While one could stretch out the meaning of which veterans are affected by the 2021 NFL Draft in a multitude of ways, the focus here will be directly to playing time and/or utilization potential among conventional fantasy football assets. Sam Darnold, for example, was quite impacted by the draft before it even occurred, although in a different fashion than what we’ll examine below.
Gardner Minshew, Jacksonville Jaguars: The very first pick in the draft was no secret for quite some time, and Minshew’s loss of the starting gig officially is upon him. He could stick around as the backup to Trevor Lawrence. Either way, his name can leave your brain for the time being (barring a trade), but his sick mustache shall live in our hearts forevermore.
Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers: Just how long will it take before we see Trey Lance on the field? If you listen to general manager John Lynch, the answer is up to two full seasons from now. Applying a little bit of common sense suggests that date will get accelerated to, oh, soon. A few reasons: 1) Does anyone believe Garoppolo will stay healthy for 16 games? 2) Lance hasn’t played since 2019, and having him sit out the entire 2021 season — let alone the preposterous idea of including the 2022 season — could irreparably stunt his development. 3) The draft haul traded for the rights to choose him amplify the urge to see what they have sooner than later. Conversely, the offense is ridiculously complicated, so if we see Lance in 2021, don’t bank on it happening in the first six weeks or so, provided Jimmy G. remains healthy.
Andy Dalton, Chicago Bears: Much like with the Garoppolo-Lance situation in the Bay Area, Dalton’s veteran presence probably won’t be enough to keep him in the driver’s seat for long. First-round pick Justin Fields is closer to being NFL-ready than Lance at this given moment, and the Bears’ regime is in a win-now mode to remain employed. Perhaps debuting their prized rookie passer in the short term will extend a measure of leeway from ownership to give them a reasonable chance to develop him before getting the ax. Dalton also isn’t a stranger to injury, and for as serviceable as he may be, no one in the fan base is excited to see the Red Rifle on the field.
“What if” scenarios
Cam Newton, New England Patriots: “What if” Cam suffers another injury, even a relatively minor one, or simply struggles to get back some of his past magic early in the season? It could come down to a scenario in which current No. 2 quarterback Jarrett Stidham is leapfrogged by rookie Mac Jones, but only if Bill Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels are comfortable with his development. In that situation, there’s likely no going back to Newton. Let’s face it, if Stidham had impressed Belichick in his time with the Pats, Jones wouldn’t have been selected….
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings: Kellen Mond was chosen in Round 3, and there’s plenty to like about him being the future starter. He reminds quite a bit of Dak Prescott’s style of play, but what would it take for Cousins to lose his grasp on the job? This one is a stretch, for sure, and mostly because of money. Benching Cousins puts a $31 million cap hit on the bench, and because of the punitive nature of his contract in 2022, he’s the odds-on favorite to start for the next two seasons. Mond would need to set the practice field ablaze all summer and put crazy pressure on Zimmer to force his hand in the event Cousins were to slump during the season. It’s far more likely the veteran is traded after June 1 in 2022 or released with a post-June 1 designation — either scenario saves the team $35 million vs. the cap for that season.
Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers: Drafting running back Najee Harris in Round 1 confirms Snell won’t get an opportunity to be the team’s bell cow. In fact, it relegates him to a reserve whose best chance of seeing the field for substantial work is via an unfortunate injury to his replacement. Snell is a handcuff option for Harris owners, but he is not a change-of-pace, and his receiving “skills” are not going to get him on the field.
Raheem Mostert/Jeff Wilson Jr., San Francisco 49ers: This has to be the muddiest backfield in football. Wilson was given a restricted tender offer, which he has signed, and Mostert is in the final year of his deal. He flashed RB1 potential over the last two seasons, but injuries derailed any chance of sustained production in 2020. Veteran backup Wayne Gallman was signed recently, too, and the Round 3 selection of rookie Trey Sermon turns the entire situation on its head. Sermon is an ideal fit for the system, and he has fresh legs. Gallman is merely insurance, and Wilson contributes on special teams. Mostert brings elite speed, and he’s not as good inside as Sermon. Wilson and Mostert are comparable receivers, so there’s a path to maintaining a role via third-down work. Any which way it likely plays out, Sermon’s addition to the stable is no good for Mostert and Wilson.
James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars: This one made gamers let out a collective groan during the draft when the Jaguars chose Clemson’s star rusher Travis Etienne. Robinson set the all-time record by an undrafted player with his 1,414 offensive yards in 2020, and running back seemed to be one of the few positions the Jaguars wouldn’t address with a high selection after veteran Carlos Hyde was signed ahead of the draft. Now, it appears Etienne will — at a minimum — be a third-down back for Jacksonville. He’s a more talented player all around than the incumbent, but Robinson’s production from last year (albeit a different offense) has to count for something. After catching 49 passes a year ago, Robinson is poised for a major statistical regression if he loses out on the bulk of the third-down action.
“What if” scenarios
Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos: Gordon, 28, has long been overrated in fantasy football. He enters the final year of his contract and could find himself seeing the “1b” work behind rookie Javonte Williams in 2021 — but only if the highly impressive rookie continues his strong play from North Carolina to the pros. Denver still has Royce Freeman on the roster, and backup Mike Boone came to town from Minnesota in hopes of securing a larger role. They’re the biggest losers, since this backfield will be a time share of some sort regardless, and neither will get a legit shot as long as the rookie is competent in the offseason. There’s a real chance Williams wins the primary chores and Gordon is used more on third downs.
