As part of SI.com's fantasy football 2014 preview, Michael Beller and David Gonos will engage in a number of debates. This week, they argue whether the Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson or Packers running back Eddie Lacy is a better choice for the fifth overall pick in 2014.
Michael Beller makes the case for Calvin Johnson
This is the most challenging debate we’ve had this offseason. All the others compared two players at the same position, so Gonos and I simply had to make an argument for the guy we preferred. This compares two elite players at different positions, which changes everything. When deciding between Lacy and Johnson, you have to consider not only which player will bring a better return, but how selecting each would affect the rest of your draft.
The Lacy-Johnson debate is typically raging internally for the person with the fifth pick. LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte have separated from the pack, leaving the person with the fifth pick in most drafts deciding between the No. 1 receiver and the final top-tier running back. The more I think about this, the more frequently I keep coming back to Johnson as my guy.
Let’s start with the numbers. Over the last four seasons, no receiver has been able to touch Megatron. He has a total of 6,257 yards and 45 touchdowns in those four seasons, an average of 1,564 yards and more than 11 scores per year. If he had those exact same numbers as a running back, he’d be the first overall pick by a mile. However, there still seems to be some lingering discrimination against receivers at the very top of the draft, and that pushes Johnson down into the middle of the first round.
Johnson has put up more than 220 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues in all of the last three seasons. Wide receivers not named Calvin Johnson have combined for a total of two 220-point seasons in those years, both coming in 2013, when Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas outpaced the Lions’ top receiver in fantasy points. What’s more, Johnson did all his damage last year (84 catches, 1,492 yards, 12 touchdowns) in 14 games. Had he played in all 16 and hit his per-game average in the other two, he would have posted his second 250-point season in the last three years. Johnson is a marvel of consistency in that he is consistently the best receiver in the league. It would be silly to expect that to end this year.
During Johnson’s NFL career, the Lions have been searching fruitlessly for a second receiver to pair with him. They may have finally found their answer in Golden Tate. The Notre Dame product has been impressive in a run-heavy Seattle offense each of the last two seasons in which he hauled in a total of 109 passes for 1,586 yards and 12 touchdowns. Tate gives Johnson a second receiver that demands respect and might have the pressure taken off just a bit. Add in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, and this could very well be the best offense in which he has played in his career. We talk a lot about how environment matters in football. With likely his best offensive environment ever, Johnson should thrive this season.
The strongest argument I can see for Lacy is the path taking him over Johnson sets an owner down during the draft. The top tier of receivers goes seven deep and also includes Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson and Julio Jones. A fantasy owner could easily get one of those guys to pair with Lacy for a very strong RB-WR core. Also, the drop-off at running back is stark, and Lacy is likely your last chance to get in on a rock-solid stud at the position. Still, that overlooks the two most important things a fantasy owner should be considering.
Early in the draft, it is imperative to focus on the best available players and seeking out high floors. Johnson is the better player and has the higher floor. There has been plenty of talk about how having Aaron Rodgers healthy all year will benefit Lacy. To a certain degree, that is true, but it’s not like Lacy fell apart when Rodgers was out last year. In the eight games Rodgers missed (including the one in which he was injured), Lacy had 666 yards and seven touchdowns. You need to be conscious of how each pick will impact your future selections, but there’s no reason to overcomplicate the first round. With Megatron, you lock in floors of 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns. That’s production you don’t pass up when it falls into your lap.
David Gonos makes the case for Eddie Lacy
Definitely one of the toughest decisions in the first round of fantasy drafts is figuring out whether to draft Lacy or Johnson after the big four are gone. It’s not just a matter of choosing between two guys at the same position, which is usually a matter of 50-100 total yards or a touchdown in projections. When you’re deciding between Lacy or Megatron, you’re really making a larger decision about the rest of your draft.
In Lacy, owners get a sophomore running back with a ton of carries left in him. Sure, he had injury concerns when he came out of Alabama, but he proved to be a ground-and-pound tailback who last year held off fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin for the bell-cow duties last season (initially, the Packers considered a shared backfield).
Lacy’s 4.1 yards per carry last season wasn’t the caliber of the four running backs drafted ahead of him, or even DeMarco Murray (5.2), Alfred Morris (4.6) or Ryan Mathews (4.4), but only two players rushed for more scores. Also, Lacy scored 10 of his touchdowns in the last 11 weeks, including five touchdowns (and 356 rushing yards) in the last four games of the year, a point in the season when most rookies were dragging.
With Aaron Rodgers completely healthy, it's possible that the Packers will go back to a more pass-heavy offense. Lacy gets a couple catches per game, but he’s not heavily involved with moving the ball down the field through the air. But if you remember what 2012 was like for the Packers, they were in dire need of a rushing attack, and Lacy now gives that to them -- with a healthy Rodgers or not. This will be a balanced attack once again.
There aren’t many running backs out there expected to touch the ball 20 to 25 times per game. When you find them, you grab them and you hold tight. Last season, he missed a game with a concussion and started the season slow (just 15 carries in three games). Even so, he finished the year behind just four running backs in total carries (284).
Lacy is a big back with goal-line duties, the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and, hopefully, an improved ability to block in pass protection. He posted quality fantasy games in 13 of the 15 games he played, which is a better percentage than all but five running backs from last year.
These two NFC North superstars will help lead their respective fantasy teams, no doubt. But with Calvin Johnson, you’re rolling the dice that your first running back is actually a fantasy RB2 -- and that’s if you draft one then, and don’t skip running backs again.
With Lacy, you’re looking at running back that could be a borderline RB1/RB2, just like if you took Johnson, or you’ll be able to pick a top-eight wide receiver that’s not too far back in value from Johnson, like Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown and Alshon Jeffery.
There’s a very good chance that Lacy becomes the first Packers running back to lead the NFL in rushing since Jim Taylor did it back in 1962. The average NFL running back’s career is very short, close to about 2.5 years, so when you find one like Lacy, who is younger than the four that are getting drafted ahead of him, you take him.