The first round of your fantasy football draft will be populated with running backs. Owners don’t want to risk missing out on studs at the RB position because the depth of the group is often less than inspiring. Sure, some handcuffs and sleepers will emerge as quality options, but more often than not, the RBs at the top of the rankings end up being what can make — and certainly break — a team.
While picking a running back early is commonplace (unless you’re a fan of the Zero-RB strategy), picking the right one can sometimes be tricky. In recent seasons, we’ve seen the likes of David Johnson and Todd Gurley go early, only to disappoint their owners. Last year, injuries left some disappointed by the performance of Saquon Barkley, the No. 1 overall pick in most leagues. That’s what makes this year’s choice between Barkley and Christian McCaffrey for the No. 1 overall spot so interesting.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2020 cheat sheet
With draft days rapidly approaching, we’ll take a look at the arguments for taking McCaffrey vs. taking Barkley atop fantasy football drafts, and if it’s worth considering any other RBs with the top overall selection.
2020 STANDARD FANTASY RANKINGS:
Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | D/ST | Kicker | Superflex | Top 200
Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Selecting Christian McCaffrey No. 1 overall
Over the past two seasons, McCaffrey has been the best running back in fantasy football, and there’s little reason to expect that to change in the near future.
During the 2019 season, he was an absolute force for the owners that selected him in the first round. He totaled 1,387 yards on the ground, good for third in the NFL, and added 15 rushing TDs, also third in the league. That led to him being a monster in standard-scoring formats with a whopping 355.2 fantasy points. That was far and away the most points at the RB position. Derrick Henry finished second and was 76.8 points behind McCaffrey.
On average, McCaffrey outscored all other running backs by at least 3.8 points per week in standard-scoring formats. His dominance in PPR is even greater, as he led all RBs in targets (142), receptions (116, second most in the NFL to only Michael Thomas), and receiving yards (1,004). He was the lone player to total at least 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards on the season, led the league with 403 touches, and tied for the most TDs in the league with 19.
McCaffrey is a stat-stuffer, and his track record of good health is notable, as well. He has never missed a game during his three-year NFL career. He should continue to be a massive part of the Panthers’ offense and should have a chance to play over 90 percent of the offense snaps again as he did last year.
There are some questions with the Panthers. They are transitioning to a new coaching staff, lost a talented blocker at right guard, Trai Turner, in the trade for Russell Okung, and they are transitioning to a new quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. However, given that McCaffrey was able to produce at such a high clip with an injured Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, and Will Grier at quarterback last year, he should find a way to continue to produce even with the changes in Carolina.
In short, McCaffrey is a stud. He has done nothing to indicate that a drop-off could be coming any time soon. While he may not have the same form of complete and utter dominance he put on display in ’19, he is still a sure-fire top-two pick in this year’s draft.
2020 PPR RANKINGS:
Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Superflex | Top 200
Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Selecting Saquon Barkley No. 1 overall
It feels a bit weird to classify Barkley’s ’19 season as a disappointment, but that’s exactly what it was for fantasy owners. Barkley was the No. 1 pick in many leagues, but he didn’t quite produce like one. His overall numbers — 1,441 scrimmage yards, eight total TDs — weren’t bad. He finished 10th among RBs in fantasy points, racking up 192.1 on the season, and sixth in fantasy points per game (FPPG) with 14.8.
But a deeper dive into the numbers shows why owners were frustrated with Barkley. In Week 3, he suffered a high ankle sprain against the Buccaneers and was set to miss time with the injury. Barkley actually returned far earlier than many anticipated, missing just three weeks while some thought he could be out for as many as eight, but his on-field performance just wasn’t the same while recovering from the problem.
In eight games from Week 3 through Week 14, Barkley averaged just 9.4 FPPG. He struggled to move the ball much on the ground, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and didn’t make enough explosive plays to back up his status. Though he was playing through an injury that would’ve kept many others sidelined, some fantasy owners may have just preferred to see Barkley stay on the sidelines until fully healthy to avoid facing a brutal start ’em-sit ’em decision involving him.
