In life, defining value is a difficult prospect. Is the value of an item more accurately derived from a market-prescribed price, or from the emotional attachment people have to it? One could certainly argue for both approaches, and likely wouldn’t be wrong in either assertion.
But, in fantasy football, value is much more clearly defined. And one position stands clearly above the rest in terms of its value: running back.
Running backs have made up 80% of the top flex-eligible fantasy seasons (by FPG) since 2000. And over the last 10 years, a non-RB has been the most valuable player in fantasy (by WAR) just once (2021 Cooper Kupp).
Why? Because RB is the most valuable position in fantasy football. But not all RBs are created equally. One specific archetype provides the vast majority of league-winning value across the position.
These are RBs who are every-down players, used as both runners and receivers, and who rank highly in key volume statistics like snaps, carries, targets, and red zone opportunities. In other words, we are looking for bell cow RBs.
Bell cow RBs see the highest volume of touches, the best types of volume (receiving and goal line work), and their volume remains remarkably consistent week-to-week (gamescript-immune).
Bell cows are, in every sense, a fantasy football cheat code.
And the holy grail of bell cow running backs — the top league-winning or power law player that every fantasy manager dreams of having — is, year after year, the overall RB1,
Over the last 10 seasons, the overall-RB1 has averaged 24.6 FPG — more than both the WR1 (23.2) and TE1 (17.5) over that span. But scoring more fantasy points is just a small part of what makes the overall RB1 so lethal. The top RB in fantasy also possesses a huge advantage over their in-position peers. Since 2012, the RB1 has out-scored the worst starter-worthy running back (RB24) by +12.4 fantasy points per game. That’s significantly better than for QBs (+6.8), WRs (+9.3), and TEs (+8.1). In essence, the best RB in fantasy football is worth +3.1 FPG more than the best WR in fantasy football (relative to a replacement level starter). That's a big deal.
It should go without saying that any player with a chance to be a bell-cow RB goes early and often in fantasy drafts because of exactly what I outlined above — they are tremendously valuable, and invaluable if they wind up as the RB1. In 2019, fantasy owners who drafted Christian McCaffrey made it to their league championship an astonishing 48% of the time. That’s roughly coin-flip odds of making your league championship game, just by drafting a single player. And in 2017, teams who owned Todd Gurley won their league 34% of the time — 10% more than the next most-valuable player (Alvin Kamara) — despite the fact Kamara went undrafted and Gurley had a top-20 ADP.
47% of league-winning RBs were drafted in the first 2 rounds from 2017 to 2019. The most valuable RBs in fantasy (or the players who are expected to be the most valuable RBs in fantasy) fly off the board early in fantasy drafts. And there likely hasn’t been a bigger advantage in drafts than selecting first overall, at 1.01, and having the full cupboard of potential bell cow RBs to choose from.
But, if tasked with the 1.01 in our drafts, which RB should we be taking? Who is the RB1 in 2022? That’s the question I’m here to answer.
Jonathan Taylor or Christian McCaffrey?
The Case for Taylor
Taylor is currently the consensus RB1, which should come as little surprise given his career arc to this point.
Taylor has always been a hyper-efficient rusher with eye-popping numbers. He’s the only Power-5 RB since 2000 to eclipse 145.0 YFS per game across 3 seasons. And, quite frankly, he may have been the greatest college rusher of all time.
Jonathan Taylor's profile is that of a running back who would typically go top-5 overall— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 16, 2020
You can make the argument - easily in fact - that he had the greatest career of any running back in NCAA history
And yet, most experts don't even have him as the top back in this class pic.twitter.com/VezFrusf4J
Upon entering the NFL, Taylor was immediately sensational. He averaged 5.0 YPC and ranked 3rd in total rushing yards (1,169) his rookie year. He ranked top-10 in PFF rushing grade (84.1), missed tackles forced (41), yards after contact (685), and runs of 10 or more yards (35) out of 49 qualifiers. Taylor was — by basically all metrics — a top-5 RB talent immediately in his rookie season. But, he finished as just the RB8 by FPG (16.9), largely due to a surprisingly limited snap share.
Prior to Week 6 of 2021, Taylor had exceeded a 60% snap share just 3 times in 20 career games. But from Week 6 onwards, Taylor never fell below a 60% snap share again. He averaged 24.1 FPG, 23.8 touches per game, and a 78% snap share in his final 12 games (a mark which would’ve ranked 2nd among all RBs over the full season). He even improved on the lights-out efficiency from his rookie season, averaging 5.5 YPC — the 3rd-best YPC season by a RB with more than 300 carries since 2000 — behind only 2012 Adrian Peterson and 2009 Chris Johnson.
