With just eight more days until the 2023 NFL regular season kicks off, millions of football fans have begun drafting their fantasy football teams with aspirations of dominating their leagues this season. Drafting the best player available is key when assessing the running back position on your roster, and many fantasy experts have Austin Ekeler or Christian McCaffery coming off the board first. Both Ekeler and McCaffery racked up fantasy points at an absurd level last season as Ekeler averaged 21.9 points per game while McCaffery averaged 20.9. Both are arguably the two best options at the running back position but who should you choose if both are available on your draft board?
CJ: Both players are easily the best options at the position, but Ekeler should come off the board before McCaffery. Before diving into the statistics, the best ability in fantasy football is availability and Ekeler has played a full healthy season in three out of the last four years. McCaffery has played just seven games or fewer in two of the last three seasons due to injury. McCaffery was finally able put together a full, healthy season and produced monster numbers in 2022, but how do those numbers stack up to Ekeler’s? Having guys who get a lot of receptions is a big advantage in a point-per-reception league, and last season Ekeler caught 107 passes out of the backfield which is the second most receptions by a running back in NFL history. Ekeler converted those 107 passes into 722 yards which equates to 10.6 fantasy points a game from just his receiving ability, which is higher than McCaffery’s 9.3 fantasy points per game from the air. On the ground McCaffery averaged 6.7 fantasy points per game which tops Ekeler’s 5.3 but, Ekeler found the end zone 18 times compared to McCaffery’s 13. Overall Ekeler has been more durable than McCaffery to this point, he finished with more points last season, and he has a more proven quarterback moving the offense down the field than McCaffery does with Brock Purdy. Ekeler needs to come off the board first at the running back position.
Connor: I agree with CJ on the simple fact that Ekeler and McCaffery should be the first two running backs off the board, however, McCaffery is undoubtedly the better option for fantasy managers. It is true that Ekeler accumulated more fantasy points than the Stanford Alum, however, what these stats do not measure are the circumstances McCaffery faced. For the first six weeks of the season McCaffery was the focal point of the abysmal Carolina Panthers offense, and while McCaffery did average a respectable 19.67 fantasy points, his risk of an injury was heightened. The Panthers relied on the All-Pro back for a majority of their offensive sequences, and in turn defenses would hit McCaffery more, thus increasing the probability of him getting hurt. McCaffery’s production in the bay area was better than it was in Carolina, as he averaged 21.67 points with San Francisco. While this may not seem like a significant jump, it is. McCaffery’s first week with the 49’ers was unusually poor, scoring 8.2 points. It also should be noted that it takes time to learn the playbook, acclimate to a new city and general living arrangements. Undoubtedly, these were all on the mind of McCaffery, which is why I argue we never saw his best; McCaffery’s best came in weeks 13-18 where he averaged 24.28 points, higher than Ekeler’s average. We have yet to see the best version of McCaffery, giving fantasy managers all the confidence to rank him as the top running back.
CJ: There is no denying that McCaffery’s production improved after being dealt to the bay. But it is important to consider that McCaffery did not have to share carries with the explosive Elijah Mitchell last season. Mitchell is expected to be ready to go in week one and many people forget how dangerous he is when healthy. In 2021 we saw Mitchell go over 1,000 total yards in just 11 games played, averaging 87.5 rush yards per game. Obviously, Mitchell is no threat to overtake the RB1 position for the 49ers, but many people expect a slight decrease in McCaffery’s usage because of Mitchell’s return to the field.
Connor: While it is certainly true that McCaffery’s production will take a hit next season, it is nowhere near the hit Ekeler will endure. Ekeler finished last season with inflated numbers, as star wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams missed a combined 11 weeks, meaning that Justin Herbert leaned on other players an unusually large amount, the star running back being the prime beneficiary. When drafting in fantasy football, another factor that needs to be considered is the competition, or defenses for that matter, that players will line up against. According to “fantasypros.com”, the Charger running back ranks 22nd in strength of schedule, while McCaffery ranks seventh. There are too many red flags and variables associated with drafting Ekeler as the RB1, McCaffery is a sure bet, and for fantasy managers a sure bet is priceless.