Running Backs Preview Part One
Talking the business of sports
Last week, when I wrote the , I wrote about the internal battle I was having over the No. 1 running back. Jonathan Taylor appeared safer, but Christian McCaffrey (and others) clearly had more upside. Since that time, I’ve moved McCaffrey ahead of Taylor because I decided I didn’t want to use safety as a reason to take a 300-plus touch running back No. 1 overall. Also since then, the No. 1 wide receiver has come into question.
You would be forgiven for wondering how there could be any debate at all. Cooper Kupp is coming off a season in which he caught 145 passes for 1,947 yards, and 16 touchdowns. He outscored every non-QB by at least three PPR Fantasy points last year. Who could possibly challenge him? The first answer is regression, and the second is Justin Jefferson. We’ll work in reverse order.
Jefferson is now a 23-year-old with 196 catches, 3,016 yards, and 17 touchdowns in his career. In case you were wondering, the catches and yards are both records through an age 22 season and the touchdowns rank fourth behind Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski, and Larry Fitzgerald. To say he’s had a Hall of Fame start to his career would be an understatement. And we have good reason to believe he’ll keep getting better.
The biggest reason, other than natural development, is his new head coach. Kevin O’Connell was actually Kupp’s offensive coordinator last year and the buzz around Minnesota has consistently been that this is going to be an offense that veers more towards the pass than it has in Jefferson’s first two seasons in Minnesota. Jefferson’s main competition for targets is 32-year-old Adam Thielen, so we should expect that Jefferson will dominate that increase in targets.
Even so, there was a massive gap between Kupp and Jefferson (6.3 FPPG). Can a new coach and natural development make up that gap? No. But we have no real reason to expect Kupp to repeat what he did last year, or even come close.
The second-best year of Kupp’s career would be the third best of Jefferson’s. And Sean McVay has a history of shifting gears year over year. It used to be that the Rams had a pretty flat target distribution. And remember Tyler Higbee month? Or the Todd Gurley years? More than just about any other coach, McVay keeps opposing defensive coordinators on their toes with philosophical changes. Now he’s added Allen Robinson and has Cam Akers back from injury. Who knows what the game plan will be this year?
The one thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the one thing that has driven this conversation lately; Matthew Stafford’s elbow pain. The reason I waited this long is because I don’t want to turn this into another upside (Kupp) versus downside (Jefferson) debate. I’m just not sure their upsides are that different this year. But I would agree Stafford concerns lower Kupp’s floor below Jefferson’s.
The choice ultimately comes down to a 29-year-old coming off of an historic career-year and a 23-year-old generational talent who is still ascending. I’m not sure you can go wrong. For now I have a slight lean to Kupp in the projections and a slight lean to Jefferson in the rankings; they’re both top-five picks for me in full PPR.
Let’s start with the easy part first: Wide receiver is simply not as big of a priority in non-PPR leagues. Jefferson, Kupp and Ja’Marr Chase should still be first-round picks, but there are only eight other receivers I’d take in the first three rounds. In PPR, that number is 17. In non-PPR leagues, build yourself a stable of running backs then look for big play wide receivers on good offenses.
In full PPR the question becomes more how many wide receivers you can start. In most of our leagues, you’re required to start three wide receivers and can start up to four. In that format, I’d be happy to draft receiver with my first four picks, assuming my league gives me that option. If the draft falls that way, then I’m not likely taking another until the double-digit rounds and I won’t draft more than six in most formats.
If the draft feeds you running backs early, stockpile a mix of high-upside young receivers and steady veterans. When I say steady veterans, I mean guys with target volume locked up like Allen Lazard, Christian Kirk, and Amari Cooper. Just make sure you lean heavy on the upside. The first- and second-year wide receivers in particular have great upside for their current ADP and a few of my favorites are listed in the sleeper picks below.
Here are a few more strategy tidbits:
Now let’s get to sleepers, breakouts, and busts. One quick note: ADP here is current Fantasy Pros consensus ADP.
265 — The Chiefs have 265 targets to replace at wide receiver in 2022, the most in the NFL.
71.2% — Nearly three-quarters of Josh Allen’s pass attempts went to wide receivers last year; only the Rams’ receivers saw a higher rate.
8 — Deebo Samuel had eight rushing touchdowns last year. Regression and Trey Lance should halve that, at least.
17.9 — Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s average depth of target last year on the Packers. That could play well for Patrick Mahomes, but makes it hard to project him for a lot of targets unless it comes down a lot. No player above 15 had even 100 targets last year.
11 — Ja’Marr Chase led the NFL with 11 drops last year, just in case you were wondering how little drops matter.
12 — CeeDee Lamb’s 12 broken tackles in 2021 were second only to Deebo Samuel.
3,525 — D.J. Moore has 3,525 receiving yards since the start of 2019. Only Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, and Travis Kelce have more.
29% — Targets per route run for Kadarius Toney in 2021, which ranked fifth at the position. If he can stay on the field, he’s a certain breakout candidate.
Most of this piece, including tiers and ADP, are based on PPR leagues. We recognize many of you still play in non-PPR. Here’s a list of players who we expect to be significantly better, and worse, in non-PPR:
Better in non-PPR: Deebo Samuel, Mike Williams, A.J. Brown, Tee Higgins, Courtland Sutton, Treylon Burks, Gabriel Davis, Brandon Aiyuk
Worse in non-PPR: Keenan Allen, Michael Pittman, Diontae Johnson, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Christian Kirk, Amari Cooper, Jakobi Meyers
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