As we get closer to the start of the fantasy football season, we have almost always seen a consensus in the first two picks of the draft (in one-quarterback leagues). We have typically seen Christian McCaffrey picked first followed by Saquon Barkley. But could it be as clear cut as that? Could Barkley be the player fantasy football owner should be targeting? Let’s take a further look at it.
Barkley is coming off an injury-riddled 2019 season
After starting off 2019 strong with two straight games of 100+ rushing yards, Barkley suffered a high-ankle sprain during Week 3 and would miss the next three games. Even after returning, it was clear that he still was not 100%. He wouldn’t receive more than 19 carries until Week 15 and would only score two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving) from Weeks 7 to 14. Despite that, he still would have four games with at least 75 yards from scrimmage over that span.
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But over the last three weeks of the season, Barkley would return to form with at least 110 yards from scrimmage in each of them. He would also score five touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving) to cap off the season as well. He played so well that from Weeks 15 to 17, he was the highest-scoring running back in half point-per-reception (PPR) scoring (89.4 points, 29.8 per game).
Even with a less than stellar season, he was still sixth amongst running backs in points-per-game for the season (16.8). Now coming into 2020 with a new coaching staff, it’s a new chapter for him and the New York Giants.
A new look Giants team could help catapult Barkley to the new level
The Giants coaching staff will look entirely different this season. Former New England Patriots special team coordinator Joe Judge takes over as head coach and former Dallas Cowboys head coach takes over as the play-caller. Garrett comes with a lot of success on the offensive side of the ball, especially rushing the ball. Over the last five seasons, the Cowboys ranked in the top 10 for rushing yards every year including three seasons in the top five (fifth in 2019, second in 2017 and 2016).
He has also helped Ezekiel Elliott to four straight seasons as a top-ten running back in fantasy football (fourth in 2019, fifth in 2018, 10th in 2017, second in 2016). In the 2017 season, when Elliott ranked 10th (he only played 10 games), he was still third in points-per-game (19). Elliott also was heavily featured in the passing game, as he saw 71 targets (ninth amongst running backs) in 2019 and 95 in 2018 (fifth).
That’s not even mentioning DeMarco Murray, who in 2014 had 449 offensive touches (fourth-most since 2000). In essence, Garrett knows how to make a strong run game and be able to do it with a feature running back.
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The Giants also made it a focus to improve their offensive line this offseason as well. They would select Georgia offensive tackle Andrew Thomas fourth overall and UConn offensive tackle Matt Peart in the first and third rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft, respectfully. While Nate Solder did opt out of the 2020 season, Thomas and Peart represent an upgraded offensive line that features a strong guard duo in Will Hernandez and Kevin Zeitler. So Barkley can expect to also have a stronger group blocking for him up front.
Reasons to expect a bounce-back 2020 fantasy football season for Barkley
As mentioned, the Giants come into 2020 with an offensive play-caller that has a proven track record and an upgraded offensive line. Plus, Barkley is only one season removed from being the second highest-scoring running back in fantasy football in half-PPR leagues (340.3 points, 2.3 behind Todd Gurley). So he has shown that when healthy, he is a no-doubt threat to be the top running back in fantasy football. But somehow, he has still exceeded expectations.
Expected Fantasy Points metric
In 2018, per PFN’s own Expected Fantasy Points metric, Barkley somehow had an 11% differential over his expected fantasy football point total in PPR leagues. Barkley would score 385.8 (first amongst all running backs) in PPR leagues with an expected total of 346.9. So not only did he outscore every other running back in PPR leagues but he still managed to perform better than expected.
Consistency Score metric
According to PFN’s Consistency Score metric, Barkley somehow still managed to have the seventh-highest score (6.41) in 2019, a season marred by his ankle injury. In 2018, Barkley had the fourth-highest consistency score (11.57). So not only is he a running back who scores a lot of points, he does so on a consistent basis, which points to not only his high ceiling but very safe floor as a running back.
The Giants have one of the deepest skill player groups in the NFL but one that saw a lot of injuries in 2019 and have questions about their health over a whole season. Sterling Shepard missed six games in 2019 (suffering two concussions!) and Evan Engram has missed 13 games over the last two seasons. Darius Slayton missed two games last season and Golden Tate missed five (four for suspension) in 2019.
In 2018, Barkley saw 68.1% of all running back carries inside the red-zone (fourth highest), including 80% of the running back carries inside the five-yard line (third highest). Garrett also has a history of utilizing his bell-cow in the red-zone with 59 carries inside the red-zone (most amongst running backs) in 2019, which made of 77.6% of all carries for the team (second-most amongst running backs).
