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Christian McCaffrey Remains a Top-Five Pick in Fantasy Football

Christian McCaffrey - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News

There is no more polarizing player in fantasy football this season than Christian McCaffrey. If you have listened to RotoBaller Radio on SiriusXM you know what I am talking about. If you haven’t, you can go back to the June 25th episode on demand to hear myself and Scott Engel get into it over CMC. 

He is a fantasy football enigma because, on one hand, there is no better fantasy asset when healthy than McCaffrey. On the other, it has been frustrating for anyone who drafted him the past two seasons as he has missed a lot of time. Even after only playing 10 games in the past two seasons, McCaffrey has been going in the first round of fantasy football drafts. Not only is he a first-rounder, but he often goes inside the top five picks. While that is not nearly as big of a discount as some thought we would see with McCaffrey this season, it is still a discount from a player who has been the consensus first overall pick for the past three years. 

The question to some comes down to how risk-averse you are, but, there is also a case to be made that too much is being made of his recent injuries. 

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Diving Deeper with the CMC Injuries

All you have to do is mention McCaffrey’s name on Twitter and you will quickly get people saying that he is injury prone. First, that is a term that gets thrown around way too often, especially when discussing football players. Football is an inherently violent game and players are all at a heightened risk of injury, especially when playing a demanding position such as running back. In the past two years, McCaffrey has suffered common injuries for a running back. In 2020, he missed six games with a high ankle sprain, four with an A/C joint (shoulder) sprain, and then a late thigh strain that cost him three games.

In 2021, he missed five games with a thigh strain and a late-season ankle sprain cost him another five. Not to make excuses for CMC, but after both of his late-season injuries the Panthers were out of it and shut him down, while he wanted to return. Additionally, none of these injuries would be deemed serious or major. There is such a thing as bad injury luck and McCaffrey has suffered from it over the past two years. Before the last two seasons, McCaffrey did not miss a game in the NFL. He missed one game in his college career. So we have a player that had never missed time, never suffered a severe injury, and who has never let the injuries impact his on-field performance when healthy. 

Some will continue to dismiss any argument about McCaffrey’s injuries and say that he is injury prone. The truth of the matter is that injuries are often random. Additionally, if a player is injury prone until they aren’t, then the term is purely reactionary and not predictive. You do not have to take my word for it. Here it is from Edwin Porras, a fantasy writer and physical therapist who works for the Minnesota Twins minor league teams.


The other area I have taken some backlash from on Twitter (doesn’t sound like Twitter, right?) is for having McCaffrey ranked ahead of Derrick Henry. First, I will address why McCaffrey is the ultimate fantasy asset when healthy (not that you don’t already know that) in the next section. We are also dealing with two players in two very different situations. Henry suffered a pretty major injury last year, needing surgery to repair a fractured foot. That is scarier for future performance than any of the injuries McCaffrey suffered, which are all more minor. Additionally, Henry is two years older and has 500 more touches in his NFL career (he’s been carrying teams, sometimes literally, since high school). 

 

What CMC Provides When Healthy

When McCaffrey is healthy, there is no safer bet in the NFL to score 25 fantasy points on a given night. In the 10 games that McCaffrey has played the past two years, he finished as a Top-12 RB in seven of those weeks. He scored less than 20 fantasy points in three of them, and over 25 in four of those. That’s right, even in the two injury-plagued seasons he was more likely to top 25 fantasy points than he was to score fewer than 20. There is just no other asset like McCaffrey as he gives you both RB1 and WR1 production when he is on the field.

He is one of just two players (Patrick Mahomes) to average over 18 fantasy PPG in each of the last four seasons. He has averaged over six catches per game since 2017. In the past four years, he has ranked third, first, first, and fifth among RBs in fantasy PPG. This is more so hyping up how safe his floor is when he is on the field, but his ceiling is also unmatched by anyone in the NFL. Two years ago when CMC stayed healthy and won a bunch of people championships, he scored 471.2 fantasy points – the second most in the history of the NFL. He also has destroyed every receiving record among running backs. McCaffrey brings not only the highest floor but the highest ceiling, when healthy, of any player in fantasy football. All running backs come with the risk of injury, it's just the nature of the position. So if you are taking a running back in the first round, why would you not take the running back with the highest floor and ceiling in the game in the top five?

 

Concerns

I do want to provide every element of an argument for and against a player. If you now think McCaffrey’s injuries have been more random rather than he is just unable to stay healthy, then you may be back to thinking McCaffrey is a top pick. Are there any other concerns other than the health ones which all RBs come with? The first concern would be the Panthers dialing back his workload. That may not actually be a bad thing though. McCaffrey would routinely play over 90 percent of the snaps. Coming off the field at times should only make you feel more comfortable about him staying healthy. Even if his touches are dialed back a bit, again it lowers the risk of him getting injured if he is taking fewer hits.

The Panthers are not going to stop using McCaffrey in passing down situations, but if he loses a couple of carries in between the 20s, those are the low-value touches. He will continue to see high-volume targets and put up receiver numbers in the passing game. It will not make much of a dent in his fantasy output, but it only increases his chances of staying healthy, as he has been asked to shoulder the largest workload in the NFL. 

The other concern is the Panthers electing to use the giant D’Onta Foreman for goal line carries. That would actually hurt McCaffrey’s fantasy value. Goal line carries are the most valuable touches in fantasy football and if McCaffrey loses out on even some of those opportunities it reduces his chances of scoring touchdowns. The Panthers could decide that these touches, which often come against stacked boxes and tend to lead to the back taking more hits, are better suited going to Foreman to protect their franchise player. McCaffrey being on the field makes the offense so difficult to predict as you never know if he will get a carry or run a route out of the backfield. Even in the red zone, it is a mismatch nightmare. Austin Ekeler has a similar effect and we just saw him score 20 touchdowns last year. Due to that, there is reason to believe McCaffrey will still be utilized near the end zone, but there is reason to worry some of those straight handoffs go to Foreman. 

 

Where to Draft Christian McCaffrey 

The big question then becomes where to draft McCaffrey. The answer is as a top-three running back off the board. McCaffrey belongs in the elite group with Jonathan Taylor, who seems as safe as any running back can be, and Ekeler, because he provides similar production to McCaffrey. He should also be going inside the first six picks. The way the board is shaping up this year is making the elite receivers look very appealing in the first round. If you opt to go that route, taking one of Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson or Ja’Marr Chase over CMC is fine.

There is a strong chance that at the end of the season McCaffrey has once again retaken his throne as the best player in the fantasy game. That is a player worth drafting in the top five picks.

Make sure to follow Michael on Twitter, @MichaelFFlorio



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