Fantasy Football

Fantasy Battle: Which Running Back Should go 1.01?

Mike Fanelli | Aug 24th, 2019 

Almost every year, fantasy owners picking early in the first round target bell cow running backs as they are worth their weight in gold. This year there are four running backs in that group: Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Ezekiel Elliott. A month ago, these four running backs were being drafted all in the top four picks according to Fantasy Football Calculator. However, since Zeke is currently holding out, his ADP has dropped down a little to 1.05 and is the fifth player being taken on average, behind the other three running backs and DeAndre Hopkins.

Make sure to check out all of our other Fantasy Battles here.

Last season all four of these running backs finished inside the top-five at their position in PPR scoring. Barkley finished as the RB1, edging out McCaffrey by 0.3 fantasy points. Kamara finished as the RB4 and Elliott finished as the RB5, despite both guys skipping week 17 to rest for the playoffs. The other running back to finish in the top-five was Todd Gurley, but for obvious reasons, he won’t be drafted early in the first round this year.

Now that you have all the basic information, let’s get this fantasy battle started! I will give the positives and negatives for each player then give you my recommendation on who I would take at 1.01. For the rest of my top 12 running backs rankings, you can find them here, while you can find all my PPR rankings here.

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Positives:

Last season Barkley was near unstoppable. In weeks 1-16, he was second in the league with RB1 (top 12) finishes with 11, just behind Gurley’s 12. His 35.8 usage rate was easily the best in the NFL while his rushing yards and receiving yards were both second in the league. The Giants peppered him with targets last year. His 121 targets were just three behind McCaffrey for the league lead among running backs and it ranked 20th in the league. Even with Odell Beckham Jr. around for 12 games, Barkley finished with just three fewer targets, while catching a much higher percentage of them. Not the Beckham is gone, he should see even more targets this season.

Despite a poor offensive line, Barkley averaged five yards per carry in 2018. During the offseason, the Giants improved the right side of their offensive line, trading for former Cleveland Browns’ right guard Kevin Zeitler and signing former Minnesota Vikings’ offensive tackle Mike Remmers. Neither of these guys are elite offensive linemen but are clear upgrades over John Jerry and Ereck Flowers. With an improved offensive line, Barkley should see better holes opened up for him and better protection out on screen passes.

Negatives:

Last year many expected the rookie to explode in the NFL thanks to his great college production and athletic profile. While I expect Barkley to build off his rookie success, there are two red flags with him; his quarterback situation and lack of wide receivers. While neither is a big enough red flag to take him out of the 1.01 consideration, it is something to look into.

The Giants spent their first of three first-round picks on Daniel Jones. This pick was criticized by many as a reach and the Giants making a foolish decision. While many Giant and NFL fans think Eli Manning is over the hill and done, is a rookie any better for Saquon’s fantasy value? Despite Jones’ strong preseason, with the veteran Manning under center, defenses know he can make plays as we’ve seen it before in meaningful games. With the rookie, defenses are more likely to challenge him with confusing looks and blitzes. This will force Barkley to spend more time pass protecting when fantasy owners want him to get the ball.

Just about everyone was shocked and disgusted by the Giants’ decision to trade away OBJ, especially for the package they got back. However, that is old news and the team had all offseason to make up for Beckham’s departure. The problem is, the Giants didn’t do anywhere near enough to replace him. After the trade, the Giants signed Golden Tate, who is coming off a horrible stint in Philadelphia. They signed Sterling Shepard to a contract extension. The problem is both guys ideally should play in the slot, but that isn’t the biggest problem with this unit.

Since training camp started, the Giants have lost their starting three wide receivers for at least some part of the 2019 regular season. Shepard broke his thumb in practice and is questionable to be ready for week one. Tate is suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Corey Coleman, who was supposed to the team’s number three receiver and deep threat tore his ACL in the same practice Shepard got hurt and is out for the season. Needless to say, outside of tight end Evan Engram, defenses will do everything possible to take Barkley away.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

Positives:

After hearing his entire rookie season long that he was a “scat back” who “couldn’t handle the full-time workload”, McCaffrey finished his sophomore season with the third most touches in the league while breaking Matt Forte‘s record for most catches in a season by a running back with 107, 16 more than any other running back. In the offseason, the Panthers did very little to challenge McCaffrey’s role in the offense. They drafted Jordan Scarlett in the fifth round and signed Elijah Holyfield as a UDFA. Those two combined with Cameron Artis-Payne are the running backs behind McCaffrey. In other words, there is no reason why McCaffrey won’t have another 320 plus touches again this season.

The 2018 season wasn’t a great one for the offensive line. They had just lost star guard Andrew Norwell in free agency while starting Matt Kalil at left tackle (yikes!). However, a year later they were able to re-sign Daryl Williams, sign former Denver Broncos’ center Matt Paradis while spending a second and sixth-round draft picks on offensive tackles Greg Little and Dennis Daley. After ignoring the issues on the offensive line for the past few years, the Panthers took protecting Cam Newton and opening holes for CMC very serious this offseason. With an improved offensive line and a hopefully healthy Newton, McCaffrey’s upside is unlimited.

Negatives:

Some will say CMC got a boost because of Newton’s injured shoulder and how he had to throw short because he couldn’t throw deep. While there is some truth to that argument, the reality is the offense runs through McCaffrey. However, with Greg Olsen back, hopefully healthy, combined with the development of young wide receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, the Panthers have plenty of weapons available and won’t have to force feed CMC targets. While I don’t believe McCaffrey’s targets will take a big hit this year, he might finish closer to 90 than the 107 he had last year. Adjusting McCaffrey’s fantasy points from last year, removing one catch per game along with his average yards per catch, his fantasy points would have dropped by 28.8 or 1.8 per game.

