Fantasy football is an extremely high variance game. A missed tackle can be the difference between a two yard run and a 90 yard touchdown. This is part of the reason football is so fun to watch. It is also a major reason why median projections, while useful, do not tell us the entire story. Median projections tell us what is most likely to happen, but they do not give us great insight into the upside and risk of a given player.
We need players with upside to win a fantasy football championship. This is precisely why we simulated the NFL season 10,000 times to identify a ceiling and floor for every player. Having the number one running back on your team is a tremendous advantage, just ask anyone who got to enjoy a full season with Christian McCaffery last year. Here are the players with the potential to finish this season as the top running back in fantasy football.
1. Christian McCaffrey
Last season McCaffery put together the second best fantasy football season of all time, trailing only LaDainian Tomlinson’s record breaking season in 2006.
Anyone saying Saquan > McCaffrey is fooling themselves. If McCaffrey scored 0 touchdowns last season he STILL would have been the RB1 in points per game.
— Sam Factor (@walterpicksCEO) August 9, 2020
Even on an offense that could be bottom-5 in the NFL this season, McCaffrey is locked in to an elite workload and is the best bet to be the top running back once again in 2020. Also, Teddy Bridgewater might not be as bad as you think. Do not overthink the #1 overall pick this season.
2. Saquon Barkley
Nobody will blink an eye if we see Saquon Barkley dethrone Christian McCaffrey by the end of the 2020 season. Battling a high ankle sprain throughout most of the the 2019 season, Barkley still managed to finish 7th in points per game at the position after finishing 3rd in his rookie season. If Daniel Jones and the Giants offense can take a leap forward this season, despite losing their starting left tackle, the sky is the limit for Saquan Barkley.
3. Alvin Kamara
With back-to-back seasons ranking top-5 at the position in targets per game, not many running backs can compete with the weekly upside that Kamara brings to the table. Remember, a target is nearly three times more valuable than a carry in PPR leagues. Kamara’s top-8 finish in fantasy points per game last season is even more impressive when considering he dealt with a torn knee for over half the season. If he can crack the top-8 with only one functioning knee, just imagine what he is capable of when fully healthy.
4. Ezekiel Elliot
Ezekiel Elliot has seen tremendous volume since he entered the NFL. He has back-to-back seasons ranking top-2 in carries per game and top-10 in targets per game at the running back position. Elliot was the safest and most consistent fantasy producer behind only Christian McCaffery last season. In his worst week he still managed to finish as RB24 and only failed to score more than 13 PPR points once last season.
While Elliot might have the safest floor of any running back in the NFL, it is his upside that helped him make this list. In a Dallas Cowboys offense that was one of the most efficient in the league last season, Elliot has at least as much weekly touchdown upside as any other player in the league. His unique combination of consistency and upside make him a no-brainer top-3 pick in fantasy football this season.
5. Dalvin Cook
Back in June, there were reports that Dalvin Cook could hold-out this season in an attempt to get a contract extension as he heads into the last year of his rookie deal. Cook has since reported to training camp, ending any fear of a holdout.
The Dalvin Cook dip was fun while it lasted pic.twitter.com/Yy7nG1syle
— Sam Factor (@walterpicksCEO) August 11, 2020
Cook finished as a top-5 running back in 50% of his games last season on his way to scoring the second most fantasy points per game at the position. An overlooked aspect of Cook’s 2019 season was the shoulder injury he played through starting Week 11. Below are the splits for Cook after versus before his Week 11 shoulder injury.
Dalvin Cook after vs. before his shoulder injury in Week 11 last season. pic.twitter.com/BSEjQgrSQo
— Sam Factor (@walterpicksCEO) August 11, 2020
If cook can stay healthy for a full season he has number one overall running back well within his range of outcomes.
6. Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Hype surrounding the rookie has been sky high since going in the first round of the NFL draft to the Kansas City Chiefs and drawing Brian Westbrook comparisons from head coach Andy Reid . Then, Damien Williams opted out of the NFL season, leaving little doubt who the starting running back will be for the reigning Super Bowl champs in 2020. If we set his floor at the 4.5 targets and 18 carries per game Damien Williams had last season there is obvious reason to be excited.
Edwards-Helaire proved to be a productive receiver in college 1 and while I by no means consider myself to be a “film-grinder”, I must say it his hard not to get excited watching his receiving tape from college.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire may just win you your fantasy league in 2020 & for many years to come.
In the potent Chiefs offense, CEH becomes an immediate threat out of the backfield with his versatility & is worth going into the first round to get.
— Sports By Sollin (@SportsNewsD) August 5, 2020
If Clyde Edwards-Helaire can be a more productive version of 2019 Damien Williams he has a legit shot at becoming the number one overall running back in fantasy football.
7. Derrick Henry
This list would not be complete without including the 2019 leader in rushing yards. Henry was the only player last season to average over 100 yards per game, a feat that has not been accomplished since Ezekeil Elliot and Le’Veon Bell in 2016. Henry will need a few more runs like the one below to become the first player to average over 100 rushing yards per game in back-to-back seasons since Barry Sanders did it in 1993 and 1994.
Derrick Henry just tossing dudes on his way to a 99 yard TD 😤 pic.twitter.com/zXFQXvCiFA
— Footballism™ (@FootbaIIism) June 9, 2020
While Henry is unlikely to outperform his rushing production from last season, he does have tremendous untapped potential in the receiving game. His 1.7 targets per game last season ranked 49th in the league, severely limiting his upside in PPR fantasy football leagues. He did not receive more than three targets in a single game last season. He will need more targets to have a legitimate shot at becoming the number one fantasy football running back in 2020.
🗣️ throw Derrick Henry the ball (like more than 1.2 times per game at least)pic.twitter.com/fqRlkDxzxL
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) August 4, 2020
In fantasy football (and life) it is championship or bust. We want to target players that have league-winning upside within their range of outcomes. Don’t be surprised when one of these players is leading someone in your league to a championship this season. Stay tuned for part two of this series where I look at running backs outside the first round with the highest ceiling.
P.S. Download the WalterPicks app for FREE on your iphone (coming to android soon) if you want to increase your odds of winning your fantasy league this season by leveraging Walter, an artificially intelligent algorithm with the best projections in the industry. We also have some exciting DFS and Player Prop tools coming soon!