CFB Player Bracket: Christian McCaffrey vs. Saquon Barkley
Throughout the rest of June we will be releasing our College 101 Bracket, where we’ll rank the best players in the upcoming FBS season. For the first matchup we have Stanford running back – and 2015 Heisman finalist – Christian McCaffrey taking on Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. Here’s how things play out head-to-head:
To view the entire bracket and every Round 1 matchup, click here.
The case for Christian McCaffrey
McCaffrey finished 2015 as the top graded running back in the nation with an overall cumulative grade of +49.1, and he proved that he was extremely lethal with the ball in his hands regardless of how it got there. His +33.3 running grade trailed only LSU’s Leonard Fournette, his +15.5 receiving grade lead all running backs and his +15.5 grade as a kick returner was the best of any player returning to the FBS this season.
McCaffrey’s universally productive in all facets of the game, but where he thrives the most is when he’s catching the ball out of the air. McCaffrey was second among running backs last season with 643 receiving yards, trailing just Taquan Mizzell from Virginia who had 721 yards (Ito Smith out of Southern Mississippi was third with 513 yards). It took Mizzell 99 targets and 328 passing plays (in which he ran a route) to gain those yards versus just 53 targets and 201 passing plays for McCaffrey to get his; McCaffrey owned a 3.20 yards per route run last season, Mizzell was second with an average of 2.60 yards and Theo Riddick lead NFL running backs with a 2.30 yards per route run.
The case for Saquon Barkley
Squaring off against a Heisman candidate is an uphill battle, but Barkley has some punches of his own to throw in this first-round matchup. Barkley finished the season as our 23rd ranked FBS running back in terms of overall grade (19th as a pure runner) but his 474 snaps were nearly 200 fewer than McCaffrey’s. As difficult as McCaffrey is to bring down in the open field, Barkley may be the toughest guy in the nation to bring down out of the backfield. Barkley led all running backs last season with an elusive rating of 126.7. That number is heavily influenced by: A) the fact that he forced 60 missed tackles on 182 attempts and B) his average of 3.82 yards after contact per attempt.
The 3.82 yards after contact per attempt was ninth-best among running backs last season, but it’s the missed tackle total that really shines. Barkley’s 60 missed tackles on carries was the 11th highest total in the country last season, but his 182 carries ranked 66th among RBs. McCaffrey had 11 more missed tackles on rush attempts last season, but he also had 155 more carries than Barkley. If Barkley were to have received the same number of carries as McCaffrey — while maintaining the rate at which he forced missed tackles – he would have forced 111 missed tackles, or 26 more missed tackles than Leonard Fournette (who lead the nation with 85).
The Verdict: Christian McCaffrey advances
Saquon Barkley certainly puts up a fight to take home this first-round matchup, but Christian McCaffrey is a juggernaut and will move on to Round 2. McCaffrey is simply too good in too many facets of the game to get eliminated this early on; Barkley may be more elusive out of the backfield, but McCaffrey isn’t far behind him in that aspect, while being far ahead of Barkley in others.
What ultimately tips this matchup in McCaffrey’s favor is his ability to just flat-out take over a game. McCaffrey had five games last season in which he accumulated an overall grade of at least +5.0. Heisman winner Derrick Henry had one game in 2015 with an overall grade of +5.0 or better, fourth-overall pick Ezekiel Elliot had two of those games, Leonard Fournette had four and Barkley had none.
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