The 2021 NFL draft had plenty of hype with a rich set of quarterbacks and wide receivers. That held with five quarterbacks drafted over the first 15 picks and five wide receivers selected in the first round, including three over the first ten picks. Where the draft disappointed was with running backs. That was a function of the devaluing of the position by NFL offenses and a lack of confidence that the incoming rookies could provide more than a role in a committee backfield or as roster depth.
For dynasty purposes, this draft should deliver several long-term elite players and even a few running backs could emerge, if only eventually. For redraft leagues, this class has potential but less than most years. The best wideouts mostly went to average passing teams. The best running backs mostly ended up on teams that already have a primary back. Quarterbacks usually take a year or two before delivering fantasy-relevant stats but Trevor Lawrence may challenge that rule of thumb.
To follow are the Top-12 fantasy football rookies as of the day after the draft considering their outlook for 2021. Certainly, much will change in the coming months. James Robinson was an undrafted nobody one year ago.
Clyde-Edwards Helaire and D’Andre Swift were the top backs drafted last year, and neither delivered on their promise. Jonathan Taylor joined a crowded backfield, but one Marlon Mack injury later and Taylor produced a hot start to his career. Justin Jefferson was the fifth wideout selected and yet dominated the position. You just never know and that’s part of the fun.
1. RB Najee Harris – Alabama (PIT 1.24), 6’2″, 230 lbs., 4.45
The top fantasy rookie has to be Najee Harris out of the Alabama Machine. He was the rare four-year running back that started the last two with stellar results. He would have been highly drafted in 2020 but returned to post 1,486 rushing yards, 43 catches for 425 yards and a total of 30 touchdowns during the Crimson Tide’s latest National Championship run.
Harris has every opportunity to become the next Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh. He offers a well-rounded set of talents and never has to come off the field. More importantly, he has minimal competition for touches with only Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland below him. Harris is the only rookie back that is a slam dunk for a fulltime role.
2. WR Ja’Marr Chase – LSU (CIN 1.05), 6’0″, 208 lbs., 4.38
Ja’Marr Chase elected to sit out 2020 due to COVID concerns and as the first wideout selected, it certainly didn’t harm his perceived value. While he only started for one season at LSU, he blew up for 84 catches for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns while the Tigers won the National Championship. All he did in that game was catch nine passes for 221 yards and two scores versus Clemson.
Oh yes, and his quarterback that season was Joe Burrow. The same one that becomes his quarterback in the NFL and who lobbied for the Bengals to select him over a much-needed upgrade to the offensive line. If you liked Chase’s ex-teammate, Justin Jefferson, last year, realize that Chase had a bigger 2019 than Jefferson and gets to continue to play with Burrow.
3. TE Kyle Pitts – Florida (ATL 1.04), 6’6″, 240 lbs., 4.44
Kyle Pitts fantasy value is already considered elite, and he has yet to catch an NFL pass. The ex-Gator just became the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history. A three-year player, his junior season saw him catch 43 passes for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns, and that was only playing in eight games because of a facial injury and a concussion. To term him a “physical freak” may be an understatement. Pitts is a towering 6-6 and 240 pounds and yet runs a 4.45 40-time. That’s faster than most running backs.
Pitts joins the Falcons in the first year of HC Arthur Smith, and while he possesses all the attributes of an elite wideout, he will remain a tight end. Matt Ryan promises a powerful passing attack, and Pitts will have to share with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. But Jones is no lock to remain with the team and should he leave, Pitts could step up into significant fantasy play even as a rookie. He enters the NFL with arguably a higher upside than any other tight end in history and in the thinnest position in fantasy football. He shows up as the No. 1 pick in some fantasy football dynasty drafts.
4. RB Michael Carter – NC (NYJ 4.02), 5’8″, 199 lbs., 4.5
The “other back” at North Carolina wasn’t drafted until four others were selected, but he has a lower bar to playing time than the rest. The four-year Tarheel finished with 1,512 total yards and eleven scores as a senior sharing the backfield with Javonte Williams. He’s a bit undersized but averaged 8.0 yards per carry last season. He may not have the physical specs of a prototypical NFL back, but he brings great rushing skills in vision and agility.
Carter was expected to go to a team looking for a dangerous third-down back that can offer as much as a receiver as a rusher. He has that. But he also joins a Jets team in the middle of yet another rebuilding. The depth chart only holds Tevin Coleman, La’Mical Perine and Josh Adams. Carter will be part of a Jets committee, but he already looks like the best of the bunch.
5. WR DeVonta Smith – Alabama (PHI 1.1), 6’0″, 166 lbs., 4.37
The upside with Smith is immense. All he did was win the Heisman as a wide receiver for the first time in about three decades. He set all-time receiving records at Alabama. And just won the National Championship where he was the MVP while posting 12 catches for 215 yards in the first half before injuring his finger (it’s fine). I mean, come on – what more could you want?
Ends up, a bigger frame would be nice since he was finally measured away from the Alabama PR department, and he was 6-0 and just 166 pounds. That’s lighter than any other elite NFL wideout in history, and on a lanky frame. But he reunites with Jalen Hurts who he played with for two seasons (2017-2018), and the Eagles are also in a rebuild with a shakeup to the depth charts. He has minimal competition to become the No. 1 wideout and should end up as the primary as early as Week 1. He has a golden chance to serve up a cup of shut-up juice to his critics yet again.
6. RB Javonte Williams – NC (DEN 2.03), 5’10″, 220 lbs., 4.58
Javonte Williams was the top running back on many draft boards and the Tarheel comes to the NFL as the prototypical back in every measurement. The junior comes off a season with 1,445 total yards while catching 25 passes and rushing for 7.3 yards per carry. Better yet, he’s smart and powerful with a violent style of running that translates very well into the NFL.
