2019 Fantasy Football: Can Christian McCaffrey be the No. 1 Fantasy Back?





By Chet Gresham – @ChetGresham
Follow @walterfootball for updates.

Last year, Christian McCaffrey finished as the third-best fantasy running back in standard scoring and the second-best fantasy running back in PPR scoring. He ended up running the ball 219 times for 1,098 yards and seven touchdowns and seeing 124 targets, catching 107 of those for 867 yards and six touchdowns. He also added a 50-yard touchdown pass on his only passing attempt. McCaffrey also raised his average from a mediocre 3.7 yards per carry from 2017 to 5.0 yards per carry and almost hit 2,000 total yards from scrimmage. His extreme usage was a big part of his huge numbers, but you can thank Cam Newton’s shoulder injury for McCaffrey’s big jump in touchdowns.



It’s hard to pinpoint when Newton’s shoulder started hurting him, but he did miss practice due to shoulder soreness the week before Carolina’s seventh game of the season, and that’s the week McCaffrey’s touchdown spree started. Over the first six games of the year, McCaffrey totaled one touchdown, and in the final nine games, he had 12. In Week 17, he was rested for much of the game and had just five touches. Cam Newton ended up with no rushing touchdowns in his final seven games and missed the last two of the season due to his shoulder.

On the season, McCaffrey had 29 rushing attempts and six targets inside the opponent’s 10-yardline, and he scored nine touchdowns on those touches. Before Week 7, McCaffrey had just six carries inside the 10 and no targets. If you don’t count the game he sat in Week 17, McCaffrey had 29 looks in nine games from inside the 10-yardline and scored nine touchdowns, while adding three more from outside the 10-yardline. Maybe the Panthers realized they needed to get the ball to McCaffrey more near the goal line or perhaps it was due mostly to Newton’s shoulder, but more likely, it was a combination of the two. And just for fun, let’s look at McCaffrey’s numbers from those nine games and extrapolate them to 16 full games, shall we? Yes, we shall.

From Week 7 to Week 16, McCaffrey ran the ball 137 times for 702 yards and seven touchdowns and saw 77 targets, which he caught 66 of for 556 yards and five touchdowns. If he had kept that pace up for 16 games, he would have had 244 carries for 1,248 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 117 passes on 137 targets for 988 yards and nine more scores. Is that his upside? Yes. Yes, it is. Will he get there this season? Probably not, but with those numbers at the top of his range of outcomes, he makes for an extremely high-upside pick.



In today’s NFL, it is rare to find running backs who total 300 or more touches in a season. Since 2014, there have been just five running backs on average to hit that number, whereas from 2000 to 2013 that average was 12 running backs per year. That fact that McCaffrey had 326 touches last season is enough to keep him high on your radar as a top-three back, but his 219 rushing attempts give me a better feeling about his ability to hold up to the significant workload. Receiving backs avoid punishment, as handoffs are almost assuredly getting a player hit, and possibly multiple times, while receptions can lead to running free out of bounds, getting tackled by a defensive back instead of a lineman, and breaking more tackles. Of course, the other elite running backs also get big receiving workloads, but nobody is touching McCaffrey’s numbers.

Is McCaffrey worth a No. 1 pick in fantasy this year? There’s no doubt that the answer is yes, but there are others who should be considered as well, mainly Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott. All three have similar upside, and all three led their team in receptions last season, but McCaffrey’s huge numbers as a receiver give him more space to work with after the catch.



If the Panthers had drafted or signed a strong running back this offseason, I’d feel confident that McCaffrey would drop a little from his league-high 91 percent of his team’s snaps, but they didn’t, and with Cam Newton’s shoulder needing surgery twice over the last three seasons, I expect McCaffrey’s workload near the goal line to remain high, along with his chances to finish the season as the No. 1 fantasy back in standard or PPR.

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