Fantasy Debate: Who is the Top Fantasy Pick in 2020?
The first pick is heavily contested every season. This year, there are three contenders, with Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott currently holding the top three spots in ADP. In this debate, Alex Gelhar will be arguing for McCaffrey, while Eric Moody fights for Barkley and Brandon Niles makes a case for Elliott.
The Case for Christian McCaffrey
Alex: Those lucky enough to be picking at the top of fantasy drafts this summer face an embarrassment of riches at the running back position. True workhorses are rare, and there are several contenders for the top pick in 2020. Several contenders and one true champion—Christian McCaffrey.
While Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott have cases to be the 1.01 (as my colleagues explain in this very piece), CMC is the easy and obvious choice at the top of fantasy drafts thanks to his combination of consistency, a safe floor, and upside.
Let’s look at his consistency and floor first. Some knocked McCaffrey as incapable of running between the tackles early on in his career, but he’s put those concerns to bed, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 4.8 yards per carry respectively over the last two seasons, crossing 1,000 yards on the ground in each year. The groundwork is nice, but McCaffrey really thrives in fantasy as a pass-catcher.
McCaffrey has seen 22% or more of the Panthers passing game targets in each of his three years in the league. Since entering the league, McCaffrey ranks 11th among all skill position players with 379 targets (Alvin Kamara is the only other running back with 300-plus). He’s done well with those opportunities, catching 303 passes and ranking as one of just five players to record 300 receptions from 2017–2019.
Run CMC has taken his talents to the end zone often the last two years as well, scoring 13 times in 2018 and 19 times in 2019. He’s proven himself capable as a goal-line back, increasing his yearly share of team carries inside the 5-yard line from 9.5% to 57% to 81%. He is efficient with those touches, scoring on over 51% of his carries inside the 5-yard line on his career. Of course, the Panthers haven’t ignored CMC in the red zone in the passing game either. In 2018 he saw 25% of the team red zone targets, leading the team with 13 in that space. His red zone target share dipped a touch in 2019 to 23%, but he remained at the top of the pecking order with a team-high 14 (tied with Curtis Samuel).
That was a lot of words and numbers to support the simple statement that McCaffrey has had, and should continue to have, an elite running back workload on the ground, through the air, and near the end zone. However, there is one new variable for CMC we have yet to discuss: new Panthers head coach Matt Rhule.
Rhule was a hot commodity in the recent hiring cycle after resurrecting the Baylor football program in a few short years. He hired Joe Brady (most recently with LSU and the Saints) as his offensive coordinator, signaling the duo will likely be bringing a more spread-out offense to the Panthers in 2020. According to one outlet, Baylor ran 10 (4 WR, 0 TE, 1 RB) or 11 (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) personnel on 85%–90% of its plays. Rhule’s teams at Baylor ranked 2second, third, and sixth in plays run in the Big 12, a conference built on offense. That could mean plenty of snaps for McCaffrey as the lone back facing softer defensive fronts/boxes as teams put more defensive backs on the field to limit the passing game.
Inciting the “RBs don’t matter” wars earlier this year, the Panthers extended McCaffrey with a massive new deal (coming out to around $16 million per year). This was not the old guard, though, as Rhule and his staff played a key role in the extension. Rhule met with Brady and running backs coach Jeff Nixon before extending CMC. They all agreed he wasn’t a traditional running back whose impact on the field would be commensurate with his new, sizeable paycheck.
Rhule and Brady have histories of targeting running backs in the passing game. The New Orleans Saints targeted running backs on 32.4% and 27.9% of the team’s pass attempts during Brady’s two years as an offensive assistant with the team. Rhule’s Baylor teams floated between 12%-13% of the targets for backs in 2018 and 2019, but if you add in RB/WR Jalen Hurd to the mix, that total jumps to 26.5%. That could be a more approximate share for the Panthers offense given McCaffrey’s dual-threat abilities.
So not only does McCaffrey have a proven track record and one of the safest workloads in the NFL, but he has a new coach and offensive staff that believes in him. That makes him the best choice for pick 1.01 in redraft leagues.
The Case for Saquon Barkley
Eric: Barkley has met the expectations of fantasy players after being selected out of Penn State second overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. He is a legitimate three-down back for the Giants who can create yards between the tackles and as a receiver out of the backfield. Barkley has finished as an RB2 or better in 83% of his games over the last two seasons in half-point PPR. He’s averaged 23.2 opportunities, 120 total yards, and 19.3 fantasy points per game over that time frame. Barkley's statistical production in his second season was negatively impacted by a high ankle injury. He still finished ninth with 680 yards after contact according to Sports Info Solutions. Back in 2018 the only running back with more yards after contact than Barkley (835) was Ezekiel Elliott (905).
The Giants' offensive line finished the season ranked 25th in adjusted line yards and the backs ranked eighth in open field yards. This tells us that New York’s running game was heavily dependent on its running backs breaking long runs to make the running game work. The Giants invested many resources into its offensive line this offseason. General manager Dave Gettleman selected three linemen in this year’s draft including two in the first three rounds.
Quarterback Daniel Jones surpassed all reasonable expectations during his rookie season. He finished as a QB1 in four out of his 12 starts last season averaging 37.3 fantasy points per game. Outside of those games, Jones averaged 13 fantasy points per game. He tied the NFL rookie record for touchdown passes set by Fran Tarkenton in 1961 and matched by Deshaun Watson back in 2017. Jones also set new Giants rookie quarterback franchise records for passing yards, passing attempts, completions, and most consecutive games with one or more scores. He will look to build on a productive rookie season in 2020 with the team’s new head coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Jones is firmly on the QB2 radar and has QB1 upside. This is good news for Barkley’s outlook along with the addition of Garrett.
