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Fantasy Playbook: Christian McCaffrey Is the New King of Fantasy Football

The Panthers back is a matchup-proof, quarterback-proof points-scoring machine. Plus: the fantasy breakouts of Will Fuller, Aaron Jones, and more.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The king is dead; long live the king. Todd Gurley’s reign as fantasy football’s top dog ended around Week 13 last year when the Rams abruptly switched to a committee approach at running back, a shocking turn of events that created a power vacuum at the top of fantasy football’s overall ranks. While Saquon Barkley assumed the spot as the consensus no. 1 pick coming into this season, there was plenty of debate over which one of the so-called big four—Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, or Christian McCaffrey—was the true heir to Gurley’s throne. After five weeks, it’s become abundantly clear: McCaffrey is the new king of fantasy football.

The Panthers’ dynamic back exploded for 47.7 PPR points in Carolina’s 34-27 win over the Jaguars Sunday, rushing 19 times for 176 yards and two touchdowns while adding six catches for 61 yards and another score. He showed off video-game-like jukes and incredible athleticism in leaping to a touchdown in the first quarter:

His dominance as a mismatch creator in the passing game was apparent later that frame:

And, with this 84-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, he showed why he’s a breakaway threat every time he touches the football:

McCaffrey’s big performance moved him past Lamar Jackson and into the top spot on the overall fantasy leaderboard this season (159.6 points) and bumped his per-game average to a cool 31.9 points—putting him on track to become one of just three running backs in league history to eclipse 31-plus points per game over a full season. There’s nothing flukey about McCaffrey’s gaudy stats, either: Going back to last year, he’s now averaged 31.4 fantasy points per game over his last 13 games, and there’s little reason to believe he will slow down any time soon. McCaffery is getting consistently extraordinary volume, which makes days like today repeatable: After coming into the week ranked first among running backs in rush attempts (86), rushing yards (411), catches (25), touches (111), and percentage of team snaps played (98.2 percent), he proved once again that he’s capable of handling a heavy load. Against Jacksonville, he played 85 percent of the team’s snaps (only coming off the field due to cramps late in the game), got 73 percent of the running back carries while drawing a 30 percent target share in the passing game. Oh, and he’s done all this with backup Kyle Allen taking over for the injured Cam Newton at quarterback. Simply put, it looks like nothing can stop CMC.

The Panthers offense runs through McCaffrey, who is on pace to score 22 touchdowns, set a new NFL record in total scrimmage yards (2,771), and post one of the best fantasy seasons of all time; his 159.6 fantasy points is the second most any player has posted through five weeks in the Super Bowl era. The third-year back is running himself into the real-football MVP conversation and has quickly emerged as the front-runner for the title of fantasy league-winner.

OK, on to the rest of the happenings around the league.

Risers and Sliders

Riser: WR Will Fuller, Texans

Fuller’s breakout had been a long time coming: Quarterback Deshaun Watson had just missed the electric deep threat on a handful of would-be big plays this season—including an overthrow on what should’ve been a 75-yard touchdown last week—but on Sunday, the duo finally linked up. Fuller posted the best game of his career in the team’s 53-32 win over the Falcons, eclipsing his total over the previous four weeks (32.3 points) in one fell swoop, racking up an NFL-high 53.7 fantasy points (the ninth-best fantasy performance for a wide receiver all-time) with a 14-catch, 217-yard, three-touchdown line. That performance, as impressive as it was, was this close to being an all-timer, too, considering Fuller was also tackled at the 1-yard line on two separate plays. The dynamic pass catcher was a threat all over the field for Watson, who is always at his best when Fuller is heavily involved.

Slider: QB Lamar Jackson, Ravens

The Ravens escaped Pittsburgh with a much-needed 26-23 overtime win, but it was a day to forget for the team’s second-year quarterback. Jackson completed 19-of-28 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown while throwing three picks, finishing outside the QB1 ranks for the first time this season (pending Monday Night Football, he’s this week’s QB18 with a season-low 11.4 fantasy points). Jackson salvaged what could’ve been a disastrous fantasy day by gaining 70 yards on 14 rush attempts, but he’ll need to bounce back in the passing game next week against the Bengals at home.