During the final three weeks of the regular season, Barkley started to show signs of being the Barkley of old. He averaged nearly 28 FPPG while looking healthy and built some momentum heading into the ’20 campaign. That was certainly an encouraging sign for the Giants back, and it becomes even more inspiring when seeing that the Giants spent a couple of early draft picks on tackles to upgrade their offensive line.
Barkley is a good rival to McCaffrey for the top spot in fantasy football drafts, but he’ll need to return to his rookie-year form to unseat the reigning champ. Even then, it might be hard for him to make up enough ground considering that McCaffrey outscored Barkley’s 2018 fantasy output by almost four FPPG and last year’s output by almost 7.5 FPPG.
DRAFT STRATEGY AND RANKINGS TIERS:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | D/ST
Are any other RBs worthy of the No. 1 overall pick?
Any time you have the top pick, it’s at least worth considering some other options you could target. Some leagues do allow draft-day trades, so it’s worth comparing options in case a trade-down opportunity emerges.
Of the rest of the RBs, Derrick Henry comes out on top. He was second in RB fantasy points last year with 276.6 and led the NFL in rushing attempts (303), rushing yards (1,540), and rushing touchdowns (16). He’s a dominant force on the ground, but he doesn’t do as much in the air as other lead backs. His 18 catches for 206 yards and two receiving TDs were all career-highs. Henry’s volume makes him intriguing as a potential No. 1 in standard formats, but his lack of receiving ability drops him in PPR.
One player you can never have this conversation without including is Ezekiel Elliott. Over his four-year career, he has handled over 300 carries three times and has at least 354 touches in three seasons, as well. The only season he failed to eclipse the 300-touch mark came in ’17, when he served a six-game suspension and only appeared in 10 contests. Elliott should continue to be the focal point of the Cowboys’ attack, but the team’s plethora of receiving weapons could take some TDs away from him.
Dalvin Cook could draw consideration, as well. The Vikings running back is coming off a year that saw him log 1,654 scrimmage yards and 13 total touchdowns while keying the Vikings to a playoff berth. He has never played a full 16-game slate during his NFL career, but he has increased his number of games played in each of his first three NFL seasons. Along with it, he’s increased his total yardage and TDs. The injury risks will scare many off, but there is a world where he stays healthy and finishes the season as the No. 1 fantasy back. It just may not be this one.
Finally, Nick Chubb could end up making it to the top spot. He finished second in the NFL with 1,498 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last year in Cleveland. The Browns upgraded their offensive line and figure to be better at blocking this year, so Chubb could feasibly lead the league in rushing yards. However, the presence of Kareem Hunt limits his upside as a receiver, and Hunt could also vulture some touchdowns from him.
There are certainly numerous Tier 1 RB options that could pan out in the top spot, but even though these backs have talent, McCaffrey and Barkley still are, and should be, ranked ahead of them.
2020 FANTASY SLEEPERS:
6 QBs | 16 RBs | 14 WRs | 10 TEs | 5 D/STs | One from each team
There are plenty of running back options atop the draft to consider, but McCaffrey and Barkley are clearly the top two at the position. When comparing those two, there is a pretty clear-cut No. 1 choice there, as well.
McCaffrey is a cut above Barkley at this point. The two main reasons for this are his workload advantage, and his streak of good health compared to that of Barkley. McCaffrey should be the No. 1 pick in both standard and PPR formats, and it’s highly likely that he will be.
Now, if you’re a big Barkley fan and want to bet on him with the No. 1 pick, nobody’s going to fault you for that. Barkley could easily pan out and challenge McCaffrey for the top spot if all goes well for him. But as mentioned earlier, even if Barkley is healthy and has a great year, it will be hard for him to bridge the large point gap that existed between him and McCaffrey last year.