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Fantasy Football 2021: Who's Number 1?

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

After an injury-plagued 2020, is Christian McCaffrey still the pick at No. 1?

Having the first pick in a fantasy football draft is an enviable position, but it comes with a fair amount of pressure. If there's any pick you don't want to screw up in a draft, it's the first one, right?

Related: 2021 Fantasy Football Top 300 Rankings

Entering last season, the choice was pretty clear. Christian McCaffrey was the overwhelming pick coming off of a record-setting, All-Pro campaign. And after putting up 135 total yards with two touchdowns in Week 1, those who took McCaffrey No. 1 had to be feeling pretty good.

Unfortunately, McCaffrey suffered a high ankle sprain early in the fourth quarter (after his second rushing touchdown of the game) in Week 2 and was placed on injured reserve. He returned in Week 9 only to injure his shoulder in that game, the final one he would play in 2020. In the end, those that took McCaffrey with the first pick got 225 rushing yards, 149 receiving (on 17 catches), and six total touchdowns in three games.

Obviously, McCaffrey is fantasy gold when he plays but chances are his injury woes were equally felt by his fantasy owners last season. But what about 2021? McCaffrey is very much in the conversation for being the No. 1 overall fantasy pick once again, but after last season he also comes with a little more risk.

So who should you take if you have the first pick in a fantasy draft this season? This same question was posed to a panel of Athlon Sports editors and fantasy football contributors. The choice wasn't unanimous but as you will see, when it comes to McCaffrey it appears that several panelists are willing to forgive and forget.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

The choice at No. 1 just might be the easiest call of Round 1. It’s still McCaffrey. The only thing he did wrong last year was get hurt. Twice. The three weeks he did make it onto the field found him finishing second, sixth and second among running backs in half-PPR scoring. His “season” scoring average led the position by nearly five points. That, of course, followed a 2019 in which McCaffrey dominated the position across formats. And his usage indicates that the Panthers’ approach under head coach Matt Rhule/offensive coordinator Joe Brady isn’t that different than what it was previously. There will be plenty of opportunities to quibble and waffle in Round 1 (and beyond). But if I’m picking first, I’m locking in this fantasy stud. — Matt Schauf,

We were robbed of what a full season of McCaffrey in Joe Brady’s offense would have looked like. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that he put up two touchdowns in each of the three games he actually played and was as dynamic a receiving threat as ever. There are going to be people telling you about risk tolerance, and that’s fair enough. McCaffrey is coming off a mostly injured season. New quarterback Sam Darnold introduces an element of uncertainty to the offense. But I maintain that nobody else in fantasy football sans Derrick Henry in December has the pure fantasy football upside that McCaffrey does, and McCaffrey’s role as a receiver doesn’t force him to be game-script-dependent like Henry is. That’s why you shouldn’t hesitate to rank him No. 1 on your board. — Rivers McCown, Football Outsiders

As a fantasy owner who drafted McCaffrey No. 1 overall last year, it takes a lot of forgiveness to trust him as No. 1 again in 2021. In the (gulp) three games he played, he had six touchdowns. For comparison, Miles Sanders (12 games), Leonard Fournette (13 games) and James Conner (13 games) were among those who also produced six touchdowns. There’s no question that McCaffrey is an excellent player, and he will be given the opportunity to be a lead back in a league that seems to be getting away from that approach. Mike Davis is gone, so McCaffrey’s top competition appears to be fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard. McCaffrey can run, he can catch and he can get the job done around the goal line. The only question mark is if he can stay healthy in a 17-game season. The injuries he suffered last year don’t appear to be anything that will linger, so fantasy owners have to forget 2020 and trust that even half a season out of McCaffrey will be better than a full season from a lot of other players. — Sarah Lewis, fantasy contributor

Even with an injury-riddled 2020, McCaffrey should still be the clear-cut No. 1 pick. It’s hard to overstate how valuable he was in 2019 — the gap between him and the No. 2 running back in PPR scoring was bigger than the gap between that guy and No. 27. Ankle and shoulder injuries aren’t nothing, but even a 25 percent drop-off in productivity from 2019 leaves him as the best option. McCaffrey’s heavy involvement in the passing game gives him an incredibly high floor, especially in PPR leagues. It’s unclear if Sam Darnold is an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater for 2021, but remember that the last time we really saw McCaffrey was in 2019 with Kyle Allen. We also barely got to see what offensive coordinator Joe Brady could do with him in 2020. Chuba Hubbard gives him more competition than he’s had in his entire Carolina tenure, but McCaffrey will remain a bell-cow back — an increasingly rare thing in today’s NFL. — Ben Weinrib, Athlon Sports

Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans

Henry certainly isn’t going to catch a lot of passes like some of his peers. But he’s also one of just eight guys who can claim a 2,000-yard rushing season in NFL history. No one comes close to sniffing Henry’s 3,547 total rushing yards over the last two seasons. He also has 33 rushing touchdowns (with two TD catches) in that same span. Henry doesn’t need to catch a lot of passes if he’s going to get 320-plus carries and average five yards per tote. Henry appears to have plenty of tread left on his tires, and you know the Titans will continue to feed him, so opportunity isn’t a concern. And Henry also has been durable, missing just two games in his five-year career, something that can’t be said for Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Dalvin Cook or Alvin Kamara, to name a few. Kamara was the only RB to score more fantasy points than Henry last season, and he needed a record-setting, six-touchdown performance on Christmas Day to do so. It may be an old-school approach, but they don’t call him King Henry for nothing. — Mark Ross, Athlon Sports

Trade down/Alvin Kamara, RB, Orleans Saints

If I was given the first pick this year in a standard, redraft league, my first choice would be to trade down. There is no clear-cut obvious choice for the No. 1 overall pick, and every one of the top options has an issue. I’m not trying to be evasive; that’s how I feel. But if forced to do so, I would actually bypass some of the common choices. Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Saquon Barkley have all had injury issues the last couple of years. Few things are more crippling to your fantasy aspirations than an injury to your first pick. So instead of any of those three, I will take a player who has played 14 games each and every one of the last four years. I’ll take the high floor of Kamara, please. — Mark Strausberg, fantasy contributor