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Which top running back will be a fantasy football bust?


Saquon Barkley didn’t live up to his top-five fantasy draft status last year

Saquon Barkley didn’t live up to his top-five fantasy draft status last year
Photo: AP

With impending, ill-timed, why-the-hell-did-you-schedule-it-on-a-Saturday-afternoon-when-I-told-I-have-a-wedding fantasy drafts looming, if you’re not skimming random internet top 100s to solidify your consensus top 100 list, you’re infringing on the unwritten rules of procrastination. You know the rest of the drunk idiots smoking weed and cramming for the big day are looking at the same info, so regardless of how accurate the experts are, what you find from 20 minutes of Googling is a pretty good starting point.

Let’s be honest, we’re all just drafting against the room anyway. Pick your bidding wars — or let some randomly generated snake order determine your fate — and hope you don’t spend valuable draft capital on David Johnson or Saquon Barkley or Ezekiel Elliot. In addition to building or revealing character, auction drafts have made the most coveted players available to every team.

Now whether you want to target one of the top five players is a matter of strategy, but usually, there are only a few irresponsible spenders per league, and their early sprees can make a possible franchise cornerstone available if the nomination process works out right. (Or you could be stuck with a top-five pick in a snake draft because the marbles literally didn’t fall your way.)

Regardless, whatever way you find yourself with a shot at a seemingly top-five pick in the sparsely studied draft material, one of those running backs is going to ruin your season. Barkley made experts’ top five last year, and I personally know how that turned out. (Editor’s Note: Sadly, I do, too). Zeke finished top six or seven in 2021, but the year prior he didn’t break 1,000 yards and finished with eight total touchdowns. Christian McCaffrey wrecked a lot of teams in 2020 (and ’21), and David Johnson was the sunk cost in 2019.

So first, before I name the double agent in the top five, who are the consensus top backs? My cursory research says it’s some mixture of these five:

  • Jonathan Taylor
  • Derrick Henry
  • Christian McCaffery
  • Austin Ekeler
  • Joe Mixon

I saw Dalvin Cook in place of Mixon in a couple of mocks, but he has a lengthy history of injuries and would be too obvious of a choice. So out of those remaining players, Taylor gets a pass because of the fireball he was last year, and Mixon’s previous consistency and role in a potent offense make him feel safe — albeit begrudgingly.

So that leaves Henry, McCaffrey, and Ekeler — and all three have large health concerns. I know it feels insane to assume Run CMC is going to be durable considering he’s played 10 games total in the past two seasons. Yet Carolina has the least impressive quarterback situation, and whether it’s Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold, he’s going to be on the receiving end of a lot of check downs and handoffs. For what it’s worth, he’s adamant this is the best he’s ever felt, and I’d be willing to bet on his pedigree.

At 26, McCaffrey also is the youngest of the three, which low-key matters. As far as age goes, Deadspin staff writer Jon Hoefling recently pointed out that there hasn’t been a top five back over the age of 27 in five years. That means by default — or quirky anomaly — Ekeler (27) and Henry (28) are the old men out.

So between a running back with the physique of Terry Crews who almost had 1,000 yards in eight games during an injury-shortened season, and a 5-foot-10, 200-pound all-purpose back whose longest play from scrimmage last year was 40 yards, it’s a pretty easy decision. Henry is an all-time great. Adrian Peterson had 1,400 yards when he was 30. Ladanian Tomlinson almost had 2,000 yards from scrimmage when he was 28. That’s the kind of aristocracy King Henry is in.

What Ekeler did in ’21 was worthy of a top-five pick, and if he puts up another 20 touchdowns after having a previous season-high of 11, good for him. While I’m sure Henry’s 2021 ruined the seasons of a large portion of the fake GMs who selected him, Ekeler’s first year of full-time work in 2020 was similarly destructive — it just wasn’t as high profile. He’s injury prone and has only had the role for two years. Was I one of the many managers whose 2020 was steadily devastated by the always tight hamstring of the Chargers’ running back? Maybe, maybe not, maybe fuck yourself.

I know he’s elite out of the backfield, but the most rushing attempts he tallied in any game last year were 17. The money is in the guaranteed touches, and if some of those get taken away, especially in the red zone, it’ll be hard to justify what you spent on him. Head coach Brandon Staley, talking about Ekeler’s role this season, said, “Hopefully, we can do even more with him.”

That’s good and all, but you might want him healthy later in the year — he missed Week 15 (also a fantasy playoff round) in 2021 — so you don’t gag away another playoff berth. Los Angeles also added fourth-round pick running back Isaiah Spiller out of Texas A&M who’s getting some first-team reps in camp.

All the press Justin Herbert and LA’s other NFL team have received this offseason also makes me nervous. Wouldn’t it be peak Chargers to immediately dig themselves into an insurmountable hole as soon as we forgot they weren’t the Chargers?

If you’re complaining about my argument being based solely on gut feeling and luck, you’re missing the point. Injuries or odd circumstances dictate the outcome of fantasy football. There’s always a back or wide receiver in the top five who dismantles your rickety hopes of winning the trophy.

The game of roulette with the highest-priced skill players is why fantasy experts blather on about players’ value later in the draft. (Or, again, for you plebeians out there, it’s why people who get a top-five pick in a snake draft bemoan their luck. Because if you botch it, you’re not selecting again for almost two rounds.)

So, if mid-bidding war with the league’s self-proclaimed genius, you find yourself saying, “This seems like a lot for Austin Ekeler.” Back away — or hope he tops your $65 bid.



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