After an unconventional selection experience last year, the 2021 NFL Draft returns to a sense of normalcy.
Fantasy football draft season may not be close to hitting its crescendo, but hardcore gamers have been selecting players prior to the conclusion of bowl season.
The real thing is finally upon us! Follow along for real-time analysis the NFL draft’s opening round’s impact on fantasy football plans for 2021.
1) QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars: The worst-kept draft secret in recent memory, Lawrence is tasked with turning around a Jacksonville franchise that was one win away from a Super Bowl appearance just a few seasons ago, prior to as precipitous of a fall from grace.
He is as “pro ready” as we’ve seen in recent years, and Jacksonville has put enough talent around Lawrence to expect immediate contributions. The receiving corps boasts DJ Chark Jr., Marvin Jones Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr., plus a competent rushing attack behind a respectable offensive line. A shaky defensive unit won’t hurt Lawrence’s counting stats, either.
Expect Lawrence to hit the ground at least jogging, but a full-on sprint is likely before season’s end. He is by far the best rookie quarterback in 2021 fantasy action, and there’s little doubt Lawrence will become a lineup fixture for years to come. Think midrange QB2 in ’21 with potential to be the top fake passer in as little as a season or two.
2) QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets: While the Jets will immediately start Wilson, the talent around the gunslinger is suspect. Wideouts Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder and Denzel Mims bring three levels of attack points within the route tree, but few will argue this group is any better than average until we see more from the outside guys. Keelan Cole comes off a fine year in Jacksonville and offers slot depth behind the oft-injured Crowder.
The line still needs to show it is ready to consistently offer reliable protection, and there’s currently no rushing game to speak of behind it. Granted, this should be addressed early in the draft, but it makes for two rookie starters in key roles that are thoroughly dependent upon each other’s successes. Not ideal.
Wilson has oodles of talent, moxie, and upside for fantasy football purposes. It may not all come together in 2021 with a first-time head coach and a rookie offensive coordinator, especially with this system expected to be a replica of the notoriously complicated Kyle Shanahan design.
Wilson is a matchup-based reserve for the short term and has the tools to develop into a top-flight fantasy passer within the first two or three years of his career. But it comes with notable risk, so he may not be suitable for gamers unwilling to take even a modest leap of faith.
3) QB Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers: Lance did not play in 2020, but he owns a 17-0 record at North Dakota State. More importantly, he fits the San Francisco offensive system extremely well, due to mobility and the requisite arm strength to sling it. He played in a pro-style system in college, and there’s a ton of RPO success on tape, too.
The 49ers run an unbelievably complex system under Kyle Shanahan, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if we don’t see Lance in 2021. Given the extensive injury history of Jimmy Garoppolo, in addition to the amount of capital spent on acquiring Lance, he’s closer to seeing the field than any other rookie quarterback entering behind an entrenched starter. There’s so much to mold and work with here that Shanahan will find creative ways to put Lance in smart situations to limit the potential for error.
Next up, keep an eye on whether Garoppolo is traded during the draft or shortly thereafter, but media reports suggest there is no immediate deal in the works. Should Lance start from Week 1, he’s a fringe starter in fantasy based on his wheels and the weapons around him. His long-range outlook is through the roof.
4) TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons: The Hayden Hurst experiment effectively comes to an unceremonious end with the highest selection of a tight end in NFL history. Florida’s Pitts is an absolute freak of nature and immediately upgrades the weaponry for Matt Ryan.
The Falcons need help on defense, and one could argue Ryan’s successor was a viable choice, but Pitts is far too talented for a former tight ends coach in head coach Arthur Smith to miss out on. Count on creative ways to get him involved, and he’ll be a threat at each level of the route tree.
This system will emphasize the position, and while rookie tight ends rarely are fantasy weapons, Pitts should be the exception. He has low-end TE1 appeal, and his athleticism means even a low-volume week could turn in big-time stats.
5) WR Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals: The former LSU Tiger is reunited with his collegiate quarterback in Joe Burrow (knee), and fantasy gamers will enjoy the connection for years to come. However, protecting Burrow is now the top priority in this draft, and it is fortunately a deep class for this area of need.
Cincinnati has Chase entering the picture after sitting out the 2020 season (COVID opt-out). He will step in as the presumptive WR1 when looking at the entire season, but it could take some time to get things going. He will have second-year receiver Tee Higgins to rely on to help him get up to speed after finding success as a rookie in 2020, and Tyler Boyd is the elder statesman of this corps at 24.