But, Taylor still lacked a strong receiving role, even during that elite fantasy stretch, earning just 2.8 targets per game — a mark that would’ve ranked 40th among RBs over the full season. That’s a truly defining factor here. Taylor, even while seeing some of the best volume in the NFL, still managed only 7 targets on 3rd and 4th down during a 12 game stretch where he averaged 24.1 FPG.
As a result, Taylor has some issues with gamescript dependency. During Taylor’s incredible 12 game stretch to end 2021, the Colts went 8-4. Taylor averaged 27.1 FPG in the Colts’ 8 wins, but 18.0 FPG in their 4 losses. So, even when Taylor was seeing a bell cow workload, his relative lack of pass game involvement meant he was roughly equivalent to 1975 O.J. Simpson (27.4 FPG) in wins, but 2021 Joe Mixon (18.0 FPG) in losses. Or, put another way, Taylor was all-time great for fantasy in wins, and a mid-range RB1 in losses. Taylor’s fantasy success is largely dependent on the overall success of the Colts. If they somehow go 6-11, he’s in real trouble.
Still, we have a litany of reasons to believe Taylor is the 2022 RB1. He’s an elite talent, is just 23, plays behind a top-12 offensive line, plays in a run-heavy offense (IND had the 4th-lowest pass rate in 2021, at 53%), and is earning as good of a snap share as any RB in the NFL. Plus, we could argue that the offense he plays in will be even better next season as they transition from Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan at QB. The Colts are, afterall, implied for 9.5 wins in 2022 (with a heavy lean to the over), which suggests an improvement on their 9-7 record from 2021.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Taylor is the consensus RB1. But what does surprise me is that nobody (other than FantasyPoints staffers) seems to think it’s close.
The Case for McCaffrey
Let’s talk CMC.
Christian McCaffrey has been nothing short of all-time great for fantasy football when healthy. He’s averaged an outrageous 26.9 FPG over his last 39 healthy games. That includes McCaffrey’s legendary 29.4 FPG season in 2019, which is the 5th-best RB fantasy season all-time, and is easily the best RB fantasy season of the past decade (3.0 FPG better than 2016 Le’Veon Bell).
Christian McCaffrey (2019)— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) December 30, 2019
- More rushing fantasy points than Alvin Kamara and Le'Veon Bell combined
- More receiving fantasy points than Mike Evans, D.J. Moore, Tyler Lockett
And McCaffrey’s consistency (when healthy) is simply unmatched.
Christian McCaffrey's fantasy weekly finishes among RBs in his last 21 healthy games:— Jake Tribbey (@JakeTribbey) April 6, 2022
Top-2: 9 of 21 (43%)
Top-6: 18 of 21 (86%)
Top-8: 20 of 21 (95%)
McCaffrey hasn’t just been an every week RB1, he’s been in the top half of RB1s in 86% of his last 21 healthy games. Taylor, for reference, has been a top-6 RB just 9 times in his last 21 games (43%). So how has McCaffrey been so dominant, and so remarkably consistent when healthy?
It’s primarily been a function of opportunity — an unmatched opportunity at that. McCaffrey earns more snaps and catches more passes than any RB in the NFL, and it’s not really close. Raw snaps is one of the highest correlated metrics to RB fantasy production, and McCaffrey shines bright in that regard.
Only RBs to play more than 90% of snaps since 2012:— Jake Tribbey (@JakeTribbey) April 6, 2022
2019 Christian McCaffrey (93.4%)
2018 Christian McCaffrey (91.3%)
2014 Matt Forte (92.2%)
CMC’s snap share did fall to 76% across both 2020 and 2021 (in just 7 healthy games), but that would still have ranked 2nd last year (behind only Najee Harris) and 1st in 2020 (6% more than David Montgomery).
And, CMC is a true target hog which is fantasy gold for RBs, as a target is worth 2.63X as much as carry in PPR leagues. Since 2018, McCaffrey has averaged a ridiculous 8.1 targets per game. Over a single season, 8.1 targets per game would be the best mark by a RB since Matt Forte in 2014. And just last year, 8.1 targets per game would’ve bested WRs like Tee Higgins, Terry McLaurin, and Michael Pittman. Arguably more impressive, McCaffrey’s per route efficiency rivals high-end WRs league-wide. His 1.79 career YPRR surpases the career marks of players like Michael Pittman (1.71), Michael Gallup (1.55), Robert Woods (1.65), and Chase Claypool (1.78).
