clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Make the Case: Saquon Barkley Shouldn’t Be an Automatic No. 1 Pick in Fantasy Football

The Giants running back is widely considered this year’s consensus top fantasy choice. But with options like Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey on the board, and New York’s offense holding him back, he may not be the lock people think.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s early August, which means it’s time once again to argue about fantasy football. Who should you take with the no. 1 pick? Which offenses and players will surprise you? Which draft picks will completely tear your office apart? Welcome to “Make the Case,” a series in which Ringer staffers will answer the most pressing fantasy questions heading into the 2019 season. We’ll help you game your way to a championship—or at least avoid drafting like Dave Gettleman.

The best fantasy football draft pick to have in a typical season is no. 1 overall. That may seem obvious, but many prefer to have a middle-round pick so they avoid waiting so long between selections. The data, though, shows that the best option is to have the earliest pick possible, and over the past decade, the no. 1 pick in the draft has averaged by far the most value above replacement of any other pick.

So if you have the first pick, you’re in luck! Now it’s time to decide what to do with it. A common rule of thumb says that it’s best to take the consensus top running back on the board. This strategy was validated last year when players who took Todd Gurley first were rewarded with the top fantasy player in the league (RIP to everyone who talked themselves into Le’Veon Bell in that spot). Despite the fact that Gurley tailed off during the fantasy playoffs, people who picked at the top of their drafts last season won their leagues at the highest rates:

This season, Giants running back Saquon Barkley is expected to fill that role. Barkley currently has the no. 1 overall average draft position in standard, PPR, and half-PPR leagues. He’s no. 1 on FantasyPros’ expert consensus rankings, he’s no. 1 in dynasty leagues, and he’s no. 1 in best-ball leagues. In other words, he’s as much of a consensus no. 1 pick as we usually get.

Now, WITH THAT SAID: I don’t think this is a typical season, and I don’t think you should automatically take Saquon Barkley with the first pick. This flies in the face of virtually everything I just laid out, and it may seem like passing on him at no. 1 is trying to draft against history. But on the other hand: Taking him at no. 1 is also trying to draft against history. Barkley comes with a litany of question marks that have kept him from being ranked at the top of The Ringer’s own fantasy rankings and indicate that he could struggle to live up to his billing as the top fantasy pick.

Barkley himself is as talented a back as they come. The fantasy concerns don’t lie with him specifically, but instead with everything around him. Last year, New York’s offensive line ranked 29th in adjusted line yards, and that unit will bring in three new starters this season. Granted, an offensive line overhaul may be exactly what the Giants need, but even with the additions of guard Kevin Zeitler and tackle Mike Remmers, Barkley has the worst blockers of any of the four running backs—Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, and Alvin Kamara—who are considered to be in the top tier of fantasy options.

Additionally, the Giants will start either a declining Eli Manning or a rookie in Daniel Jones at quarterback. They traded Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns this offseason, their receiving corps is already in a state of panic since Golden Tate was suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances, and Sterling Shepard injured his thumb in training camp. New York was better offensively than you might remember last season, coming in 13th in offensive DVOA and 16th in points scored, but given the state of the team’s receiver corps and the guys who will be taking snaps under center, that unit could easily decline in 2019. If it does, it could be calamitous for Barkley.

Can you say with confidence that the Giants will have even an above-average offense this season? If you can’t, that should make you think twice about Saquon. Gurley last year played with one of the best offenses in football, and that will certainly not be true for Barkley. In July, Mike Tagliere of FantasyPros researched how much team scoring correlates with running back success, and the connection was revealing:

The one positive to betting on Saquon and the Giants offense is that Saquon is basically New York’s only weapon at this point. He’ll be involved in every part of the team’s attack, and that volume may be enough for Barkley, who was the no. 2 fantasy running back last year, to turn in another prolific campaign. But Barkley’s high expected usage alone shouldn’t be enough to make him a no-brainer no. 1 pick like Gurley was last year. Unlike in past seasons, you should consider drafting the other players in that top tier of running backs with the first pick instead. Here are the cases for each:

The Case for Christian McCaffrey

With McCaffrey, you are getting a volume guarantee like almost nothing else in football. CMC was on the field for 966 snaps last season, per Football Outsiders, by far the tops among running backs (Elliott was second place at 895 snaps). And that’s despite the fact that McCaffrey sat for nearly all of the Panthers’ meaningless Week 17 game against the Saints. It’s the highest total number of snaps for any running back since 2014, when Matt Forte recorded 975 with the Bears.