Chase brings downfield prowess to help balance the passing game. Boyd is the intermediate and short-area guy, whereas Higgins is an asset in the red zone and as a chain-mover when tough yards are necessary. Chase has the flair to take over games and uncork a long one at any moment. Fantasy gamers should treat him as a WR3 in 2021 leagues, and his long-term valuation is as a rock-solid No. 1 weapon.
6) WR Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins: Just as Chase was reunited with his former quarterback from the 2019 season, Waddle will be catching passes from Tua Tagovailoa, his collegiate ‘slinger.
DeVante Parker returns as the likely No. 1 target, and he’ll be joined by former Houston Texans first-rounder Will Fuller. The oft-injured Fuller will miss Week 1 via suspension, making him a double threat for unavailability. One off-field misstep and he’ll miss serious time. One physically wrong step and he’ll find himself on the mend. His one-year deal is reflective of these conditions. Parker is no stranger to injuries, either.
Promising third-year receiver Preston Williams has struggled to keep himself off of the trainers’ table. The Dolphins have veterans Jakeem Grant and Isaiah Ford in reserve, as well as Lynn Bowden Jr. as a possible receiver-slash-running back. None of those backup guys have the game-breaking ability of Waddle. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder is as explosive as any receiver in recent memory, and his game is so similar to that of Tyreek Hill’s that defensive coordinators will have their hands full.
In 2021 drafts, Waddle is a reserve pick. He’ll need time to get up to speed, and he’s “target buried” behind two receivers that are clearly the starters. That said, a strong offseason can put him into the starting slot role. Miami hardly utilized three-wide base sets in 2020, although the franchise didn’t have a real-life video game character on the roster. The dynasty outlook is much stronger for Waddle. He’s a player coaches scheme around and find ways to manufacture touches to go his way. While he has some room before we’ll suggest he can match Hill’s ridiculous contributions, consider that to be the potential ceiling for Waddle.
10) WR DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles: Even after spending a first-round choice on wide receiver Jalen Reagor last year, Smith brings a different breed of target for quarterback Jalen Hurts — his former quarterback at Alabama. Granted, they didn’t work together much, but familiarity is there from a number of intangible angles. The Eagles thought highly enough of Smith to trade up to avoid the New York Giants plucking him away one pick ahead of Philly.
The Eagles will run West Coast-based system that has RPO and spread nuances to help take advantage of Hurts’ athleticism. It also works well for the vertical nature of Smith and Reagor. Smith’s route running is elite, and even though he is only 6-foot-0, 166 pounds, his separation skills are about as good as it gets. Smith is a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the real game of football.
Fake footballers can treat him as a borderline WR3 with the potential for No. 2 play when the matchup is right. His immediate contributions should be erratic by nature of being a rookie and a vertical weapon. In the long term, provided Hurts pans out, Smith is a reasonably sound No. 2 who will explode with ridiculous stat lines from time to time.
11) QB Justin Fields, Chicago Bears: The offense should belong to Andy Dalton in 2021, which makes Fields effectively a redshirt in his rookie season. The emphasis on “should” points to Dalton’s fragility, and there’s also the aspect of this regime being on the hot seat. If things start going sideways early on, there will be extreme pressure to see what the Bears have in Fields in Year 1.
He’s not draftable in any single-year format, but Fields has played at a high level in a strong program and is more NFL-ready than many might be giving him credit for being. If he makes it onto the field in 2021, the athleticism will bail him out of situations and provides for fantasy potential in a pinch.
The outlook over, say, the next two or three years puts Fields in play for being a starting fantasy passer on the lower end of the top 12 slots. He has the arm and frame to survive in the Windy City, and his mobility will help make up for any deficiencies in the aerial game.
15) QB Mac Jones, New England Patriots: There’s about zero chance we see the 2020 FBS leading passer in the upcoming season, unless Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham both suffer injuries.
While Jones doesn’t wow with his physical tools in the ways the quarterbacks chosen ahead of him sparkle, his football IQ is impressive, and he comes from a pro-style system in the best conference in football. Then there’s the personal connection between Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, so you can be sure the latter provided the former with all of the skinny — good and bad — on Jones.
Fantasy footballers can ignore him in 2021 drafts, and the dynasty outlook is modestly optimistic. The Patriots need to upgrade the weaponry after 2021 with a legitimate WR1, and the offensive system takes at least a full season before the quarterback’s head isn’t spinning. It probably won’t be until at least the 2023 season in which Jones is close to a competent fantasy option. The Patriots care more about winning that stats, and there is a strong chance Jones is rarely asked to be more than a glorified game manager.