Sony Michel, New England Patriots: Rumors already are flying as to whether he will even make it through the summer without being cut. The constantly injured but still talented Michel may be shown the door if rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, a fourth-round choice, impresses during the offseason. Damien Harris likely has a leg up on Michel as the RB1 at this point anyway, and the offense will get back the services of the wrongfully unheralded Brandon Bolden. James White re-signed as the third-down back, and JJ Taylor flashed a hint of ability last season. That said, the more likely scenario seems to be Michel will stick around during 2021 and won’t be back next year following the Pats declining his fifth-year option. As the adage goes, a team never can have too many good running backs.
Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals: Two years after drafting Andy Isabella’s speed in Round 2, the Cardinals opted for more juice in the 2021 second round with Rondale Moore. The diminuative receiver should be a more serious threat to veteran Kirk, mainly because Isabella really hasn’t been worked in enough to matter for fantasy. Kirk is in the final year of his rookie deal and has been inconsistent. There is one factor worth mentioning that could keep both players involved: A.J. Green is made of glass, and who knows how much action he’ll withstand. Such an injury recurrence would make both Kirk and Moore relevant in the upcoming season. For now, it’s safer to give Kirk the benefit of the doubt until we see something of substance from the rook. However, all it may take is a slim opportunity for Moore to overtake the vet.
Jakeem Grant, Miami Dolphins: Grant wasn’t exactly sought after from a fantasy perspective, so this will be short … Jaylen Waddle is infinitely more talented, and being a top-10 selection will lock him into the game plans. Factoring in his history with Tua Tagovailoa as his collegiate quarterback in 2019 only sweetens his chances of making Grant utterly irrelevant.
Keke Coutee, Houston Texans: Coutee has hung around just enough to be more than a dude with a memorable name for those in casual fantasy circles. He was poised to see only mild competition for the starting lineup following the loss of Will Fuller in free agency, or at least until the Texans opted for Michigan’s Nico Collins in Round 3. These players couldn’t be more different in playing style and stature. Collins is a huge target and offers a weapon in the red zone, whereas Coutee is a shifty, undersized slot receiver. Veteran Chris Conley will have a say in the matter, too. Coutee may see more playing time than Collins, though it’s the rookie whose unique offerings to this offense should win out before the year is up.
Allen Lazard, Green Bay Packers: Lazard signed his tender sheet and returns for an attempted rebound campaign after an early-season surgery destroyed his 2020 before it really had a chance. Once again healthy, he’ll face serious competition from rookie Amari Rodgers. Lazard operates at his best over the middle and in the intermediate range of the passing tree — exactly where gamers should expect to see Rodgers deployed. The veteran will need to step up his game this summer to fend off the newly added safety blanket.
Darius Slayton, New York Giants: The addition of former Detroit receiver Kenny Golladay naturally will cut into Slayton’s downfield targets, but he still had a role that would have landed him on rosters by way of a late-round choice. The drafting of Florida’s Kadarius Toney in Round 1 might be the nail in his coffin, though. The incoming rookie is plenty fast (4.39-second 40 time) and can operate on all three levels of the route tree. The sooner he gets up to speed with the offensive system, the quicker Slayton becomes irrelevant.
“What if” scenarios
Sterling Shepard, New York Giants: Shepard should have a consistent role in the offense, unlike Slayton, but his path to losing serious playing time to Toney is an injury. Shepard has suffered several concussions throughout his time in pads, and one more could spell the end of his professional career. This risk would be present regardless of Toney being on the roster, so chalk it up as another avenue for the rookie to see meaningful playing time at a veteran’s expense.
Jamison Crowder, New York Jets: New York is in great shape salary cap-wise, so there may not be any true need to dump Crowder. He counts for $11.352 million against the upcoming cap, which is rather lofty for an injury-prone slot receiver. His release (or trade) would save the team more than $10 million. Rookie second-rounder Elijah Moore profiles similarly and will be the future slot man, but just how soon does this transition happen if the impressive rookie’s maturation is ends up well ahead of schedule? Keep tabs on this one as the offseason heats up.
Sammy Watkins, Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens currently harbor three first-round picks among its receiving corps. Watkins remains one of the softest receivers in the game, and his contributions shouldn’t be taken for granted any given week, because he just cannot remain on the field. In 2021’s draft, Rashod Bateman was chosen in the late first round, and he brings borderline WR1 traits that should upgrade the passing game from Day 1. Watkins’ injury history and lack of dynamic skills could help nudge Bateman into a prominent role, even in base sets.
Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons: Akin to the Jacksonville QB situation, this one is a no-brainer inclusion, too. Hurst played well enough during spurts last year to suggest he is a viable starting tight end in the NFL. He’s no Kyle Pitts, and that safely can be said without any hyperbole or NFL games needed to be played by the rookie. Hurst should move into a reserve gig and play a role as a blocker over receiver. Unless something dramatic happens between now and the heart of fantasy draft season, Hurst belongs on exactly zero fantasy rosters.
“What if” scenarios
Ian Thomas/Dan Arnold, Carolina Panthers: Neither tight end is worth much of anything in fantasy, and there are so many mouths to feed within this offense. With that established, we could see rookie Tommy Tremble work his way closer to or even into the starting lineup as the year progresses. He was hardly utilized at Notre Dame as a receiver, but that’s not to say he cannot catch. Nevertheless, the rookie isn’t worthy of a Year 1 selection in fake football drafts, even though his mere presence detracts from the viability of those ahead of Tremble.