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Who Is The First Overall Draft Pick in 2021?

There are only 10 Sundays left in 2021 without regular-season football.  That means fantasy football drafts are just around the corner.  If you participate in a league that utilizes a snake draft, and the draft order is announced prior to the big day, you have a greater opportunity to prepare. It is extremely beneficial to participate in mock drafts at your assigned draft spot beforehand to get an idea of the players available in each round for when you will be on the clock.

If you happen to land the first overall draft pick in your 2021 fantasy football draft, you obviously have your choice at any player you want. But, who is the best player to draft at 1.01 this season? Below, I will discuss who the top draft pick should be for a fantasy football snake draft, but also discuss other players to consider, or reconsider, using that pick on.  Even if you fall short of making the first overall draft pick, there is plenty of talent to go around early in the first round this season.

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The 2021 First Overall Draft Pick is Up for Debate


Carolina Panthers Running Back

If you are just starting to play fantasy football, or have been playing and somehow forgot about Christian McCaffrey, I am here to tell you that he should be the first overall draft pick in all leagues and formats this season.  This should not be a shock. It shouldn’t turn heads. There is no mic drop here. McCaffrey is the definition of a stud and has the numbers to back it up.

Prior to last season, McCaffrey had never missed a game in his first three years in the NFL.  He was far and away the top running back in 2019, having also been the top running back in 2018.  He scored 156 more points than the second-best back, Dalvin Cook.  Furthermore, McCaffrey was the best fantasy football player at every position two years ago. Period.  In 2019, McCaffrey accounted for 43% of the Panthers total offense.  He became the third player in NFL history to record at least 1,000 rushing yards (1,387) and 1,000 receiving yards (1,005) in a single season.

While “Run CMC” only played in three games in the 2020 season due to ankle and shoulder injuries, he averaged a whopping 30.13 fantasy points per game.  He also found the end zone five times on the ground and once through the air in that span, averaging 19 rushes and seeing an average of 6 targets per game.

In his absence, Mike Davis hardly missed a beat and finished as fantasy football’s RB11 with 206.5 PPR points.  If you were to add McCaffrey’s 90.3 points from his three games to Davis’ total, the two would combine to finish as RB4 in total points in the 2020 season.  Wide receiver Curtis Samuel had 41 rushing attempts of his own for 200 yards and two scores.  Now, with Davis and Samuel having found new teams in free agency, McCaffrey solely reclaims the workhorse role with only rookie Chubba Hubbard as the only legitimate backup ahead of training camp.

If you have concerns about newly acquired quarterback, Sam Darnold, under center this season for the Panthers, it’s worth mentioning McCaffrey accomplished what he did in 2019 with Cam Newton, Will Grier, and, for 12 games, Kyle Allen, at quarterback that year.  With the first overall draft pick in 2021 fantasy football drafts, take McCaffrey with confidence as he finds himself in a prime position to reclaim the throne as fantasy’s top player.


Minnesota Vikings Running Back

Drafted in the same year as McCaffrey in 2017, Dalvin Cook was quickly plagued by a torn ACL in Week 4 of his rookie season and struggled the following year with a lingering hamstring injury.  However, since then, Cook has played 14 games in back-to-back seasons and finished as a top-3 fantasy football running back in that time.  In 2020, Cook saw a career-high in attempts (312), rushing yards (1,557), yards per carry (5.0), and found the end zone a career-high 16 times on the ground.

While some have avoided selecting Cook with a top draft pick due to his injury history, he has since proven to be not only reliable but as a consideration as the first overall draft pick ahead of the 2021 fantasy football season.

In 2019, the Minnesota Vikings ranked fourth in rushing attempts league-wide and finished eighth in total points scored.  Coincidentally, that was Dalvin Cook’s breakout year having accounted for 52% of the team’s carries, averaging just under 18 per game.  He added 53 receptions that same season and turned it into 519 yards for average of 9.8 yards per catch; all career highs.  Good things happen when Cook is on the field as he’s proven to be a complete three-down back.

The 2020 Vikings only carried the ball 8 fewer times than the previous season, staying very committed to the run.  Cook commanded 66.6% of the rushing attack, adding 62 more total carries than the previous year.  In his 14 games, Cook found the end zone in 11 of them, 4 of which he scored more than once.

Cook did see a slight decrease in targets last year, with the addition of a 2020 Rookie of the Year candidate wide receiver Justin Jefferson, but was still tied for 13th in targets among running backs.  Even with the slight decrease in production in the passing game, Cook’s workload as a running back, and ability to get into the end zone, still boosted his fantasy points per game total from 20.9 to 24.1 from 2019 to 2020.  On a top-10 rushing team, and nearly top-10 scoring team the last two seasons, Cook is the focal point of this Vikings offense.