While that isn’t a lot and would have dropped him only from the RB2 to the RB3 last year, there have been rumblings that the Panthers want to lighten McCaffrey’s workload, especially around the goal line. Six of McCaffrey’s seven rushing touchdowns from last season came within the five-yard line. If a chunk of those carries goes to a different running back, McCaffrey’s numbers could take a big hit. Furthermore, Newton had a career-low four rushing touchdowns last season. If Newton returns healthy, he could also cut into McCaffrey’s red zone work.

Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

Positives:

Coming off an impressive rookie season many, including myself, had doubts Kamara could do it again in 2018; clearly, we were wrong. Kamara finished as the RB4 despite sitting out week 17 to rest, averaging 23.6 fantasy points per game for the season. Unlike the other running backs in this battle, Kamara only played on 66.3% of the snaps last year, while the other three played on 87% or more of their team’s snaps. Yet, Kamara was one of just one of four running backs to post 10 or more weeks as an RB1 (top 12) finish last year. By comparison, as a rookie, Kamara played on just 44.3% of the snaps but still finished as the RB3 for the year.

Part of the reason why Kamara has played an average of just 55.3% of the team’s snaps in his first two years in the league was Mark Ingram. In the offseason, Ingram signed with the Baltimore Ravens while the Saints signed former Minnesota Viking Latavius Murray. While Murray is a solid running back and will have a similar role Ingram did last year, Kamara should see an uptick of touches this season. Of the four running backs in this battle, the Saints clearly have the most explosive offense, in large part thanks to Kamara, further making his case to be pick 1.01.

Negatives:

Not much negative to say here. While Kamara is a critical part of the Saints’ offense, he isn’t the most important player; it’s Michael Thomas. Of all the running backs in this battle, none of them have an elite wide receiver, like Thomas, to take touches away from him. Last season, Thomas led the league with 125 catches. Furthermore, last year Kamara had 81 catches, which ranked third among these running backs. He finished with 81 catches, just four ahead of Elliott while finishing with 10 less than Barkley and 26 less than McCaffrey. In addition to Thomas, the Saints signed former Oakland Raider tight end Jared Cook, giving Drew Brees another weapon in the middle of the field to throw to, further limiting Kamara’s receiving upside.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

Positives:

First off let’s start with the suspension, I don’t think Zeke misses any regular season games. It won’t help him in his contract negotiations and will cost him millions of dollars. His situation and Le’Veon Bell‘s from a year ago are different. Bell was technically a free agent coming off a $ 12.1 million dollar check the year before while Zeke is under contract and made just $6.8 million dollars last year. Assuming he shows up ready to go week one, Elliott has a strong argument for why he should go pick 1.01; his volume of touches.

Aside from the year when he was suspended for six games, Elliott has led the NFL in rushing touches his other two years in the league. During those two years, he averaged 313 rushing attempts her season while leading the league in rushing yards both times. Elliott is also coming off a career-high 77 catches and 381 touches. The volume for Zeke is there and while the Cowboys might pull back on his workload some, if he shows up for week one and stays healthy, he’s a guaranteed top-five finish.

Negatives:

If Zeke wasn’t threatening to miss regular season games (again, I doubt he does), his ADP wouldn’t have slipped and he would have a great argument to be the 1.01 pick. However, he is skipping camp and reportedly won’t play in 2019 without a new contract. For the fantasy owners who got burned on Bell last year, Zeke comes with too much risk. However, there becomes a point where he slides far enough that the reward outweighs the risk. While the holdout is an issue, it’s not the only reason why Zeke could miss games in 2019.

While the NFL decided against suspending him for an altercation with a security guard at a music festival in May, the league could “throw the book” at Zeke the next time he makes a bad decision. Elliott has a history of getting into trouble off the field and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get in trouble during the season. Aside from his off the field risk, Zeke has 1,003 career touches in just three seasons. Furthermore, he has done that despite missing eight career games. While the volume is nice, the high number of career touches increases his chance of injuries.

Last year Elliott had 77 catches on 95 targets; both of which were easily career highs. Furthermore, in his first two seasons combined, he had just 58 catches on 77 targets. Even if you adjust for his six-game suspension in 2017, Zeke would have had 74 catches on 100 targets in his first two seasons. The return of Jason Witten combine with the signing of Randall Cobb and the explosive Tony Pollard, Zeke won’t see as many check down and middle of the field targets as he did last season. Pollard has gotten plenty of praise from Jerry Jones recently and that isn’t good for Zeke’s holdout or touches when he gets back.

Conclusion

Since this is a fantasy battle, there must be a winner, but before I make that call, let’s look at some numbers.

 

Finish

Fantasy PPG

RB1 Finishes

RB2 Finishes

Barkley

RB1

24.1

11

3

McCaffrey

RB2

24.1

11

4

Kamara

RB4

23.6

10

3

Elliott

RB5

21.9

9

5

The saying is, “you can’t win your league with your first-round pick, but you can lose your league with your first-round pick”, and that is 100% true. Assuming Zeke doesn’t miss any regular season games, I have no problem taking any of these running backs with pick 1.01, they are all excellent options. However, despite the lack of offensive talent around him, I will be taking Barkley first overall in all my drafts. Again, all four of these running backs are good picks at 1.01 and should be the first four picks in your drafts.

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