Fantasy football’s first tier: A refresher on why the top picks this year are so good

With the 2022 season on the horizon, I thought it would be helpful for fantasy general managers to brush away some cobwebs and remember why the elite are worthy of the top picks. Skill, opportunity, athleticism and even new additions at quarterback should help these top-tier players keep their gold status.

Hand it off and throw it to him!

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

Everyone has seen what McCaffrey can do at the height of his powers: 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving. Although Carolina still has issues at quarterback, McCaffrey did not need stellar QB play to go 1K / 1K, so there’s no reason to believe struggles at the position could stop him from doing it again. He will get plenty of carries, and the targets will still be there. Expect McCaffrey to get somewhere between 20 and 25 touches per game. Never forget that in his seven-game sample last season, he averaged 4.5 yards per rush and 9.3 yards per reception. If he had played a full season, he would have recorded another 2,000-yard-plus campaign.

Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

Ekeler is “McCaffrey Lite,” but he finally played a full season as a starter, and the results were undeniable. He was just shy of 1,000 yards rushing and added 70 receptions with over 600 yards receiving. Two years ago, those numbers were flipped; he had over 500 yards rushing and 92 receptions with close to 1,000 yards receiving. And last year he added 20 touchdowns. He is a points per reception (PPR) gold mine and plays in an offense tailor-made for his skill set. Is he the best runner in the league? No. Is he the best receiver? No. But Ekeler is good at both, and because of the weapons around him, he gets to operate in relative space.

Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

With a healthy Jameis Winston under center last season, Kamara was RB5 and well on his way to a repeat performance of 2020, when he ran for 900-plus yards, hauled in 83 receptions for over 700 yards and scored 21 touchdowns. Without Winston, though, the entire offense was disjointed, the quarterback position was unsettled, and Kamara’s receiving numbers and touchdowns suffered. The positive takeaway is Kamara looked strong while carrying the football 240 times (the highest total of his career). Even with the additions the Saints made at receiver, look for Kamara’s receiving numbers to climb back towards his career pace. More competent quarterback play – and more weapons on the perimeter – means there is less attention on the box, which will likely open things up further for Kamara.

Who cares about the catches?

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

Who needs receptions when you’re carrying the ball 332 times for 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns? Those numbers alone would have Taylor as the top PPR running back coming into the season, but just for fun, add 40 receptions for 360 yards and two additional touchdowns and you’ll see why he is the clear RB1. That’s what you call avoiding a sophomore slump.

So, what does he do in Year 3? Honestly, whatever he wants! The Colts have quality receivers on the outside, good tight end production and the best offensive line in the NFL. With the addition of Matt Ryan, defenses will need to pick up their poison. Focusing all your attention on stopping Taylor could produce record days through the air for the Colts. There’s nothing to suggest Taylor is going to fall off anytime soon, especially when he’s getting 20 carries and three targets a game.

Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans

If you want to know why Derrick Henry is a top-tier running back, it’s this simple: He rushed for almost 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games last season. Then, after sustaining an injury that would have ended the season of most players in the league, he was able to return in the playoffs. Simply put, he’s an alien (or maybe a cyborg). Who needs receptions and receiving yards when you are knocking on the door of 2,000 yards rushing every season? Even if you don’t want to say he’s the best running back in football, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t been the most dominant back in the game over the past four years. Why would any fantasy GM doubt his ability to be ready to carry the load once again? The injury gave him the rest he needed after a four-year span culminating in more than 1,000 carries. The reset means many more defenders will be making business decisions before deciding to tackle Henry.

Always on target!

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

No other receiver has experienced a season like Kupp did in 2021 – and there’s a good chance we have seen the best season Kupp has to offer. It is extremely difficult to duplicate 145 receptions, 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns when many of those numbers are predicated on factors beyond his control. But if you’re a fantasy GM, getting your hands on Kupp can still be the difference between winning and losing your league. Why? Targets! In his past three seasons as a starter for the Rams, Kupp has been targeted 449 times. And he’s hauled in 331 of those chances. That means he catches 73.7 percent of the balls thrown in his direction. So even when the regression occurs, it will still net him 150-170 targets, which will translate to well over 100 receptions and a fantasy impact that will still be extremely high. All of that production and nobody will tell you Kupp is the most athletic – or even the most versatile. What they will tell you is he is surgical in his running route, and when you give him the opportunity, he makes you look like a genius for calling his number.

Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Jefferson is part of the influx of ultra-skilled and -athletic receivers who have taken the league by storm. After 88 catches on 125 targets for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns in his rookie season, he followed it up with 108 catches on 167 targets for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2021. He is tall, he has long arms and he is fast, but he can also operate inside confined spaces. He has so many ways to catch the ball that all a quarterback needs to do is get it within the catch radius and there’s a good chance it will be plucked by Jefferson. It also helps him to remain free from the attention of multiple defenders because they have to worry about Adam Thielen on the other side, Irv Smith Jr. at tight end and, of course, Dalvin Cook at running back.

Big, big target!

Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs

Kelce was finally usurped as TE1 in 2021 after a three-season reign as the best fantasy tight end in the NFL. Does that mean it is time to punt on him? Absolutely not! It’s not like Kelce did not command respect last season. His performance would have made him a top-10 receiver in the league. With Tyreek Hill taking his talents to South Beach, 20 percent of the offense’s targets are free to be dished out by the best quarterback in the NFL. Something tells me the Patrick Mahomes-to-Kelce combination will be lighting up scoreboards in 2022. If Kelce was targeted 134 times last season, how many targets will he see now that Hill is no longer there?

(Photo of Austin Ekeler: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)


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