It might be the year Dalvin Cook takes the next step and finishes as the top overall fantasy running back.  Even if things go south with quarterback, Kirk Cousins, Cook, who is set to play in the first season of his new five-year deal, will be busy no matter who’s under center.  If he is on the board with the second, or even third, overall draft pick in your league, he is a no-brainer to build your team around.


Tennessee Titans Running Back

Derrick Henry holds the NFL rushing title in back-to-back seasons. They don’t call him “King Henry” for nothing. So, why isn’t he the clear-cut choice as the first overall draft pick in 2021?

Most would point to the fact that he only has 76 regular season receptions in his entire five-year career.  A number that running backs often drafted ahead of him, such as McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliot, and Alvin Kamara, have all recorded.  In fact, these backs have all surpassed that number in a single season, some more than once.  In a points-per-reception fantasy football league, this is a major flaw to Henry’s game.

Still, the argument for Henry to be the first overall draft pick in fantasy football leagues in 2021 can be made.  Derrick Henry has played in 97.5% of 80 regular-season games in his career and has only missed one in the last two seasons.  That’s a higher percentage of availability than any of the other running backs drafted ahead of him or with similar average draft positions in the first round of 2021 drafts.

Not only has he been on the field more, but he’s also been the best rusher in the NFL leading the league in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns the last two seasons.  On top of that, Henry’s yards after contact since 2019 (2,758) are more than any other running back’s total rushing yards in that same span.  Teams cannot stop him, they can only hope to slow him down.

Every year we question if the wheels will fall off with Henry and every year he’s improved his stats.  You don’t want to draft Henry with a high draft pick the year he finally slows down, but 2021 is not that year. Sure, the Titans will be without former offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith, but they do not have an experienced enough running back behind Henry to share the load.  The team also just added Julio Jones to the passing game.  This will not only open up the offense and force defenses to respect the Titans’ aerial attack, but likely put the team, and Henry, in more scoring opportunities in the red zone.

The obvious volume on the ground, the potential for more touchdowns, and the possibility of an increase in targets and receptions out of the backfield make Derrick Henry the safest first-round draft pick.  He is the best pure running back in football until proven otherwise and arguably the first overall draft pick in 2021.


New Orleans Saints Running Back

The last time we saw Alvin Kamara in a fantasy football game, he scored six touchdowns on Christmas Day during most leagues’ championship weekend.  The memory of Kamara’s performance is bound to stick with fantasy football managers ahead of drafts. I do, however, have my reservations when considering Kamara as the first overall draft pick in 2021.

Let me start by saying that Alvin Kamara should be, and will be, a top-3 to 5 draft pick in all league formats this season.  He has never finished worse than RB8 on a points per game basis since he entered the league in 2017.  He’s also finished in the top-5 three out of four applicable seasons.  Kamara scored the most overall points as a running back in 2020 even with up and down performances from injured quarterback Drew Brees and his backup, Taysom Hill.

Alvin Kamara will likely never repeat his six touchdown fantasy football championship performance.  Yet, he is always a threat to post 25 or more fantasy points any given week with his elusiveness on the run and play making ability as a receiver out of the backfield.  In his first four NFL seasons, Kamara has recorded 81, 81, 81, and 83 receptions each respective year.  You can’t get much more consistent than that.  As for his rushing ability, Kamara leads the league with 74 broken tackles since 2019 which is more than the aforementioned Dalvin Cook and, back-to-back rushing leader, Derrick Henry.

What gives me pause when considering Kamara as the first overall draft pick in 2021 is not only his limited role as a running back, but how it relates to his receiving ability with the unknown projected starter at quarterback in Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill.  Alvin Kamara has never topped 194 carries since entering the league.  On a team that’s historically utilized a two-back system, Kamara has shared the workload as a rusher with running back Latavius Murray.  Murray has carried the ball 146 times in each of the last two seasons in New Orleans.

What Kamara has lacked in volume in the run game, he has always made up for as a pass catcher.  However, in the four games with Taysom Hill under center in the 2020 regular season, he only saw an average of four targets.  That is half of the average amount of targets he saw with Drew Brees at quarterback.

There is no doubt that Alvin Kamara will be a top draft pick in 2021 fantasy football leagues, but his questionable target share with uncertainty at the Saints quarterback position, on top of the less than ideal amount of carries he has seen, make it difficult to cement him as the first overall draft pick this season.


Dallas Cowboys Running Back

Ezekiel Elliot took the NFL by storm in 2016 as a rookie when he led the league in attempts (322), rushing yards (1,631), and finished 2nd in overall fantasy points, and 3rd on a points per game basis, as a running back.  The Cowboys made it known their plan was to “feed Zeke” as he accounted for 64.5% of the team’s carries.  Since that time, in seasons in which he’s played 15 games or more, he’s carried the ball 300 or more times twice.  He then led the league, again, in attempts and rushing yards in 2018.  That same year he set career highs for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, as well. He ran behind the best offensive line in football and had strong play from quarterback Dak Prescott.

