As part of SI.com's fantasy football 2014 preview, Michael Beller and David Gonos will engage in a number of debates. Up first, they argue whether the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte or the Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy should be the preferred running back.
Michael Beller makes the case for Matt Forte:
It goes without saying, but fantasy owners will be happy with either Forte or McCoy. Both are justifiably top-five picks in fantasy leagues and, in fact, are in my top three. If I end up with McCoy instead of Forte, I’m not going to be crying myself to sleep. If I can have my pick of the two, however, I want Forte.
Before getting to what distinguishes Forte from McCoy, let’s present their shared traits. Both Forte and McCoy are workhorse backs for their respective teams. Both will get easily more than 300 touches this season in high-powered offenses, and they should both get more than four yards per carry (Forte hasn’t had fewer than 4.5 in the last four seasons; McCoy has 4.8 for his career).
Also, both of these backs will likely dominate their team’s carries inside the red zone; last year, Forte got 50 of the 65 Chicago carries, or 76.9 percent, inside the red zone, while the Eagles handed the ball to McCoy 74.5 percent (38 of 51) of the time they ran the ball inside the 20-yard-line.
Forte and McCoy are also two of the biggest home-run hitters in the league. The pair were tied for third with eight carries of at least 20 yards last year. Forte led the league with four carries for 40-plus yards, while McCoy was tied for third with three. Not only do their teams feed them when they’re close to the goal line, but Forte and McCoy are threats to score form anywhere on the field.
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Forte begins to distance himself, however, when we look at the passing game. McCoy is no slouch as a receiver -- he caught 52 of his 65 targets for 539 yards and two touchdowns last year, and has averaged 54.4 catches per season. Forte, though, is the league’s best pass-catching running back. His 74 receptions were the third most among backs last year, trailing only Pierre Thomas (77) and Danny Woodhead (76). He had 594 receiving yards, which ranked fourth among running backs, and three touchdowns, which tied him for fourth.
What’s more, Forte’s receiving ability is a key facet of the Bears’ offense. Before the 2013 season, new head coach Marc Trestman said that he wanted to get Forte more involved in the passing game. He did just that, as Forte was targeted 94 times, more than any other back besides Jamaal Charles, and nearly 30 times more than McCoy.
Due to his elite receiving ability out of the backfield, Forte is able to rack up even more red-zone touches. He was targeted 11 times inside the red zone, including three times inside the 10-yard-line. McCoy, meanwhile, had just four red-zone targets, all of which came from beyond 20 yards. That means Forte had 61 opportunities to touch the ball within 20 yards of the goal line last year. McCoy had just 42.
The last item in Forte’s favor is team context. While both of these teams should be among the best offenses in the league, the Bears have total cohesion from last year. The unit returns all 11 starters from a group that scored the second-most points a season ago. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery form the best receiver duo in the league. This is a multi-faceted offense that has all of its principals back in the second year under an offensive guru.
On the other hand, the Eagles, too, play for an offensive-minded head coach, but they lost top receiver DeSean Jackson. Jeremy Maclin has an injury history, and Riley Cooper was rather underwhelming until last season. Where Forte has rock-solid teammates helping to diversify the offense, McCoy has question marks. If the Philadelphia passing game isn’t as strong as it was a year ago, which is a legitimate concern, defenses will focus on McCoy more than they already do. Chances are, Forte won’t have to worry about that.
Forte and McCoy are part of a dying breed: the sure-thing fantasy running back. Both can carry teams to fantasy championships this year. It is Forte, though, that deserves to come off the board first.
Fantasy Draft Primer: Top three picks
Sports Illustrated's lead fantasy writer Michael Beller reveals his top three picks headed into the 2014 fantasy football season.
David Gonos makes the case for LeSean McCoy
Matt Forte is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, with great hands, deft feet and a solid quarterback tossing him the ball. Only two running backs had more than Forte’s 74 receptions last season, as Beller mentioned above, and Forte ranked No. 10 in the NFL in yards after the catch (552).
The Bears tailback has missed just five games out of a possible 96 games since he entered the NFL in 2008. The Bears offense is one of the very few lethal offenses both on the ground and in the air right now, with just the Broncos and Chargers ranking higher than Chicago in both passing and rushing in 2013.
But I'm here to tell you why LeSean McCoy is much better.
In his first year under Chip Kelly's offensive game plan, McCoy led the league in rushing last season, as well as total yards from scrimmage. The Eagles run a high-tempo offense and McCoy is at the center of all of it, including in the read-option. Looking back through the annals of time, I’d say there are less than a handful of running backs who could Also, McCoy's ability to make decisions and cut so quickly through the line of scrimmage gives him a leg up over the Bears' running back.
McCoy also has the edge when it comes to his teammates. Jeremy Maclin just finished rehabbing his second torn ACL and DeSean Jackson is now playing in Washington, giving McCoy little competition on the offense; whereas Forte has to fight three target-hogs in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett. While the arrival of Darren Sproles could lighten McCoy’s load, I think Sproles actually ends up picking up targets that initially would have gone to Jackson.
Forte has close to 1,900 touches in his six-year career, which is about 30 percent more than McCoy’s 1,426 touches in five seasons. McCoy is just 26 years old this season, whereas Forte turns 29 in December. And to top it off, only two teams have a better schedule this season for running backs than Philadelphia during Week 1-16, the fantasy regular season.
Without question, McCoy is the better pick between him and Forte.