Why Luke McCaffrey is such an intriguing NFL Draft prospect

A quarterback who switches to receiver midway through college? Anquan Boldin knows a thing or two about the maneuver.

The one-time San Francisco 49er started out as a quarterback at Florida State, moved to wideout and ended up playing both in his collegiate swan song, the 2003 Sugar Bowl, a game in which he caught a touchdown in the second quarter, then threw one in the third.

When he finally settled into one position, he became such a consistent route runner and reliable target that he sits in ninth place on the NFL’s all-time catch list.

Which is why Boldin, 43, was a particularly strong match for one of the young wideouts he worked with at XPE Sports in South Florida earlier this year, Rice’s Luke McCaffrey.

This past season, two years after playing quarterback for the Owls, McCaffrey grabbed the attention of NFL scouts by hauling in one impossible catch after another and finishing with a team-high 992 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He stood out in the Senior Bowl in January, then aced the NFL Scouting Combine in February. His 4.02-second short shuttle — it measures how quickly a player changes direction — was the fastest for his position.

Boldin, however, was most impressed by another trait.

“He just wanted to learn,” he said in a recent phone interview. “A lot of guys, especially with his background, would have the attitude that, ‘You can’t tell me anything; I know it all.’ He was the complete opposite. He was the guy who sought me out, the guy who asked a lot of questions. He was the guy who was always looking for more, even when the session was over.”

McCaffrey said his late start to the position means he’s had to play catch-up. Which is why he jumped at the chance to work with Boldin, who teaches draft hopefuls the finer points of route running.

Said McCaffrey: “For me, as somebody trying to make up experience faster than other people have to, when you get somebody like (Boldin) in the room, it’s the most valuable thing in the world.”

That McCaffrey nearly reached 1,000 receiving yards in 2023 and yet still might only be at mid-ascent at his new position makes him one of the more intriguing prospects in next week’s draft, and he’s projected to be taken somewhere in the middle rounds.

Despite his inexperience at the position, Luke McCaffrey had 13 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards last season at Rice. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

The 49ers seem to be a strong contender considering their need for a young wideout, their glut of mid-round picks — including three in Round 4 — and Kyle Shanahan’s well-established fondness for the McCaffrey clan.

To review: As a boy, the 49ers coach worshiped former Denver Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey to the point of wearing his number 87 when he became a college receiver. Shanahan invited the oldest of Ed’s four sons, Max, to 49ers training camp in 2018 and 2019. And in 2022, he traded for the second son, Christian, the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year.



49ers’ Christian McCaffrey looks to follow his father’s Super Bowl-winning footsteps

Now Shanahan has a chance to add the youngest, Luke, who got his start at quarterback in part because his oldest brother needed someone to throw him the ball.

Growing up in the McCaffrey household meant that you were in constant competition. And a big chunk of those competitions occurred on a golf course near the family home outside of Denver. No, they weren’t working on their short game. They played football. Every day. On the 14th fairway.

“There wasn’t a lot of flag or two-hand touch back there,” their mom, Lisa, said. “It was a lot of tackle. It was game on.”

“We didn’t grow up golfing or anything so we didn’t know the etiquette,” Luke said. “We just thought of it as our field. We didn’t think of it as a golf course. We probably added a couple of divots of our own to that course, and it wasn’t from playing golf.”

The McCaffrey boys were born roughly two years apart. To make the teams even, Luke usually was paired with Max, and the middle boys, Christian and Dylan, played on the same team. The youngest boys were the quarterbacks.

“Max is an incredible athlete and now he’s an incredible coach,” Luke said with a laugh. “He does a lot of things really well. Throwing the ball isn’t one of them. So it kind of naturally got (left) to me to be the guy that would throw the ball when it was us two on a team together.”



49ers mock draft: Evaluating Johnny Newton, Luke McCaffrey and the 10-player class

The position stuck. Growing up, Luke loved running quarterbacks like Denard Robinson and Lamar Jackson, and he went to Nebraska where he played for another former running quarterback, Scott Frost.

In 2021, he transferred to Rice. The Owls didn’t shine that season and neither did McCaffrey. He appeared in nine games, starting three, and completed 50 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and four interceptions.

“For various reasons, it didn’t go well here in 2021 at quarterback,” Rice coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Some of it was the cast of characters around him. And some of it was the stress he put on himself — stress to be perfect.”

The quarterback position never quite worked out for Luke McCaffrey, the youngest of the four McCaffrey brothers. (John Gutierrez / USA Today)

After the season, Bloomgren told McCaffrey he’d support any move he wanted to make. If he wanted to remain at quarterback, that was fine. There was also talk of switching to running back and even safety, a spot McCaffrey had played in high school and where he’d taken some practice snaps during the season. It didn’t matter to Bloomgren. He just wanted McCaffrey — and all the hustle, smarts and leadership that came with him — on the team.

He wound up moving to wide receiver, and perhaps not surprisingly, he was a quick study. He had 58 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns in 2022.