Garrett was the Cowboys offensive coordinator in 2007 to 2010 and head coach from 2011 to 2019. Over that time frame, the running backs in his offenses averaged 29.6 opportunities per game. Garrett recently leaned heavily on the 2016 first-round draft pick Elliott. He averaged 25.2 opportunities per game over that time frame which resulted in a 41% opportunity share. The only other running back to see a higher per game average over that time was LeVeon Bell (26.3). A healthy Barkley could easily exceed 2,000 total yards with this type of workload. Garrett prefers to lean heavily on a bellcow to establish the running game. Barkley could set a new career-high in touches and will be the engine that keeps the Giants offense running efficiently in 2020.
Barkley and McCaffrey’s fantasy points per game in half-point PPR are eerily similar. It shouldn’t come as a coincidence that these two dynamos also led all running backs in expected points (number of fantasy points that a target or carry should score based on the game situation) over the last two seasons. McCaffrey has the higher fantasy points over expectation. He’s averaged 4.3 fantasy points per game more than expected on his opportunities over the last two seasons. Barkley has averaged 2.1 fantasy points per game more than expected on his over that time frame. He was still very effective despite dealing with an ankle injury.
Last season, Barkley also had more yards after contact than McCaffrey who finished 12th with 583 yards. Were you aware that Barkley has had a higher elusive rating than McCaffrey over the last two seasons according to Pro Football Focus? This advanced metric distills the success and impact of a runner with the football independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down. McCaffrey’s ability as a receiver is one thing that separates him from other running backs in fantasy. Barkley is no slouch in this area averaging 1.35 yards per route run over the last two seasons. Both running backs are projected to see enormous workloads this season. A healthy Barkley in Garrett’s run-heavy offense and his ability to turn any touch into a breakaway play makes him a prime contender to take the fantasy RB1 crown away from McCaffrey in 2020.
The Case for Ezekiel Elliott
Brandon: Everyone knows McCaffrey is the number one pick. Everyone also knows Barkley isn’t far behind. As Alex and Eric have outlined, both are incredible receiving options out of the backfield, and McCaffrey’s ability to put the ball in the end zone makes it silly to even consider another option.
Then again, there are those of us hiding out in cave dwellings, pouring over stat sheets and daring to question the common wisdom. We look at traditional running backs like Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb, breaking tackles and logging 300-ish carries and remember the days of the workhorse running back. From the bat-infested doldrums of fantasy archeology, we dare ask the question: What if?
What if instead of the flashy pass-catchers and new kids on the block, we look for steady and reliable? We look for someone who has averaged 20.9 carries per game over his four-year career. We look for someone who still catches the ball to the tune of 131 receptions over his past two seasons. If we look hard, what we find is perennial bridesmaid Ezekiel Elliott.
Last year, his holdout landed him in the late-first of most drafts. The year before, he was considered fourth behind Todd Gurley, David Johnson and LeVeon Bell (whoops). In 2017, David Johnson was considered a lock for the first pick. While all those players have had mixed results during that span, Elliott keeps churning out productive seasons. He’s responsible for three of the six highest rushing yards seasons since he entered the league in 2016. He also owns three of the 12 highest yards-after-contact seasons in that span, including 785 last year. He is the main cog in the Dallas Cowboys offense and should be a near-lock for at least 300 touches.
Maybe Elliott doesn’t finish as the top fantasy running back, but he’s as sure a thing as you can get in fantasy sports to finish in the top five. When I’m picking first overall, that’s what I want. I want someone I’m not going kick myself for drafting in Week 8.
Barkley has a young quarterback and missed three games with an injury last year. Additionally, the Giants lack game-changers at the wide receiver position to take the pressure off Barkley.
McCaffrey will be breaking in a new quarterback and an entirely new offense with the addition of Teddy Bridgewater and the hiring of Matt Rhule. While McCaffrey is good enough to alleviate general concerns, the continuation of his incredibly high usage is not guaranteed with so much turnover.
Meanwhile, the personnel around Elliott remains pretty much the same, including the sixth-best offensive line in football according to Justin Edwards. They’ll miss starting center Travis Frederick, but still have two of the top-25 tackles and two of the top-16 guards in Run Blown Block %, according to Sports Info Solutions. Defenses will also struggle to key in on Elliott with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and first-round pick CeeDee Lamb providing three dynamic weapons for quarterback Dak Prescott to work with. Elliott’s supporting cast is light-years ahead of what McCaffrey has in Carolina, and double that for Barkley.
Sure, he’ll be breaking in a new coach in Mike McCarthy, but it looks like he’ll retain offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. While McCarthy was a frustrating coach for fantasy running backs throughout his career in Green Bay, he never had a back like Zeke, and Ryan Grant churned out some great seasons early in McCarthy’s tenure. I have zero concerns about Zeke’s usage under McCarthy and Moore.
Ultimately, all three of these guys are studs and can anchor a fantasy team. But only Zeke gives you the year-over-year reliability in a stable situation. I’ll let other people worry about upside and maximum points. I’ll take the consistent finisher with an extremely high floor. Give me Zeke and I’ll see you in the playoffs.