Riser: WR Michael Thomas, Saints

Thomas exploded with 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the Saints’ 31-24 win over the Buccaneers, smashing concerns—at least for one week—that Drew Brees’s injury would limit the big pass catcher’s fantasy ceiling. Of course, it’s probably not realistic to expect Teddy Bridgewater to consistently post 300-plus-yard, four-touchdown performances each week, but the backup signal-caller has clearly found his footing in Sean Payton’s offense. That’s a massive boon for Thomas, who remains the team’s unquestioned top passing-game option.

Slider: WR Julio Jones, Falcons

Jones started the season off strong but has fallen back to earth the past two weeks. After posting a four-catch, 52-yard line in Atlanta’s loss to the Titans last week, the superstar receiver notched just three catches for 42 yards in the team’s blowout loss to the Texans on Sunday. Jones is still a set-and-forget WR1, but his lack of production was discouraging for fantasy owners, considering Matt Ryan passed the ball 46 times while finishing with 330 yards and three touchdowns.

Riser: RB Aaron Jones, Packers

With Jamaal Williams inactive due to a concussion, Jones took full control of the Packers’ backfield in the team’s 34-24 win over the Cowboys. He flourished in that role, picking up 107 yards and four touchdowns on 19 totes while adding seven catches for 75 yards. Jones’s 49.2 fantasy points ranks second among all players pending Monday Night Football and was yet another reminder of just how much better Jones is than anyone else in that backfield. Here’s hoping the Packers’ coaching staff—which has doggedly maintained its commitment to a committee approach—took notice.

Slider: QB Philip Rivers, Chargers

The spate of injuries to Chargers pass catchers (Hunter Henry, Dontrelle Inman, and Dylan Cantrell are all on IR, while Travis Benjamin, Mike Williams, and Virgil Green are banged up) seemed to finally catch up with Rivers in the team’s 20-13 loss to the Broncos. The veteran passer, who quietly came into the week as the fantasy QB11, completed 32 of 48 passes for just 211 yards (a dismal 4.4 yards per attempt) with no touchdowns and two interceptions to finish with 4.1 fantasy points. Rivers frequently looked to dump the ball off to his running backs—Austin Ekeler and Melvin Gordon combined for a whopping 22 targets—and failed to get onto the same page with previously red-hot receiver Keenan Allen, who posted a paltry four-catch, 18-yard line.

Riser: RB Josh Jacobs, Raiders

Jacobs became just the third running back to post 100-plus yards against the Bears defense since the start of last season, carrying 26 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns while adding 20 yards on three catches in the Raiders’ 24-21 win in London. Jacobs ran with elusiveness and power, finding the end zone for the first time since his Week 1 debut. He is the unquestioned bell-cow runner in Jon Gruden’s offense.

Slider: WR Mike Evans, Buccaneers

The roller-coaster ride continues: After getting off to an uncharacteristically slow start to the season (catching six passes for 89 yards in the first two games combined), Evans seemed to get the monkey off his back with a massive three-touchdown performance in Week 3. Then he followed that up with a solid 89-yard, one-touchdown game in Week 4. But the superstar pass catcher reverted to his early-season self in the Buccaneers’ loss to the Saints, putting up a goose egg on three targets. Evans is still a weekly must-start in every format—his ceiling is just too high—but he’s become one of the most frustrating fantasy wideouts this year.

Riser: WR DJ Chark, Jaguars

Chark continued his meteoric rise to stardom on Sunday, reeling in eight passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns in a back-and-forth shootout with the Panthers. Chark, who came within a hair of scoring a third touchdown in the third quarter (he went out of bounds at the 1-yard line), has solidified his role as the Jaguars’ go-to playmaker downfield. After coming into the week as a low-end WR1 (the WR11 overall), Chark’s 36.4-point performance will have him climbing the ranks. Not shabby for a guy who came into the season going mostly undrafted (the WR104 with an average draft position of 315th overall).