“My joke coming out of spring ball that year was: Yeah, it was a pretty easy transition,” Bloomgren said. “It looks like he has a dad who played in the National Football League for 13 years.”

More noteworthy to Bloomgren, however, were the strides McCaffrey made between his first and second seasons at his new position. In Year 1, his natural athleticism, competitiveness and, yes, the knowledge passed on from his dad, carried him a long way. The next season, his drive to learn the nuances of the position was evident.

He hit up everyone on the team, from quarterback JT Daniels to the Owls’ defensive backs, for tips. He sent tape home for Ed and his brothers to dissect. He relentlessly played a hand-eye coordination game he came up with in which he’d throw a tennis ball off a wall and try to make increasingly high-degree-of-difficulty grabs. The real challenge: He’d have a teammate draped all over him, determined not to let McCaffrey make the catch.

“The best thing about a tennis ball is it’s portable,” McCaffrey said. “You can take it wherever you want — whether it’s before a meeting in the receiver room, in the weight room after the workout, whether it’s in the car.”

He played it relentlessly with his closest friend group: running back Dean Connors, fullback Geron Hargon and kicker Tim Horn. It’s no coincidence they composed a quartet.

Luke McCaffrey celebrates a touchdown with Rice fullback and close friend Geron Hargon. (Thomas Shea / USA Today)

“These guys kind of served the roles that my brothers did growing up,” McCaffrey said. “They were kind of my crew that I hung around with and we would just compete in every aspect of life and we enjoyed doing it. … I didn’t major in psychology or anything, but I’m sure there’s some sort of science behind how I grew up. That was how I learned — playing games and competing.”

The result: His statistics jumped in every category in 2023, and as the season went on, Rice’s quarterbacks trusted him in increasingly tough situations. McCaffrey ranked ninth in the nation in Pro Football Focus’ contested targets statistic with 28 on the season. His contested catch percentage on those throws — 60.7 — was second best among receivers with 25 or more such targets. The only receiver with a better one, 75 percent, was Washington’s Rome Odunze, who’s expected to be a top-10 pick next week.

“In 2023, any ball that went into his general vicinity — we all believed he was going to catch it without a doubt,” Bloomgren said.

Luke is the second McCaffrey that Bloomgren has coached. A decade ago, he was Stanford’s offensive coordinator, which meant he was on hand when Christian arrived in 2014. The McCaffrey work ethic and athleticism were evident right away with Christian. So was another McCaffrey characteristic.

During his freshman and sophomore years, Bloomgren said, Christian learned some wildcat plays. If he messed up a play call in the huddle or didn’t have the right timing on a motion, it drove him wild and would stay with him for the next couple of snaps. Luke is the same way.

“And I actually think one of the hardest things for Luke was to go to the next play as a quarterback and trying to be perfect,” he said. “And it’s virtually impossible to be perfect at the quarterback position. And I think that was a negative. Because it’s not like Luke didn’t have the talent to play quarterback. I think he was just so hard on himself to a fault.”

“And that’s a McCaffrey trait,” he continued. “It is largely a positive in terms of how critical they are on themselves and how it drives them. But there are times that it’s something they’ve got to work through.”

The neverending quest for perfection was a better fit at receiver. And it was something that Boldin and XPE founder Tony Villani quickly picked up on when McCaffrey arrived in early January.

Boldin is decidedly old school when it comes to the receiver position. He doesn’t want to see a lot of dancing and extra movement at the top of the route. His message to McCaffrey, Washington’s Ja’Lynn Polk, Central Florida’s Javon Baker, Virginia’s Malik Washington and the other would-be rookies was to make everything as clean and consistent as possible so the quarterback knows what to expect on every route.

Villani said he used video analysis to measure the consistency of all the routes a player would run. McCaffrey stood out with a 90 percent correlation.

“He was the most efficient route runner we had,” he said. “It was the consistency of how he changed directions. The quality of changing direction was what stood out — they were great and they didn’t differ from one rep to another where everyone else differed quite a bit.”

Now the question is how that collection of traits — combined with McCaffrey’s inexperience at receiver — translates to the draft. Neither 49ers general manager John Lynch nor his longtime right-hand man Adam Peters, now the Washington Commanders general manager, would tip their hand on where they thought Lisa and Ed McCaffrey’s youngest son would end up being taken.

“He’s relatively new to that position, but I don’t ever count out a McCaffrey,” Lynch said at the combine. “What I know is the kid’s got great bloodlines.”

Said Peters: “Anytime you can get a McCaffrey, you’re not gonna go wrong.”

Both noted that Christian, who plans to be in Colorado next week to watch the draft with his brother, would talk up Luke at every opportunity — in the cafeteria, before practice, whenever he could. And those who know them both well say they are very similar in how they think and how they prepare.

“I know it sounds like I’m just talking about everything good when it comes to this kid,” Bloomgren said of Luke. “But that’s who he is. He’s everything good. You want an opportunity to coach this kid. You want an opportunity to have this kid as a member of your team.”

(Top photo: Kara Durrette / Getty Images)

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