Is Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey really a must-draft with the No. 1 pick? New York Giants star runner Saquon Barkley offers an alternative.
There are a few reasons to consider taking Barkley over the consensus No. 1 pick in 2020 fantasy football drafts. While the margin between these two is so narrow that a coin flip is a reasonable way to decide, Barkley is my preference for a number of reasons. The most important factor is getting ahead of a potential crippling injury, rather than being forced to react to one.
We know new Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has proven his system can create a powerhouse running game AND feed backs through the air. Look no farther back in time than the 2018 season to find Dallas Cowboys bell cow Ezekiel Elliott corralling 77 receptions. McCaffrey has topped 100 each of the past two seasons, which largely fuels his value. No one is likely to argue Barkley is a better receiver, but it’s not like the gap is so wide in CMC’s favor.
Joe Brady is the new playcaller for the Panthers, but he hasn’t called a since down in the NFL, and his collegiate system was lethal, but only for one season. The runway of data with which to work is basically as long as the plane itself. Brady, 30, learned under Sean Payton for a couple of years in New Orleans as an assistant. He now has to deploy an NFL-ready offense during a pandemic. Color me skeptical.
McCaffrey, for his part, must put that Stanford education to good use and learn a new system — as does Barkley — but the major difference is Carolina’s hasn’t been tried and proven in the NFL yet. It’s safe to give Barkley the upper hand in this scenario thanks to Garrett’s experience as a coach. Plus, we have no way of knowing how Brady will call plays during the heat of the moment. It’s one thing to be great at designing concepts … a totally different skill set is required for understanding when to utilize them.
Since involvement is directly tied to the system itself, consider these first two segments as going hand in hand.
At LSU, Brady’s calls led to the Tigers’ top back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, catching 55 passes in 2019. The system does involve the back in the aerial game, and it’s going to be emphasized in Carolina with an elite receiver in McCaffrey catching passes from the overly cautious Teddy Bridgewater.
As mentioned, Elliott caught 77 balls in ’18 before his 54-catch showing in 2019. Under Garrett, Dallas saw DeMarco Murray catch 53 and 57 passes in 2013 and ’14, respectively. His successor, a broken down Darren McFadden, snagged 40 of his own in 2015. Dating back to Garrett’s days as the offensive coordinator in Dallas, his lead backs averaged more than 40 receptions a year. None of those exceptions were Barkley. Garrett enjoys the passing game, but he sets it up with the run.
Even though Garrett wasn’t the weekly playcaller in every season as the leader of the Cowboys, he put his stamp on the game plans and dictated some degree of the offensive direction. In seven of Garrett’s 10 full seasons as Dallas’ head coach, his primary running back topped 1,000 yards. The exceptions were in years in which said ball carrier didn’t play more than 13 games but was on pace.
No running back has touched the ball as much as McCaffrey in the last two years. Zeke checks in as a close second. CMC’s 2018 breakout year resulted in 219 carries and 107 receptions, for a grand total of 326 utilizations. Last year, he added nine receptions to the previous career high and toted the rock a hearty 287 times, or 403 combined handles. Any time we get into that 400 range for touches, the following season typically ends in disaster from a fantasy perspective. Sure, we’ve witnessed exceptions. Also, did he max out? Can anyone realistically expect McCaffrey will see a bigger workload, even if he’s healthy and productive? That’s not to say he couldn’t enjoy another elite season with a similar dosage, but it’s more probable than not we witnessed his career year.
Barkley, however, has one fewer year of being in the league, and he missed action in 2019 with an ankle sprain. This ties us into the next segment: Durability.
Did the 2019 going-nowhere Panthers’ coaching staff set up McCaffrey for a downturn in 2020 by using him too much? Maybe. He’s a sturdily built runner who doesn’t take too many huge shots and is quick to dip out of harm’s way, when possible. Unfortunately, soft-tissue injuries don’t require physical contact. His style of play doesn’t suggest his 403 touches are like that of past workhorses we’ve see (think someone like Larry Johnson who was hammered almost every time he touched the ball). Buuuuuuuut … Four. Hundred. Three. Touches. That’s so hard to ignore in good conscience.
History is overwhelmingly working against McCaffrey. Here’s a look at the follow-up years to recent seasons in which a running back shouldered massive workloads. (Ricky Williams was omitted due to his 2004 retirement. Le’Veon Bell sat out the year following his 2017 season with 406 touches. Tiki Barber was excluded for already being age 30 in 2005. All other qualifying players since 1993 were included.)