20) WR Kadarius Toney, New York Giants: The 2021 outlook isn’t particularly great for fantasy football purposes, but the pick makes a great deal of sense. The Giants still have a little time to evaluate quarterback Daniel Jones before having to decide on his fifth-year option, and what better way than surrounding him with talent in the passing game.
The current crop of receivers for the upcoming season will start with newcomer Kenny Golladay leading the way, but he comes with injury concerns after last season. Then there’s veteran slot receiver Sterling Shepard, who is one concussion away from the thought of premature retirement being the most important decision of his life. The G-Men also have vertical weapon Darius Slayton, but a down year when faced with a prime opportunity last year presents more questions than answers about his long-term viability. The team also added former first-round speedster John Ross from the Bengals, and there’s a pair of talented pass-catching tight ends to factor into the pecking order, too.
All of that out of the way, Toney will be on the outside looking in from the start. He’s an electric playmaker and will have a few plays scripted for him each week, but knowing when to play him in fantasy will be problematic. The immediate value is no better than a deep reserve with the hopes of an ascension via the ugly side of the game rearing its head. He brings WR2 value in the long haul. All of those receivers but Ross are under contract beyond 2021. Shepard will have a $10.5 million cap hit in 2022, so he’s potentially a cap causality next spring, which would make for a huge opportunity to see No. 2 targets for Toney as a sophomore.
24) RB Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers: The roster has collected several “JAG” kind of running backs in recent years, but the position hasn’t had a true bell cow since a contract squabble with Le’Veon Bell turned south. The Steelers’ history of burly backs, and Harris has the look of a throwback Pittsburgh rusher. The 6-foot-1, 232-pound battering ram also is nimble, patient, and has a soft set of hands to catch out of the backfield. Furthermore, Harris is a natural pass protector, which is helpful when your quarterback is almost as close to collecting social security as he is to buying his first first legal beer in a bar.
Harris should immediately step in as the starter and see the lion’s share of the carries. There will be spells and the like based on how much NFL clubs rotate backs these days, but the likes of Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr., Kalen Ballage and Jaylen Samuels shouldn’t eat into his touches too much. Pittsburgh still needs to upgrade the offensive line in several spots.
Harris will receive considerable fanfare in drafts, and rightfully so. But if that line doesn’t get rectified in a hurry, it could be a long season for gamers who invest a high pick in the promising rookie. Draft him as a No. 2 and build a stable of capable reserves to cover your tail. He has No. 1 fantasy back upside over the prime years of his NFL career.
25) RB Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars had a surprise standout in 2020 rookie James Robinson as a dual threat running back, and the addition of veteran Carlos Hyde suggested the team was done investing anything of consequence into the position. Then came a trade into the No. 25 spot and the selection of Etienne, Lawrence’s backfield mate from Clemson.
The Jaguars are building around their new franchise quarterback and providing him weapons across the spectrum. He has receivers to cover all three levels, and now he has two different types of running backs to take off some pressure. Robinson has a larger frame and is more of a plodding back whose receiving skills make him a three-down option. Etienne is more explosive and has a second gear that can put him into the end zone from just about anywhere on the field. He’s also a capable receiver, and there’s so much to like about his big-play ability.
The two backs will make for a frustrating fantasy experience in 2021. On one hand, today’s game is loaded with split backfields, and it’s understandable why the team would add Etienne. On the other side of it all, Robinson is the type who needs to accumulate touches to make a notable impact, so he’ll take a hit. Etienne is a No. 3 back and will offer flex utility, especially in PPR formats. Should he take flight early on, there’s reason to believe he will overtake Robinson in no time.
27) WR Rashod Bateman, Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson finally gets himself a true No. 1 receiver, so hopefully what has been a receiver graveyard isn’t so punitive for Minnesota’s Bateman. Something tells us he will turn the tide and emerge sooner than later — mostly because his strongest attribute is route running.
The 6-foot-0, 190-pounder ran a 4.39-second 40 at his pro day and is a natural receiver of the football. Bateman was highly productive for the Golden Gophers on a per-game basis, so it’s no surprise his truest NFL comparison is Keenan Allen. He will nicely complement the deep speed of Hollywood Brown, and Bateman offers Jackson someone in the intermediate game not named Mark Andrews.
In single-year leagues, gamers might have to wait for the season to develop before Bateman is a reliable target in PPR leagues, and this is a power-running offense by design. The Year 1 net return is probably in the neighborhood of a flex play. Give him a season to get fully up to speed. The 2022 and beyond outlook is soundly in the WR2-plus zip code.