCaffrey finished with one kick return touchdown to his name and multiple games in which he influenced field position all game by forcing teams to avoid kicking to him. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t show up in any obvious stat, but wins the field position battle before he even touches the ball each drive.

He had 2,387 yards from scrimmage — 304 more than Alabama’s Derrick Henry — and while he was narrowly our 2nd-highest graded runner (behind Leonard Fournette), he was by far the highest-graded receiver among running backs as he earned the highest overall grade at the position.

McCaffrey’s running was incredibly impressive, but his work as a receiver was something few running backs can match, and he may be equally capable operating as a pure wide out when it comes to skill set.

There are better athletes in the college football landscape than McCaffrey. There may be faster players, guys more powerful, and generally more impressive physical specimens — which is not to say he is bad in any of those areas. What makes him so great though is his instincts and feel for how to play the game. Take this screen pass that goes to the house as an example:


This is bad defense to be sure, but watch the little things McCaffrey does without even thinking. Whenever contact is near, the ball is in both hands tightly tucked away. He follows and sets up blocks better than any runner in the country, and once he breaks into the open field he understands the leverage of the players around him and how to get to the space available. McCaffrey did this all season long whether carrying the ball, running after the catch or even returning kicks. He was simply put the best and most reliable weapon in college football this year.

Derrick Henry

Henry is the great debate this season, because the finish he had at Alabama rocketed him towards the head of the Heisman race and made him the favorite in the eyes of many. However, there’s very little other than raw numbers supporting his claim. When you dig a little deeper he trails other players in almost every available category at PFF, whether in advanced metrics or grade.

That’s not to say Henry had a bad season — he graded very well, and was a huge reason for Alabama’s spot in the football playoff. He may add even more to his legacy in the playoff games and end the season with a national championship, but right now his best attribute may have been a superhuman capacity for work. Over the final two games Henry carried the ball 91 times. That is an absurd workload and he responded with 463 rushing yards and two scores. As impressive as those raw totals are, that’s an average of “just” 5.1 yards per carry, which would rank 119th in the nation over a season.

Henry was our eighth-graded runner over the year, broke the fourth-highest number of tackles and doesn’t even leap to the front of the pack if you value the second half of the season more than the first, or conference play only as the most important aspect of a season. In all aspects, Henry is a contender who is looking up at the performance of another runner — whether it is McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Royce Freeman or Dalvin Cook.

That being said he was key to an Alabama team that could be the best in the nation when all is said and done. He averaged 2.5 yards per carry after contact over a monstrous 341 carries and would simply wear defenses down as games wore on. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the prospect of getting in the way of a 240-pound guy like Henry still running like his life depended on it just didn’t seem like a great idea for many defenders, and that’s when he did his best work.

Henry came within 12 yards of topping 2,000 rushing yards in the SEC, scored 23 rushing touchdowns and broke 66 tackles along the way. He was simply put one of the most imposing and destructive players in the nation, and demoralized defenses at times.

Take this play against LSU as a good example:


Deshaun Watson

Like Henry, Watson is a player that graded very well for us, but not as well as others that we would see as more deserving Heisman candidates. Watson was our eight-graded quarterback in nation this season. Even if you discount a couple of the players that outgraded him because of the opposition they faced (Brandon Doughty for WKU and Matt Johnson from Bowling Green, in particular), there are players we would take above Watson, most notably Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.

Regardless, Watson has steered a Clemson team to an undefeated record and the No. 1 seed in the playoff, so let’s look at what he does well for the Tigers.

Watson is a dual-threat quarterback — with over 3,500 passing yards and almost 1,000 rushing yards (945) for the season, he is a tough player to defend. He averages 5.7 yards per carry this season and is into double digits for rushing touchdowns.

As a passer he’s completed 75.9 percent of his throws when kept clean, but has struggled far more when pressured (just 35.6 percent). His deep passing (20+ air yards) has resulted in six of his touchdown passes and coupling his passing ability with his run threat has lead to some excellent games and big performances for Clemson.

Take a look at this play for the kind of ability he has with the ball in hand:


The three players that are making the trip to New York are three of the best performers in the nation this season, but when you apply grading of every player, on every play in the FBS this season, only one of the three really stands out as the clear leader in the race.

Both Watson and Henry have had fantastic seasons and have the chance to make an even bigger impact through the College Football Playoff, potentially ending the year as national champion. However, the player that most deserves the Heisman is the one that didn’t make the big dance: Christian McCaffrey, the best player in the nation this year.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.