Three players, three superstars — who should be the No. 1 draft pick?

Fantasy football analysts Andy Behrens, Scott Pianowski and Dalton Del Don debate over who should be the No. 1 ranked overall player for fantasy draft season — whose argument is strongest?

The case for Justin Jefferson

There isn’t another player in football like Justin Jefferson. Let’s start with that fact. He has already distinguished himself as an outlier in the game’s history.

Jefferson, who turned 24 in June, holds the NFL records for most receptions (324), receiving yards (4,825) and receiving yards per game (96.5) over a player’s first three seasons. He ranked as the fantasy WR6 as a rookie, then improved to WR4 in his second year before finishing as the overall WR1 in his third pro season, leading the league in catches (128) and receiving yardage (1,809).

His next missed game will be the first of his career.

We’re talking about a near-perfect player. If you were somehow dissatisfied with Jefferson’s eight receiving touchdowns last season, please know that he led all wide receivers in red-zone targets (31) and in chances inside the 10-yard line (19). Rest assured, more touchdowns are on the way.

If you’re leaning Ja’Marr Chase over Jefferson because you believe Cincinnati’s offense to be substantially better than Minnesota’s, you might be interested in seeing last season’s team stats:

  • Bengals: 360.5 total YPG (NFL rank 8), 265.0 pass YPG (5), 26.1 PPG (7)

  • Vikings: 361.5 total YPG (7), 263.8 pass YPG (6), 24.9 PPG (8)

Both teams, of course, have year-to-year offensive continuity, with coaches and quarterbacks returning. With all due respect to Chase, a phenomenal player, we should not overthink the top spot on the draft board. It belongs to Jefferson, the best receiver in the game.

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And If you happen to be a stodgy traditionalist who feels compelled to take a running back first overall … well, hey, I can sympathize. I, too, was raised on running backs. But you shouldn’t need an expert to tell you about injury risk at the position generally or with Christian McCaffrey specifically.

The essential point to make regarding McCaffrey this season is that he isn’t in Carolina any longer, which has its benefits and limitations. The good news, clearly, is that he’s the lead back on a premier offense and an elite rushing attack. The bad news is that he will almost never see 20 touches in any week when things go according to script.

Last season, in games in which Elijah Mitchell and CMC both appeared for the Niners (playoffs included), McCaffrey averaged 15.5 touches. Mitchell averaged 11.2. This is surely a good thing for McCaffrey in real life, but, for fantasy purposes, it reduces his potential for a golden-ticket, game-breaking season.

When selecting a player at No. 1 overall, we’re looking for three big things: Dependability, elite production and league-winning upside. Jefferson checks all three boxes more emphatically than any other player in our game. — Andy Behrens

The case for Christian McCaffrey

First, some disclaimers. I don’t think this is a great year to have the No. 1 overall pick — I’d prefer something a few slots lower — and if I landed the No. 1 several times, I wouldn’t take Christian McCaffrey every time. I’d look to diversify. I’m not pounding the table demanding everyone grab McCaffrey at the top.

But you do rankings for a reason and McCaffrey is my yellow-shirt guy for a reason.

Obviously injury risks are heavier for running backs, but we also know that if you nail the No. 1 overall back, you take a monstrous step toward winning your league (if we could get the Nostradamus answer key for just one position ahead of time, you’d want the running back cheat code every season). And of course McCaffrey offers dynamic upside. In his three best years, he has charted as the RB3, RB1 and RB2, and he was the No. 3 overall player in Value Based Drafting end-rank for 2022, which factors your marginal advantage at your position. As wonderful as Jefferson was, he ranked two slots lower.

I don’t accept that Elijah Mitchell’s presence is a major drag for McCaffrey. Mitchell is a monstrous injury risk — he has missed 19 of 40 games with a laundry list of maladies (I’d list them all, but then I’d be over the word count). And even if Mitchell stays healthy and is an involved backup, he’s still the understudy. Mitchell doesn’t catch many passes. Don’t sweat overall touches for McCaffrey, focus on the money touches that are primarily his alone — the third-down work, the hurry-up work, the goal-line work. The pilot chair in a Kyle Shanahan offense is a gift from the gods.

Jefferson has a little more competition for the ball this year — a full season of T.J. Hockenson, the arrival of Jordan Addison. Ja’Marr Chase managers can’t be sure Joe Burrow will be ready Week 1. I realize running-back drafting in Round 1 has become passé to some, old hat. But sometimes the simplest answer is the right one. Run, CMC. — Scott Pianowski

The case for Ja’Marr Chase

If your draft is now, and you want to make Joe Burrow’s unknown timeline to return from his calf injury as a tiebreaker here, I wouldn’t fault you. But if it becomes clear Burrow will be ready Week 1, which still seems like the plan, Chase is my No. 1 fantasy player entering 2023.

He leads the NFL in yards per route run against man coverage since entering the league despite playing through a hip injury last season.

Chase has also scored just three fewer touchdowns than the aforementioned Jefferson while playing in 21 fewer games! He’s tied to Burrow as opposed to Kirk Cousins, who got 7.1 YPA last year (Jordan Addison provides more target competition as well). Imagine if Jefferson had to play outdoors like Chase.

Meanwhile, Christian McCaffrey is a greater injury risk and saw a dramatic decrease in usage (24.1 opportunities vs. 16.4) when Elijah Mitchell was healthy in San Francisco.

Chase is my top fantasy pick in 2023. — Dalton Del Don

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