Making the Case for Christian McCaffrey as the No. 1 Overall Pick in Fantasy Football

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVAugust 2, 2022

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There's no shortage of opinions every year in fantasy football. Show me an analyst who is sure that Cooper Kupp of the Los Angeles Rams will repeat as the No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy football, and I'll show you another convinced that 2022 will be the year of Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings.

However, where the first overall pick is concerned, there's less debate. It may not be unanimous, but the overwhelming majority of fantasy experts believe the No. 1 pick should be used on Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor.

It's not hard to see why—Taylor paced the NFL with 1,811 rushing yards last year, over 550 more than the next-closest back. Taylor recorded 2,171 total yards, found the end zone 20 times, and was fantasy football's highest-scoring running back in points-per-reception scoring systems.

But there's another player. A running back who has shown the ability to post not just RB1 numbers but truly historic ones. A player who owns not only the single-best season at the position over the last 16 years but is also capable of blowing every other running back in the league (Taylor included) out of the water. A player who can give fantasy managers a massive, league-winning edge over the competition.

That player is Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers, who was my first pick at No. 2 overall in a recent fantasy draft written up here at Bleacher Report.

Given the audible groaning and copious eye-rolling emanating from the stands after that statement, we might as well get the case against McCaffrey out of the way first.

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There's no sugarcoating it—McCaffrey's last two seasons have been a mess. In 2020, he played in just three games due to ankle, shoulder and leg injuries. Last year, McCaffrey missed 10 games and was in and out of two more with hamstring and ankle problems.

All told, that's 23 missed games over two seasons and quite a few fantasy teams wrecked because of it. But the thing is, if injury concerns are your sole reason for fading McCaffrey early, then you should be fading Taylor, too. In fact, you should pick a wide receiver first overall.

Because injury concerns just go with the running back position.

Josh Hermsmeyer of RotoViz (h/t Kevin Tompkins of Fantasy Alarm) conducted a seven-year study of injury rates and found that running backs are 200-360 percent more likely to suffer a serious injury (four or more weeks lost) than wide receivers.

We've seen that play out with elite running backs in recent years. After leading all running backs in PPR points in 2019, McCaffrey missed most of the 2020 season. Derrick Henry topped 2,000 rushing yards last year, only to miss more than half of the 2021 campaign with a broken foot.

It's also worth noting that both McCaffrey's 2019 season and Henry's 2020 campaign put them in the crosshairs of "The Curse of 370." Long story short, running backs who eclipse 370 touches in a season tend to experience a significant drop-off the following year.

Taylor touched the ball 372 times in 2021. Just saying.

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All injury histories aren't created equally, either. McCaffrey's issues over the past two years haven't required surgery, and he hasn't suffered repetitive injuries to the same body part. In the opinion of Dr. Deepak Chona at Rotoballer, McCaffrey's durability is no more concerning than any other back's.

"Yes, he missed time due to injury in each of the last two seasons. However, if you look more closely, those injuries don't form a recurring pattern. Additionally, McCaffrey tends to be among the league's best pass-catchers at the RB position. On a per-play basis, receptions pose a lower injury risk than carries, so from a touch distribution standpoint, he actually fits the prototype for the type of RB worth betting on early."

For his part, McCaffrey told Steve Smith Sr. of the NFL Network he's 100 percent healthy this year and eager to get back after it.

"Yeah, I feel great. You know, I think that's an easy way to put it. This is the best I've ever felt. Luckily, I didn't have any surgeries, no operations or anything like that. Just a bunch of annoying injuries that kept me off the field. But once again, just taking it one day at a time. I feel great right now, and that's all I'm really focused on. It's just practicing as hard as I can, recovering as hard as I can, showing up to every meeting with intent, and, you know, just putting my body, my mind and everything in the best position to succeed."

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If that's the case, and McCaffrey really is 100 percent, then he could be on the verge of a massive season.

Back in 2018, McCaffrey topped 1,000 rushing yards, caught 107 passes, scored 13 total touchdowns and finished second in PPR fantasy points to Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants.

That was nothing compared to what he did in 2019. That year, McCaffrey went over the 1,000-yard mark in both rushing and receiving, caught 116 passes, found the end zone 19 times and finished as fantasy's highest-scoring running back by over 150 PPR points. That's over nine fantasy points per game better than any other back in the league.

Per StatMuse, McCaffrey has averaged just under 22.5 PPR points per game over his career—more than any other running back in modern history. More than LaDainian Tomlinson. More than Marshall Faulk.

Even in his injury-shortened seasons the past two years, McCaffrey's per-game production was outstanding. In 2020, he averaged just over 30 PPR points per game, nearly five more points per contest than eventual No. 1 back Alvin Kamara. According to Tompkins, McCaffrey averaged 23.6 PPR points per game in his five full games in 2021.

By weight of comparison, Taylor averaged 22.2 points per game.

In addition, McCaffrey isn't just an important part of the Panthers offense. He is the offense—the straw that stirs the proverbial drink. Over the past four years, McCaffrey has averaged 22.4 touches per game.

McCaffrey's career average of 6.2 catches per game extrapolates to 105 catches per 17-game season. A year ago, McCaffrey posted high-end RB2 numbers with his receiving usage alone.

“Reasonable” Kevin Tompkins @ktompkinsii

Christian McCaffrey would have been RB14 in fantasy points per game in 2021 (15.4 FPPG).<br><br>WITH JUST HIS RECEIVING FANTASY POINTS IN FULL PPR.<br><br>If you like scoring fantasy points, there should be no doubt who the 1.01 is. For me, it's CMC and then the rest of the field in 2022. <a href="https://t.co/kcRxlJg9CX">pic.twitter.com/kcRxlJg9CX</a>

That is a jaw-dropping stat. But as we've already seen, it's far from the only one where McCaffrey is concerned. And even if Carolina scales back his workload a bit in an effort to help keep him healthy, he's a lock to see 20 touches every game.

Is there risk involved with drafting Christian McCaffrey? Yes. But there's risk involved with every running back. Injuries are a fact of life at the position, and the last time a league-leading fantasy back finished inside the top-five the following year was Ray Rice in 2011 and 2012. McCaffrey really isn't that much riskier than Taylor or Austin Ekeler of the Chargers.

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The notion of "missing" with the first pick terrifies a lot of fantasy managers, so much so that they sacrifice upside for perceived safety. But there's no such thing as a completely safe pick.

McCaffrey isn't measurably riskier than other running backs, and he has a stratospheric fantasy ceiling that no other back can match.

The point of fantasy football isn't to draft the safest team. It's to draft the team that scores the most points. And where running backs are concerned, no one has the potential to score more fantasy points than McCaffrey.

Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @IDPSharks.


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