Updated: Sunday, July 25, 2021, at 2:14 p.m. EDT
Every season, several proven players regress and even fall off of the fantasy football map due to injury, demotion, a poor system fit, or another unforeseen calamity. Players of the fake game understandably tend to be of the, “What has he done for me lately?” mindset and may underrate some proven options coming off a bad year.
Heading into the 2021 season, let’s explore which players are most likely to bounce back from a down year in 2020. Recognize there is considerable overlap with our risk-reward players list.
Note: All ADP figures are courtesy of FantasyFootballCalculator.com and use PPR scoring, unless noted otherwise. The figures are based on drafts from July 22-25.
Fantasy football players on the rebound for 2021
QB Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
A gruesome ankle injury abruptly ended what was pacing as a surefire MVP season in 2020. It’s easy to be uneasy about drafting Prescott after such a potentially catastrophic career setback, so value of his placement is a major factor in expectations. Of quarterbacks to play at least 15 games a season ago, just Josh Allen averaged more than 29 fantasy points, and Prescott was the only to average more than that with at least four games started — finishing with a ridiculous 31.2 per contest over fewer than five full appearances. Expecting such a result again is overly optimistic. Yet, he still has the potential to average at least 28 points, presuming the positive results of his recovery being on track holds up throughout the season. As of late May, Prescott declared himself ready to play in an NFL game, and his head coach also gave the dynamic quarterback a vote of confidence.
Dallas invested two draft picks into the offensive line depth to help cover for injuries, which severely hampered the line’s quality of play last year. The receiving corps is as strong as any in the NFL, and tight end Blake Jarwin is recovering nicely from knee reconstruction. It could take a game or two for Prescott to shake off the rust, but he’s poised to return to being a top-five fantasy passer.
RB Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
Ekeler greatly overachieved in his monstrous 2019 season. It would be illogical to expect his 2021 returns to mirror or exceed those stats (132-557-3 rushing, 92-933-8 receiving). That season was his only full slate played in four years. In 10 games last year, he managed a respectable 16.5 PPR points per game (19.6 in 2019), and something in that territory should be the aim for 2021. He still finished 13th in points per game last year, so fringe RB1 is an appropriate expectation for his ceiling.
From the plus side, Ekeler averaged more yards per carry rushing than the year before, and on more attempts in fewer games, which is encouraging. The 5.4 catches per contest is just barely down from his 5.7 per-game pace in 2019. The Bolts upgraded the offensive line and didn’t do much of anything serious to address the backfield. Larry Rountree III was chosen in Round 6, and the underwhelming duo of Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley return to battle for a share of the workload. New OC Joe Lombardi comes from the Sean Payton tree and presumably will continue the heavy utilization of Ekeler’s position in the passing game. Durability remains a concern for the fifth-year back, so be sure to build adequate depth.
WR Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers
The do-all receiver’s aggressive style of play opens the door for increased injury risk, and that’s just part of the deal when drafting Samuel. He should thoroughly thrive if Jimmy Garoppolo starts all 17 games (that’s still weird to write), and if the offense ultimately turns to 2021 No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance, whose athletic traits offer hope for keeping plays alive and putting an emphasis on play-action passing. Even though Lance didn’t even play college ball last year, general manager John Lynch said he’s comfortable with their new franchise passer learning for a year or more.
The emergence of 2020 rookie Brandon Aiyuk should run interference for Samuel from a defensive-attention perspective. The backfield’s potential for dominance also helps with play fakes. The beauty of investing in Samuel is the cost isn’t too prohibitive at an ADP of 8:04, and he touches the ball in so many ways — screens, jet sweeps, shovel traps, and virtually all of the traditional receiver routes.
QB Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams
The personal enthusiasm of getting his way, an improved cast of weapons, an upgraded offensive line, a brilliant system … plenty to like about Stafford after his trade to the Rams. There’s a wealth of talent around him, and the backfield is stable, too, which provides protection from defensive dishonesty around the line.
The veteran has all of the tools to thrive, and it was just two years ago when Stafford was on pace for 4,998 yards, 38 TDs and 10 picks thrown over the first half of the season before a back injury cost him the remainder of the campaign. He stayed upright for 16 contests a year ago and deserves the benefit of the doubt. Gamers in early drafts have opted for Stafford as a late seventh-round choice, and the placement is fair for trusting him as a low-end QB1 with midrange upside.
TE Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
The addition of Stafford at quarterback dramatically upgrades the position, and Higbee no longer has tight end Gerald Everett to steal looks. While the receiver position is deep and will account for the vast majority of the targets, Higbee still benefits in the red zone. He played in 15 games each of the past two years, with significantly different results. Last year, recording 25 fewer passes as the entire passing attack took a step backward. Higbee saw his average per reception increase by more than a yard, and he scored five touchdowns vs. only three the year before.
His 2019 value was solidly dependent upon his volume, but last year showed he is capable of contributing with more trips to the end zone. Expect much of the latter in 2021, although with more consistency overall. Three of his five scores came in Week 2, but the other two came over the final four weeks of fantasy action after gamers mostly had given up on him. Higbee has better worth in non-PPR scoring, and he’ll be an sound asset at a volatile position in best-ball formats.
RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
This one is in the “lukewarm” column. Barkley tore an ACL in Week 2 last season, but the team will take its sweet time in getting him back onto the field. The hesitancy in promoting a full rebound for Barkley also stems from serious concerns over Daniel Jones’ maturation. In the event the quarterback struggles again, defenders will crowd the line of scrimmage, and even the dual-threat Barkley won’t be able to find much room to roam. However, if Jones more like the promising rookie we saw in 2019, the former Penn State running back will be in line for a top-10 showing, even if his start to the season begins a slow note.
New York added a strong blocker in tight end Kyle Rudolph, and the passing game has the potential to excel down the field with the additions of Kenny Golladay and rookie Kadarius Toney. Offensive tackle Nate Solder returns after opting out last season if for nothing worse than veteran depth. A second year in Jason Garrett’s system — with an offseason that will look much more like a traditional one — can’t hurt the overall chemistry of the offense. It all hinges on two things: Jones’ development and, of course, Barkley staying on the field. His ADP of sixth overall in PPR is slightly presumptuous, but that’s the bar the 24-year-old has set for investment.
WR Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos
A torn ACL cut short Sutton’s 2020 season short to just one appearances as he attempted to capitalize on a promising sophomore campaign. The Southern Methodist product was highly touted across the fantasy world heading into last year’s draft season, and there’s a noticeable degree of trepidation among gamers as of this writing. The injury shouldn’t be as much of a fear for his odds of bouncing back as what is going on at quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater was brought in to battle Drew Lock for the starting gig, but one has to expect the brass wants Lock’s superior athletic skills to win out, and he’ll be given every chance to secure the job. Last year, while he struggled in his own right, there is adequate blame to be placed on the situation at receiver and a suspect offensive line. Lock’s maturation is the key here for Sutton’s stats to potentially reach elite territory, although he should maintain reliable WR2 worth if Bridgewater is under center. Now, if a certain No. 12-wearing MVP get his way, Sutton will be dynamite.