Head coach Ron Rivera has talked about easing McCaffrey’s workload some this season, but there’s no obvious backup option nipping at McCaffrey’s heels. CMC will likely be on the field a whole hell of a lot for the Panthers, both running between the tackles and catching passes. He’s game-script proof, and with offensive coordinator Norv Turner calling the plays in Carolina, McCaffrey can look almost LaDainian Tomlinson–esque at times.

Carolina ranked 11th in offensive DVOA last year, and that was despite Cam Newton playing much of the latter half of the season (in which Carolina went 1-7) with an injured shoulder. If Newton is back to full strength—he says he’s still a “work in progress”—the offense could be even more potent. That’s a big “if,” of course, but Newton’s health and McCaffrey’s workload have a somewhat paradoxical relationship: If Newton plays a little more conservatively to protect that shoulder, it could mean a larger load for the running back.

Wideouts Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore also showed solid flashes last season and are each pegged as breakout candidates heading into 2019. If everything comes together in Carolina, it could mean more scoring opportunities for McCaffrey, who, again, never leaves the field.

The Case for Ezekiel Elliott

Speaking of volume, no player had more touches in 2018 than Elliott, who with 381 was well in front of Barkley in second place (with 352). Elliott was 13th in touches (268) in 2017 despite playing in just 10 games, and was second in 2016 (354). If there’s a favorite to lead the NFL in touches in 2019, it’s Elliott.

Elliott also plays behind the most expensive offensive line in football, and the unit more than earns its keep. Last season, the Cowboys line ranked eighth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, and they’ll return perennial Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick this year after he missed all of 2018 with Guillain-Barré syndrome.

The one knock on Elliott in the past was his lack of pass catching—he had just 58 receptions over his first two seasons—but last year he nearly tripled his receptions from 2017, grabbing 77 passes.

Elliott’s potential is as high as anyone’s, so long as he’s on the field. But right now, the Cowboys back is holding out for a new contract. Once upon a time (read: a couple of weeks ago), I would have felt confident that Jerry Jones would quickly hand his highly drafted star running back a big new deal. But Jones doesn’t seem to be in any hurry:

This is a case to monitor going forward. Elliott’s holdout isn’t quite the same as Le’Veon Bell’s last year, but there’s still no need to take major risks with the first few picks of a fantasy draft. And Elliott’s holdout becomes a bigger question for fantasy owners by the day.

The Case for Alvin Kamara

In the first four games of 2018, when Mark Ingram was suspended for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs, Kamara recorded 611 scrimmage yards and six total touchdowns. That prorates to an incredible 1,100 rushing yards, 1,344 receiving yards, and 24 total TDs over 16 games. Kamara played on at least 80 percent of New Orleans’s snaps in three of those four games, and averaged 25.3 standard points per game, and 34.0 in PPR formats. Those numbers would give Kamara the fourth-highest per-game average of any running back this century in standard-scoring leagues, and the highest in PPR. Kamara wasn’t just great without Ingram, he was incredible.

Of course, once Ingram came back, Kamara’s scoring regressed. Well, it regressed some. Over the final 13 weeks of the season, Kamara recorded 981 scrimmage yards and 12 total touchdowns. That prorates to a more modest 884 rushing yards, 543 receiving yards, and 17 total touchdowns. In all, Kamara scored 15.7 standard fantasy points per game and 19.8 PPR points those weeks. But even those numbers would have each ranked ninth over an entire season.

Ingram left for Baltimore in free agency, and he’s been replaced by Latavius Murray, which means Kamara will still have competition for snaps. But of these top four running backs, Kamara is part of the best overall offense, and he plays behind the best offensive line. And while it’s likely impossible for Kamara to sustain the numbers he averaged during the first month of last season, these splits paint a pretty good picture of his ceiling and floor heading into 2019. In the best-case scenario, Kamara could be one of the most prolific performers in fantasy history—an absolute league-winner. In the worst-case scenario (barring injury), he’s still a top-10 option.

Let’s circle back to Saquon. It’s not that there aren’t reasons to take him. For starters, he may be the most talented back in the NFL. And even if the Giants offense sucks, Saquon can make something out of nothing: He ranked in the top 10 in yards after contact per rush, avoided tackles, and 10-plus-yard runs last season, per Pro Football Focus.

Still, the negatives are worth serious consideration when you have McCaffrey, Elliott, and Kamara as other options with the first overall pick. Sure, all of these guys carry at least some level of risk, but they’re also all really, really good.

So go with your gut. If you like Saquon, draft him. If you prefer the versatility of McCaffrey, the offensive line of Elliott, or the explosive potential of Kamara, take one of them. Just don’t think you have to pick Barkley just because everyone else is.