According to our wins above replacement metric, which attempts to predict how likely your fantasy team is to win a weekly matchup based on a single player’s performance, McCaffrey is projected to lead the league with 9.8 WAR in 2021, almost three wins above replacement more than the next best running back.
If you want the highest-rated pick, one that won’t earn snickers from the peanut gallery, go with Dalvin Cook. A plurality of fantasy drafters — 46 percent, according to thousands of mock drafts audited by Fantasy Football Calculator — are choosing Cook at No. 2 in 12-team, point-per-reception fantasy leagues. The Minnesota Vikings running back carried the ball a career-high 312 times for 1,557 yards and added 44 catches for 361 yards out of the backfield last season. His 17 total touchdowns were also tied for the third-most behind Saints running back Alvin Kamara and Packers wideout Davante Adams.
Plus, Minnesota is projected to play one of the easiest schedules for running backs during the typical fantasy football regular season. The Vikings will play six teams ranked in the bottom third of Football Outsiders’ preseason defensive rankings, which project team efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent. Four of those games will occur before Minnesota’s bye in Week 7. Two more are in the first three weeks after the bye. In other words, expect Cook to get off to a very strong start.
Alvin Kamara, with his explosive history, will get a lot of looks at No. 2, but the Saints face uncertainty at the quarterback position. And while he has provided solid weeks without Drew Brees under center, there have been some clunkers, too. Since 2017, Kamara has averaged 23.6 fantasy points per game with Brees under center and just 14.1 when it has been someone else.
Ezekiel Elliott doesn’t have the track record of McCaffrey nor the potential of a forgiving early schedule like Cook, but he does have the lowest injury risk among running backs under consideration for a high first-round pick. Elliott has missed just two games in the last three years and is projected to miss just one or two games in 2021, per the Sports Injury Predictor. Cook, by comparison, is estimated to miss three games, while Kamara is also labeled high risk.
You could, of course, go rogue and shun the running back position altogether. It’s not a strategy I would recommend, but if you were to go this route the only players worthy of such a high choice are Adams and Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, who both have nearly impeccable track records.
Adams is a high-volume receiver catching passes from a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. He was targeted on one out of every three throws from Rodgers last year and ended the season with 115 catches for 1,374 yards and a league-leading 18 touchdowns. Kelce set a record for tight ends with 1,416 receiving yards, plus scored 11 touchdowns in 2020.
One player I’d steer clear of this high in the first round is Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes. While it is true Mahomes is one of the best quarterbacks in the league with a plethora of weapons at his disposal, the depth at the quarterback position is such that it pays to wait and fill that slot later in the draft. If you are keen on Mahomes in the first round, he is best selected at No. 9 or later.
Here’s is a ranking of the best players in the first round according to wins above replacement.
1. Christian McCaffrey (RB-CAR): 9.8 wins above replacement
2. Dalvin Cook (RB-MIN): 7.2
3. Alvin Kamara (RB-NO): 7.0
4. Ezekiel Elliott (RB-DAL): 7.0
5. Austin Ekeler (RB-LAC): 6.8
6. Derrick Henry (RB-TEN): 6.3
7. Davante Adams (WR-GB): 6.1
8. Travis Kelce (TE-KC): 5.9
9. Patrick Mahomes II (QB-KC): 5.7
10. Aaron Jones (RB-GB): 5.6
11. Stefon Diggs (WR-BUF): 5.6
12. Darren Waller (TE-LV): 5.6