What goes against him are two factors. One – he is not the fastest back but his game is more running over than running away. Two – he lands on a Denver team that already has former first-round pick Melvin Gordon as their primary back. Gordon is in the final year of his contract, so 2022 may very well see Williams as the clear workhorse. And Gordon tends to get dinged up anyway, so this season still holds promise. But Williams has to get past Gordon in order to realize his full potential.
7. WR Jaylen Waddle – Alabama (MIA 1.06), 5’10″, 182 lbs., 4.37
Several teams thought Jaylen Waddle was the best wide receiver in the draft, and he could prove to be as much. He was limited as part of a highly-talented Crimson Tide depth chart but excelled when given the chance. His 2020 season was cut short with a broken ankle but he averaged 21.1 yards on his 28 catches to that point. Waddle is blazingly fast with a sub-4.4 40-time and over half of his touchdowns for Alabama were over 50 yards in length.
He reunites with Tua Tagovailoa that should lessen the learning curve and he’s compared to Tyreek Hill who is almost the same size and speed. There’s a new install of an offense for the team to learn and Devante Parker and Will Fuller will also heavily figure into the game plan. But it is only a question of time before Waddle assumes the No. wideout role for the Fins.
8. RB Travis Etienne – Clemson (JAC 1.25), 5’10″, 205 lbs., 4.45
Most analysts were divided as to who was the top rookie running back – Travis Etienne or Najee Harris. The Clemson star was the all-time rushing leader in the ACC after four years with the Tigers. Twice he topped 1,600 rushing yards in a season and then caught 48 passes for 588 yards last season to show that he was just as effective as a receiver. He’s a three-down back that is a game-breaker whenever he has the ball. Squint your eyes when you watch him on tape, and he’s Alvin Kamara shredding defenses in all kinds of ways.
When the Jaguars drafted him, there were groans from both Etienne fans and James Robinson dynasty owners. This is an odd pairing of the best undrafted running back in NFL history with an elite back toting a suitcase full of every imaginable accolade for a college back. Robinson dominated the backfield with 240 rushes and 49 receptions in 2020. Now there’s a committee brewing in the new offense by HC Urban Meyer and OC Darrell Bevell. It smacks of D’Andre Swift in Detroit last year though Etienne is better. The potential is there for elite fantasy numbers. At least eventually.
9. WR Kadarius Toney – Florida (NYG 1.20), 6’0″, 193 lbs., 4.39
Kadarius Toney was a quarterback in high school and even played as a running back for one season for the Gators. His career stats showed marginal use until his senior year when he focused solely on being the No. 1 wideout for Florida. He caught 70 passes for 984 yards and ten scores while adding 19 rushes for 161 yards and another touchdown. He was also a returner for special teams. Toney is only starting to tap into how good he can be and his electric ability with the ball gained him the name of “human joystick”.
He was drafted by a Giants team that revamped their receivers with the addition of Kenny Golladay as the clear No. 1 wideout. Sterling Shepard will also remain on the outside but Toney could fill a slot role that has the potential for fantasy relevance even as a rookie. If OC Jason Garrett gets inventive, Toney offers the ability to catch, run or even pass on the rare trick play. And play returner.
10. WR Rashod Bateman – Minnesota (BAL 1.27), 6’0″, 190 lbs., 4.39
The Golden Gophers relied on Rashod Bateman since he was a freshman and he broke out as a sophomore with 1,239 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He turned in a hefty 20.3 yards per catch that year and was looking forward to his junior season. The team originally planned to play in the spring due to COVID-19 but then opted to play in the fall. The season was still cut short after five games with positive test results so Bateman’s fine 2019 performance remains his measurement.
He’s a disciplined route runner that can make highlight clips. The Ravens spent their first-round pick on Bateman trying to upgrade what was the least productive set of wideouts in the NFL last year. Dead last in targets, catches and receiving yards as a group despite spending their first-round pick on Marquise Brown in 2019 as the first receiver selected that year. The Ravens also brought in Sammy Watkins so Bateman’s rookie year is likely to be less productive than desired, but he carries the potential that merits drafting for a fantasy bench.
11. RB Rhamondre Stevenson – Oklahoma (NE 4.15), 6’0″, 246 lbs., 4.64
The ex-Sooner never rushed for more than 665 yards on 101 carries in his two seasons as a starter, but he ran for 2,111 yards at Cerritos College before transferring. Stevenson is a throwback to the bruising days of the past and presents a big load to handle for defenders at 246 pounds. His downfall is his speed (4.64 40-time) and a lack of receiving experience.
Landing with the Patriots makes sense given their penchant for a backfield committee that divides up the different roles. Stevenson should figure into the rotation and there is a chance that either Damien Harris or Sony Michel doesn’t stay on the roster all summer. Stevenson joins that always confusing backfield but he has the opportunity to earn more work on a team that looks to run the ball more often.
12. QB Trevor Lawrence – Clemson (JAC 1.01), 6’6″, 220 lbs., 4.7
The man born to play quarterback finally made his ascension to destiny. Trevor Lawrence was one of the highest-rated quarterback prospects in years and checks every desirable box for the position both physically and mentally. He carries the “generational talent” tag and lands with a rebuilding Jaguars franchise headed up by HC Urban Meyers.
It is exceedingly rare for any rookie quarterback to merit a fantasy start since that says they are in the Top-10 for the position in their first year. And the reality is that the Jaguars have a new scheme to install with new players. Chances are that Lawrence won’t produce enough to consider as a fantasy start. But – his level of talent suggests he might be the first backup fantasy quarterback taken in most leagues.