Riser: WR Adam Thielen, Vikings

The squeaky wheel narrative strikes again! After complaining about the Vikings’ inability to pass the ball last week—and subsequently getting a public apology from quarterback Kirk Cousins—Thielen went off against the punchless Giants’ secondary to the tune of seven catches for 130 yards and two scores. Thielen, who caught two passes for 6 yards last week, will likely remain a risky weekly play (Minnesota won’t get to face the Giants every game), but his performance represented a massive step forward for this passing game. Cousins also deserves credit for having his best game of the year, completing 22 of 27 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-10 win.

Slider: WR Stefon Diggs, Vikings

After racking up $200,000 in fines because of missed practices last week, Diggs—who’s been the recent subject of trade rumors—caught just three passes for 44 yards in Minnesota’s blowout win. After coming into the season as a fantasy third-rounder (with an ADP of 31st overall), Diggs finds himself outside the top 50 … at receiver alone. Hey, the squeaky wheel narrative isn’t completely foolproof.

Cutting Up the Pie

Chargers Split Roles in Melvin Gordon’s First Game Back

The Chargers went with a pretty even playing time split between Gordon (31 snaps) and Austin Ekeler (41 snaps) in Gordon’s first (real) game back after ending his holdout. The workload was split pretty evenly too, only there was a clear demarcation between the run game and the aerial attack. Gordon dominated the ground touches, rushing 12 times for 31 yards (to Ekeler’s three carries for seven yards); Ekeler was far more involved in the passing game, racking up 15 catches for 86 yards (to Gordon’s four catches for 7 yards). Part of that division of labor was due, of course, to the fact that the Chargers trailed for most of the game, and Gordon could see more targets going forward, particularly in games in which Los Angeles has a lead to protect. But it was clear on Sunday that the team still prefers the explosive open-field tackle-breaking prowess that Ekeler brings to its passing game.

Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders Still Rotating in Philly

Despite Sanders’s drawing the official start in the Eagles’ 31-6 blowout of the Jets, Howard out-carried the rookie, gaining 62 yards and a touchdown on 13 totes to Sanders’s 15 yards on nine carries. Howard now has four touchdowns in the team’s last two games—Sanders has yet to score this year—and has been getting the lion’s share of red-zone work for the Eagles over the last three weeks. That makes him the preferred fantasy option in the Philly backfield, at least for now. However, if there’s a silver lining for those of us with Sanders on their fantasy squads, it’s that the former Penn State standout has gotten some looks in the passing game—even on a few vertical routes. Sanders caught four passes for 49 yards in the win, including a 36-yard reception on a wheel route up the right sideline, his third reception of 30-plus yards in five games.

Carlos Hyde Still Dominating Touches in Houston

Those still waiting for Duke Johnson’s breakout with the Texans were sorely disappointed on Sunday. Hyde carried 21 times for 60 yards and a touchdown in Houston’s blowout win over the Falcons, with Johnson adding just nine totes for 59 yards. Worse still, Johnson was a nonfactor in the passing game, netting one catch for 8 yards on one target. Johnson has been more efficient than Hyde when given the opportunity, but the team has been reticent to give the former Browns back a bigger role.

The Injury Report

RB Wayne Gallman, Giants: Gallman suffered a concussion in the first half of the Giants’ loss to the Vikings and did not return to the game. He was replaced by backup Jon Hilliman, who carried nine times for 20 yards. Gallman will go into the concussion protocol this week, but since Saquon Barkley is essentially Wolverine and is reportedly close to returning from a high-ankle sprain, there’s no pressing reason to pick Hilliman off the waiver wire as the Giants prepare to face a terrifying Patriots defense.

QB Mason Rudolph, WR James Washington, Steelers: Rudolph was knocked unconscious in a scary hit during the second half of Sunday’s game against the Ravens. He didn’t return and was replaced by undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, who completed seven of nine passes for 68 yards in relief. Washington suffered a shoulder injury and was also ruled out. Hodges isn’t on the fantasy radar, but if Washington can’t make it back for Pittsburgh’s next game against the Chargers, it could be mean a target boost for JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson.