So, despite worse rushing efficiency than Taylor (4.6 career YPC, compared to 5.3 career YPC for Taylor), McCaffrey more than makes up for it with elite receiving efficiency and volume, alongside a league-leading snapshare.
Because of that legendary pass catching role, McCaffrey doesn’t share Taylor’s gamescript concerns. Since 2018, he averages 23.9 FPG in wins, but 26.7 FPG in losses. So, Carolina being bad might actually help McCaffrey, and their 6.0 implied win total suggests that’s likely the case in 2022.
But, you’ve probably noticed a clear caveat with McCaffrey from this writeup. He’s only managed to post these numbers when healthy, and over the last two seasons, CMC has played just 10 games, and just 7 games at anything resembling full health.
Unlike Taylor, who has only missed 1 game (due to COVID) since his freshman year of college, McCaffrey does have legitimate health concerns. How much should that worry us?
Well, FantasyPoints’ injury expert Dr. Edwin Porras noted that McCaffrey doesn’t have a prolonged injury history. He missed just 1 game in his entire college career at Stanford, and played three full 16 game seasons before succumbing to a high ankle sprain, AC joint sprain, hamstring, and quad issues in 2020 and 2021.
Dr. Porras also acknowledged that the most common injuries among RBs are ankle, shoulder, and hamstring injuries, so it’s not like CMC suffered anything unusual given his position, which is, afterall, one of the most oft-injured positions in football. And, research suggests that variability within a player’s training regimen significantly increases the chances of reinjury upon returning to play.
So, it seems very possible that McCaffrey went from extremely lucky with injuries (in college and his first 3 NFL seasons) to very unlucky with injuries — suffering common RB injuries that drastically altered his training regiment, increasing the chances of further injury. Basically, he suffered an injury regression.
Still, this brings up the very valid concern of a reduced workload for McCaffrey going forward. While I’m not sure we will see CMC return to a 90% or higher snap share in 2022, it’s unrealistic to expect his snap share to fall much lower than what we’ve seen the last 2 seasons (76%). Why? Because McCaffrey is earning the highest average yearly salary ($16,000,000) of any RB in the NFL. That means the Panthers have a massive financial incentive to play McCaffrey about as much as he can handle.
And, even a 10% reduction in McCaffrey’s fantasy output since 2018 would still be 24.2 FPG (equivelent to the 27th-best RB season ever) — meaning we would have to project McCaffrey for a bigger drop-off than that to assume Taylor could outproduce him over a full season, should both players remain healthy.
Determining who the preferable 1.01 is between Taylor and McCaffrey is much more about accurately assessing both players’ ranges of outcomes, rather than a simple black and white comparison.
Taylor may have the highest percentage chance of finishing as the overall RB1. But we need to remember that not all RB1 seasons are created equal. McCaffrey’s 2019 RB1 season was easily the best of the past decade, and more importantly, it created the biggest gap between an RB1 and a mid-tier RB1 (RB6) or lowest-end starting RB (RB24) in the last decade. Meaning that at McCaffrey’s best, he’s the most valuable player in fantasy football by a sizable margin, even relative to other RB1 seasons.
And, if we aren’t ready to proclaim McCaffrey as “injury prone” (which I’m certainly not), then what is the realistic downside here if he plays the full season? His floor is likely identical to Taylor’s.
At the end of the day, I’m viewing these players as 1A (McCaffrey) and 1B (Taylor) for the RB1 spot. CMC, at his best, offers the best upside of maybe any RB in fantasy history, but we also have to recognize that Taylor has the clearest path (and fewest caveats) to lead the position in fantasy points this season. So, Taylor is safer, and has the 2nd-best upside of any player you can draft. But CMC has all-time great upside, and if he stays healthy, it could be nearly impossible to win your league without him. McCaffrey was, after all, more valuable (by WAR) than the combination of the RB2 (Dalvin Cook) and the RB3 (Aaron Jones) in 2019. He has truly unmatched upside.
Because upside wins championships, and because a player’s best-case projection means a lot more than his base-case projection, my 1.01 will be McCaffrey, but it’ll surely be wise to gain exposure to both players as we draft throughout the offseason. I just want to make sure I end with more CMC.