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Fantasy Football

Playing Devil’s Advocate – Christian McCaffrey

Every NFL season there are a number of players that gain massive hype and shoot up Fantasy Football draft boards, only to disappoint because their expectations were too damn high. Conversely, there’s a similar group of players who get pushed down in the draft and consequently become post-hype sleepers and late-round steals. My goal of this series is to look past the popular sentiment, share some statistics, and offer a contrarian opinion for you to consider before drafting a player too early or writing someone off too soon in your Fantasy Football drafts.

CMC

The Subject: Christian McCaffrey – RB, Carolina Panthers

This series wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t go after the Goliaths of Fantasy Football, right?

With playing Devil’s Advocate for a superstar, it’s all a matter of perspective. So let’s say what everyone already knows: Christian McCaffrey is the consensus #1 overall pick in Fantasy Football for 2020 drafts. He has an elite combination of speed, cutting ability, burst, and vision, and that’s only speaking to his running ability! He’s also a complete weapon catching passes out of the backfield, always seeming to make the first guy miss. From an NFL perspective, he’s the perfect dual-threat back, but should you actually draft McCaffrey at #1 overall in fantasy? Let’s look at a few facts that might make you question your so-called “easy” decision…

Christian McCaffrey was the RB1 in 2019 with 413.2 Half-PPR points,  becoming only the third player in NFL history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.

By “simply” hitting 1,000 + 1,000, McCaffrey had a historic season to place him at the top of the running back rankings. It was historical from a Fantasy perspective as well. Per fantasydata.com, the last time a running back had over 400 Fantasy points in a season was in 2006, when LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns. Salivate over those numbers for a second…

CMC one does not simply

In 2007, Tomlinson’s production dropped 115.5 Half-PPR points, and he was STILL the RB1 that year. This is both a rare and amazing feat, but the point is when a running back logs a historic season, we should expect a precipitous drop-off in production the following year. If McCaffrey were to go for 1,000 + 1,000 in back to back seasons, it would be talked about as one of the greatest achievements in all of sports. The odds that this scenario plays out are, simply put, not high.

Since 2002, only three running backs have achieved the ranking of RB1 in one season and maintained their position as the RB1 the following season (Source: fantasydata.com)

Those three RBs are:

  • Priest Holmes (2002 and 2003)
  • LaDainian Tomlinson (2006 and 2007)
  • Todd Gurley (2017 and 2018)

In terms of repeating an RB1 season, McCaffrey could still out-class his peers because of how much higher his production was compared to everyone else in 2019. However, I believe there’s enough top-tier talent at running back for someone else to take the throne. To put it in strict numbers: across 18 years of data, RB1s are maintaining their positions the RB1 17% of the time. The other 83% of the time, they taking dip in the rankings. In fact…

Since 2002, running backs who finished the year as the RB1 and did not repeat their performance the following year dropped an average of 7.36 spots in the running back rankings.* (Source: fantasydata.com)

There’s an asterisk for a reason, and it has nothing to do with the Houston Astros. To clarify, the sample size for this statistic is 12 years of data instead of 18. I removed the years where Holmes, Tomlinson, and Gurley repeated their #1 rankings, because there was no drop-off to measure. On the flip side, I also removed drop-offs that were due to significant injuries. This includes Shaun Alexander’s drop-off from 2005 to 2006, LeVeon Bell’s drop-off from 2014 to 2015, and David Johnson’s drop-off from 2016 to 2017. So, what history indicates is that if a running back plays a full complement of games the year following their #1 season and they don’t repeat their RB1 performance, they are on average dropping to the RB8 spot in the rankings. By this logic, it’s more likely McCaffrey finishes as the RB8 in 2020 than the RB1.

For those who require deeper statistics to back up a predicted drop-off in production, consider this:

If we apply a 7.4 point deduction to McCaffrey’s 2019 rate of 25.8 PPG, that would put him at 18.4 PPG and 294.4 on the season. This STILL would have put him as the RB1 in 2019, but I think multiple top-tier running backs (Barkley, Elliott, Kamara, Chubb) have a chance to eclipse that 300-point threshold in 2020.

Verdict

I’ve been watching a lot of Star Wars: Clone Wars lately on Disney+, and each episode begins with an idiom or saying that is supposed to encapsulate a theme tied to the following 20 minutes of TV. One of these phrases felt all too appropriate:

“Sometimes even the smallest doubt can shake the greatest belief.”

If you have the #1 overall pick in your Fantasy draft this year, it’s hard to argue that McCaffrey’s combination of talent and volume can be passed up. Based on his consistency and his scoring floor from receptions, there’s no reason he should go any later than #4 overall (same as how he was valued last year.) But if you’re truly trying to win a championship in 2020, are you going to play it safe and assume last year’s stats equal this year’s stats with McCaffrey, or are you going to take a chance on another running back with upside to catch their own brand of lightning in a bottle and become the new RB1? The choice is yours, but to be honest, it will be pretty hard to fuck up either way.

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