Elliott also saw 11 targets inside the red-zone (tied for fourth-most amongst running backs). So you can expect not only Barkley continuing to be an extremely high-volume player but one that gets frequently utilized in the red-zone and goal-line.
Comparing Barkley and McCaffrey
Can McCaffrey come close to replicating his 2019 season?
McCaffrey had a historic 2019 fantasy football season, plain and simple. Only four times in has there been a running back with at least 100 receptions in a season and McCaffrey has two of those instances (2018 and 2019). He had 403 offensive touches with 2,392 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns. His 2019 was nothing short of spectacular. But like Barkley, he comes into 2020 with a new coaching staff and changes on offense as well.
Long-time head coach Ron Rivera is in Washington and first-time head coach Matt Rhule is in charge and first-time offensive coordinator Joe Brady is the play-caller. Rhule and Brady are both coming off of very successful 2019 seasons at the college ranks. Rhule was named the Big 12 Coach of the Year after leading Baylor to an 11-1 record while Brady was the 2019 Broyles Award (top assistant coach in college football) and helped lead LSU to a national championship victory.
Both come with very little NFL coaching experience as Rhule spent one season with the Giants (2012) as an assistant offensive line coach while Brady spent two seasons as an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints (2017-2018).
What sticks out about McCaffrey’s 2019 season is how exactly he was used. He had 287 carries, which still made up 74.3% of the Panthers’ rushing attempts in 2019. But he had 116 receptions, which made up 28.7% of his offensive touches, the most of any running back with at least 400 offensive touches in a season.
In fact, his 216.5 points he scored in PPR leagues from receptions and receiving yards is the highest total of any running back with at least 400 offensive touches (next highest is Marshall Faulk with 176.8 in 1998). That makes up 45.95% of his fantasy points in PPR, second-most behind Faulk’s 1998 season.
A historic passing season
In an offense that required 633 passing attempts (second-most in the NFL) last season, it required a lot of passing situations for McCaffrey to hit his historic numbers. While the Panthers are expected to field one of the NFL’s worst defenses and require a pass-heavy game script, it may be tough to expect the Panthers to pass the ball as much as they did.
They had the fourth-highest pass-to-run ratio in the league last season (62.1%-37.9%), which is much higher than Brady’s 2019 LSU team (54.3% pass percentage) or Rhule’s 2019 Baylor team (48.74%). That’s also not mentioning the Panthers’ new quarterback.
Teddy Bridgewater enters the 2020 season as the starting quarterback for the Panthers. Bridgewater isn’t known for being a high-volume passer with his career-high in passing attempts was 447 (2015). Going into an offense that will require him to be throwing the ball a lot will be a change-of-pace for the veteran quarterback. McCaffrey saw 142 targets in 2019, which accounted for 22.4% of all passing attempts.
If you were to use that percentage against Bridgewater’s 447 career-high attempts, that would 100 targets. McCaffrey had an 81.6% catch percentage in 2019, so use that catch percentage against 100 targets would be 82 receptions. If you use McCaffrey’s 8.66 yards-per-reception from 2019 against the 82 receptions, that would 710 receiving yards. So McCaffrey would see a decrease of 34 receptions and 295 receiving yards using these numbers and percentages.
Though it is fair to expect Bridgewater to surpass his previous career highs in passing stats in an offense expected to throw the ball a lot and with D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, Ian Thomas, and Roddy Anderson rounding out the Panthers pass-catching core. But McCaffrey was due for some regression after an astronomical 2019 season. While we may see him improve upon his 287 carries in 2020, it is extremely hard to see him coming close to his 2019 receiving numbers.
So should Barkley go first overall?
It’s clear that both Barkley and McCaffrey are extremely talented players and fantasy football managers would be lucky to own either one for the 2020 season. But both of these players are on teams going through some identity changes. The Giants have an offensive coordinator with a history of having a highly-productive run game at the NFL level and featuring a bell-cow at running back. The Panthers have a head coach and offense coordinator with very minimal coaching experience in the NFL but has shown to utilize a lead back with success (see Brady with Clyde Edwards-Helaire in 2019).
Barkley is coming off an up-and-down 2019 season that ended on a very high note while McCaffrey had one of the greatest seasons for an individual player in fantasy football history. Both will be focal points in their offense and are set up for a lot of success in 2020.
While McCaffrey has shown that he is his team’s best offensive weapon, Barkley has done the same for his team. But in terms of offensive identity, Barkley and the Giants come with a lot fewer question marks in 2020 than McCaffrey and the Panthers do. You can’t go wrong with either player but it may be smart to think about Barkley at 1.01 for your 2020 fantasy football league.
Doug Moore is a fantasy football writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @DMooreNFL.