Contrary to the idea of Kamara coming back to Earth after an outstanding finish to his 2020 fantasy football season, Zeke is looking to come back after the worst fantasy season of his career.  Following Prescott’s season-ending ankle injury in Week 5, Elliot flat out struggled. It was downright dreadful with quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Ben DiNucci under center.

From Week 6 on without Prescott, Zeke only found the end zone once on the ground and once more as a receiver.  He was targeted 32 times out of the backfield in Weeks 1 through 5 and just 39 times the rest of the way.

Elliot saw just two more carries last year (244) in 15 games than he did in 2017 when he played just 10 games (242).  He also rushed for four fewer yards (979 to 983).  On top of a lack of production, he fumbled the ball six times and lost a career-high five of them.  Just a brutal year for fantasy football managers who spent a high draft pick on him.

In 2021, Dak Prescott is already on pace to be back for the start of training camp and is already a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.  With his return alone, Zeke is automatically back in the top-5 pick discussion based on their joint productivity.  In games that Dak and Zeke were on the field last season, the team averaged 30.1 points per game.  Without Dak, but with Zeke in the backfield, the team only averaged 19.2 points per game.  A new season also gives the Cowboys a chance to establish a fresh start with their offensive line who saw ten different combinations of starters last season.

Zeke has seen enough of a balance in volume on the ground and in the passing game more often than not that justifies him as the first overall draft pick for the 2021 fantasy football season.  It would not be a shock to see him finish as the RB1.  That being said, I feel a few players mentioned above have a safer floor and will go before him.  Zeke is still an excellent option if available as a lower top-5 or 6 pick, which would be a discount, all things considered.


New York Giants Running Back

Any conversation surrounding Saquon Barkley as the first overall draft pick in 2021 is based on the hope that he can bounce back from a season-ending knee injury last year and return to his rookie year form.  Other than a handful of fantasy leagues, likely based in the New York or New Jersey area, I don’t expect to see Saquon selected at 1.01 this year.  Yet, similar to Ezekiel Elliot, if Saquon finishes as the RB1, nobody would be shocked, but rather celebrate his epic comeback.

The New York Giants offense was abysmal last season. They finished 31st out of 32 teams in total points scoring an average of 17.5 per game.  After Barkley went down in Week 2, things just got worse.  They weren’t particularly good to begin with, as the team only scored 14.5 points per game in the first two weeks Barkley was healthy.

The 2021 off-season has shown that the Giants are putting more of an emphasis on their offense, and supporting quarterback Daniel Jones, with the acquisition of free-agent wide receiver, Kenny Golladay.  The team also spent the 20th overall pick on wide receiver, Kadarius Toney.  With those improvements to the passing game, Saquon will have an opportunity to see the 352 touches (261 carries, 91 receptions), if not more, than he saw in 2018.  When healthy, the offense runs through Saquon, as he’s demonstrated his value on the ground and as a pass-catcher.

Saquon holds the NFL records for most receptions by a rookie running back (91), most 100+ scrimmage yard games by a rookie (12), and most 50+ yard touchdowns by a rookie (5).  He also holds the record for most scrimmage yards in a season by a rookie (2,028), which led the NFL that year amongst all players.  At 24 years old, Saquon still has plenty left in the tank.  The Giants already picked up the 5th year option in his contract for the 2022-23 NFL season.  While they may ease him back in to things at camp this summer, running backs Devontae Booker and Corey Clement, and whoever else gets cycled in, are merely backups and are no threat to Barkley’s bell-cow workload for the 2021 season.

The notion of betting on a comeback from the knee injury will likely cause many to overlook Saquon this season in fantasy football.  The ceiling for Saquon is still just as high as others in this discussion.  Given how deep wide receiver is in 2021, Saquon, if available, should be taken no later than as the last top-tier running back.  He should be selected before the top pass catchers, like Devante Adams, Tyreek Hill, or others come off the board.


Christian McCaffrey would be my selection if I was fortunate enough to land the first overall draft pick in my fantasy football draft this summer.

Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry have been consistently dominant and find themselves in similar positions to continue as such in 2021.  Both would be solid options as the first overall draft pick and great selections for those with a top-5 pick.

Alvin Kamara should be recognized as a top-tier player amongst the first three.  However, the New Orleans Saints change at quarterback would make me hesitate before using the first overall draft pick on him.

Ezekiel Elliot and Saquon Barkley are both looking to bounce back in their own way.  They could slip lower in the first round to the 5th, 6th or possibly a later draft pick.  That would be a discounted price.  If either finished as the RB1, it would not be a surprise.

These six players all have a case for the first overall draft pick in 2021 fantasy football leagues.  They all come with their own risk and reward.  This group will likely be the first six names off the board given the scarcity at the running back position.  This should make for an easy decision if you are awarded a top-6 draft pick.

Good luck and happy drafting!

For more great analysis, check out Mick Ciallela’s full 2021 Fantasy Football Rankings.

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