- Two of 16 improved fantasy points per game
- Average per-game regression of 32.9 percent in fantasy production on a per-game basis
- 10 of 16 fumbled more frequently
- 10 of 15 qualified scored TDs less frequently
- 13 of 16 saw average yards per touch decrease
A handful of backs entered their 400-touch season coming off of a previous campaign with such a workload. There’s no modern comparable since LaDainian Tomlinson’s 2002-03 examples. The NFL has changed in a well-documented manner when it comes to sharing backfield chores and not driving a single running back into the ground as often. Of the five backs with consecutive 400-touch efforts, Curtis Martin was the only one to improve the year after the most recent 400-handle season, and the average regression was 25.4 percent of per-game fantasy football points generated.
Say we apply that 33 percent composite regression to McCaffrey from last year’s numbers … we’re still looking at the No. 3 back. But what doesn’t it look like if he misses half of the year or more? His bye week isn’t until Week 13, which could leave him worn down during a crucial phase of the season, and what happens if you’re fighting for the final playoff spot and your best guy is out the week before the postseason begins? He may be fresh for the playoffs, provided you get that opportunity. Barkley’s bye is Week 11 — yet another minuscule advantage.
After we’ve seen McCaffrey hold up nicely for three years vs. Barkley miss time in only his second campaign, it’s understandable to give the Panthers star a break on the excessive touches when compared to others after hitting that dreaded 400 mark. Conversely, Saquon may never miss another game due to injury, so any objective view of this could consider it a wash. Gamers specifically looking for an area of separation between the two can point to less wear on Barkley’s tires, but it’s a picky take any which way one slices it. That is, unless, you’re banking on the ugly history of extensive workload repeating itself once again. In that case, it’s another, albeit abstract, feather in Saquon’s helmet.
The ultimate team sport is quite obviously on display when it comes to the running back position. Factors like quarterback competency, offensive line prowess, receiving talent and depth, defensive reliability … all key elements in factoring a player’s chances of shining in fantasy. Running backs are so dependent upon whether their line can open holes, if the passing game can keep defenders out of the box, and just how many opportunities are granted in relation to the scoreboard.
Typically, teams will abandon the ground game if the offense is in a serious deficit. However, that factor isn’t as much of a concern for backs like Barkley and McCaffrey as pass-catching phenoms. Fantasy footballers don’t career if their points come in garbage time, and 83 of McCaffrey’s 116 grabs last year were when playing from behind. He was almost evenly productive rushing when playing with a lead as from in a hole.
Barkley, unsurprisingly, also caught more passes while his team was behind on the scoreboard during his first two pro seasons. He wasn’t as productive rushing when behind last year; however, the Penn State star was just fine in 2018 when trailing.
Two-way backs are mostly immune to the scoreboard. They are not inoculated against terrible quarterback play or inept defenses. The Giants deserve the check mark for being a better team defense than Carolina, a Panthers team that will return only two defensive starters from 2019, most notably losing linebacker Luke Kuechly to retirement. That said, the Giants aren’t the ’85 Chicago Bears, so how much worse will Carolina’s unit be? Another marginal separation between the two.
Between these two, quarterback play is mostly a moot point, but in different ways. Daniel Jones starts from the onset in Year 2, and the 2019 rookie season prepared him well. Injuries are a slight worry, but the same can be said for Bridgewater in Carolina. Jones is more likely to “grip it and rip it,” whereas Bridgewater’s game is built on methodical, safe decision-making. The latter favors the offense staying on the field longer. Jones has far more upside to take his offense to a whole different level and keep extra defenders out of Barkley’s grill.
Offensive line play skews toward Barkley’s side, but Carolina made strides in the offseason, trading for veteran left tackle Russell Okung and bolstering the depth incrementally. New York’s line added first-round right tackle Andrew Thomas, and picks in Rounds 3 and 5 were spent on depth. Blocking tight end Levine Toilolo’s addition is worth noting, too. The left side of this group is where the bread is buttered
It mostly comes down to what you’re worried about … if you feel McCaffrey is the safer pick and have no significant concerns about his durability, feel free to go that route. It is probably going to pay off with a top-three result.
For my money, at a pick and for a position where every minor advantage is amplified, Barkley is more explosive and comes with less to worry about going wrong. His ankle sprain last year cost him only three games, when the original window suggested nearly two months, and he shouldn’t be labeled injury-prone after one significant incident. He also survived a quarterback change that led to a rookie starting, getting hurt, then returning. Staying ahead of the injury curve is where gamers want to be, and history suggests we’re looking at a possible letdown from CMC. In all likelihood, he has nowhere else to go but down.
This isn’t necessarily a wholehearted endorsement of choosing Barkley over McCaffrey as much as advocating fantasy football owners to think in a less reactive fashion. There is another option, and it’s entirely possible that path will lead to greater fantasy riches.