WR Phillip Dorsett, Patriots: Dorsett tweaked his hamstring in the first half of Sunday’s game against the Redskins and didn’t return. Rookie Jakobi Meyers slid in as the team’s no. 3 receiving option behind Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon, catching one pass for 6 yards. He could be worth a look on the waiver wire this week, especially for teams in bye week trouble. Remember, the Pats draw the hapless Giants’ secondary in Week 6.

WR Sammy Watkins, Chiefs: Watkins aggravated a hamstring injury in the first half of the Chiefs’ loss to the Colts on Sunday night. That created an opportunity for Byron Pringle, who caught six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown in the 19-13 loss. With Tyreek Hill potentially returning next week for Kansas City’s matchup with the Texans, Pringle’s breakout could end up being a flash in the pan. But if there’s a spot on the end of your bench, he may be worth a speculative add just to see how things pan out. I’m always in favor of giving Chiefs skill-position players preferential treatment on the waiver wire.

Smash the Add Button

Here are a few must-add players on this week’s waiver wire.

TE Gerald Everett, Rams (rostered in 8 percent of Yahoo leagues): The Rams have upped their usage of two-tight-end personnel groups (12 personnel) over the past few games. Everett has been a major beneficiary, reeling in 12 catches for 180 yards and a score on 18 targets in the past two weeks. The third-year pro is an athletic mover in space with the physicality to pick up yards after the catch and create mismatches in the red zone. If L.A. continues to rely heavily on 12-personnel going forward, Everett’s mini-breakout could become a long-term trend.

WR Auden Tate, Bengals (22 percent): With John Ross III on the injured reserve and A.J. Green’s return still up in the air, Tate has become one of the featured pass catchers in the Cincy offense. That’s not saying a whole lot, but the second-year pro out of Florida State has seen 22 targets in the past three games, reeling in 13 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown in that stretch. The Bengals travel to Baltimore in Week 6.

WR Jamison Crowder, Jets (44 percent): Crowder’s fantasy value turned to dust the moment Sam Darnold was diagnosed with mono, but don’t forget that the speedy slot receiver racked up 17 targets (catching 14 for 99 yards) in the team’s Week 1 loss to the Bills, the only game Darnold has played all year. Crowder should get back to being a go-to security blanket for Darnold when the second-year quarterback finally gets back onto the field. Now’s the time to stash him, particularly in PPR leagues.

TE Chris Herndon, Jets (29 percent): Herndon can return to the team this week after serving a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, and he should be another big beneficiary of Darnold’s return to the field. Herndon developed some chemistry with Darnold as a rookie last year; from Week 7 on, he was the TE9 in PPR formats.

WR Byron Pringle, Chiefs (zero percent): I laid out my stance on Chiefs’ skill-position players above: add them and then sort things out later. Pringle caught six of nine targets for 103 yards and a touchdown against the Colts.

WR Jakobi Meyers, Patriots (1 percent): Meyers was a preseason star for the Patriots and could jump into a bigger role following Dorsett’s injury. He’s worth an add—at least, that is, unless New England turns around and trades for Stefon Diggs on Monday.

The Watch List

Sometimes one big game isn’t quite enough. Here’s a handful of players to add to your waiver-wire watch list. Be ready to pounce.

RB Reggie Bonnafon, Panthers (zero percent): Bonnafon saw a little bit of action on Sunday when McCaffrey dealt with cramps, and he did enough in those limited looks (rushing five times for 80 yards and a score) to earn a spot on your watch list. McCaffrey is going to completely dominate touches in Carolina, but Bonnafon seemed to cement himself as McCaffrey’s handcuff in the Carolina backfield.

TE Foster Moreau, Raiders (zero percent): Moreau followed a three-catch, 30-yard, one-touchdown day in Week 4 with a five-target, four-catch, 46-yard line in Week 5. He’s still firmly behind Darren Waller (5-4-39-0) in the Raiders’ tight end pecking order, but the rookie seems to be earning Derek Carr’s trust. Carr has heavily relied on tight ends in the passing game over the past two years. That makes Moreau one to monitor.