Updated: Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, at 7:40 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 Aug. 31-Sept. 2.
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. Early in camp, Prescott suffered a shoulder strain and missed a few weeks of practice. He is fully expected to play in Week 1.
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.
Dallas invested two draft picks into the offensive line depth. Injuries severely hampered the its 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). 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, Samuel’s crafty ways will be on full display in the intermediate game.
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 in the eighth round, 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 have opted for Stafford in Round 8, on average, making the placement 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. There could be an opening if WR Van Jefferson struggles as the third receiver. Higbee 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. He 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
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 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 performs 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 (foot), and the passing game has the potential to excel down the field with the additions of Kenny Golladay (hamstring), and rookie Kadarius Toney. A second year in Jason Garrett’s system — with an offseason that looks 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 12th overall in PPR remains lofty, but that’s the bar the 24-year-old has set for investment. For the risk-averse, it’s best to let someone else pay the price of admission.
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, yet there’s a noticeable degree of trepidation among gamers (8th-round ADP), between the injury and a perceived unsavory quarterback situation.
Teddy Bridgewater has beaten out Drew Lock for the starting quarterback gig. In 2020, while with Carolina, Bridgewater helped make weekly starters out of three receivers, insinuating the “game manager” label is exaggerated. While Denver may not need to pass as much as Carolina, Sutton should maintain reliable PPR WR2 worth with Bridgewater under center.