The 2021 season kicks off this week, and it’s time to see just how smart (or lucky, whichever) we were in our fantasy drafts. While about half of each preseason feels just the same as always, the other half is wildly interesting and exciting with all these new rookies to incorporate into the league while an equal number of veterans trying to hang onto their well-paying jobs.
A few thoughts heading into Week 1 of 2021.
1.) “Wait a minute – WHAT?” – Having covered the NFL for The Huddle for 25 years now, I’ve spent plenty of time analyzing and predicting players. We all get caught up in the talented rookies. We all hang on the words of some position coach who had a microphone stuck in his face, who then had his answer turned into a misleading soundbite. You have to love Week 1 for being so unpredictable. You have to love Week 1 for the reality check it offers.
At least one player from Week 1 will send everyone running to the waiver wire. I’d argue the best case of this was in 2003 when the Cardinals drafted wideout Bryant Johnson with their No. 1 pick. He only managed one catch for seven yards in Week 1. But their second-round pick of Anquan Boldin turned in 10 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns. The rest was history.
2.) COVID-19 again? – Last year, no one knew quite what to expect or how the NFL would play out. But 256 games later, they were all played. Losing individual players for indeterminate amounts of time was troubling. Especially when speculation went contrary to reality when a player was, or was not, taken off the COVID-19 list right before the game.
The NFL rules are more defined this year, and they favor teams/players that are vaccinated. But even vaccinated players can catch and carry, and while there is an official injury report, it doesn’t cover COVID-19. So, the biggest fear of the season is another weekly guessing game when a player may come off the list. Own backups!
3.) The first 17-week season – Maybe it is just the precursor to the 18-week season since 17 is a pretty odd number to settle on. And adding the one additional week is “only” 6% more games. But it will rewrite some records, if only eventually. There will be another four or five running backs and wideouts that crest 1,000 yards on the season. That’s unless the additional game leads teams to rest players any more than they already do.
Overall, it is just one little change. You won’t notice. That’s the way that the world likes to peddle the hard-to-sell big things.
4.) Adding to the weirdness – The NFL is a passing league. And the longest careers usually fall to quarterbacks and wide receivers. Last year was the highest-scoring season in history, thanks to the passing. And yet, 14 quarterbacks are different from the one that opened the 2020 season for their team. It’ll be 15 whenever Trey Lance replaces Jimmy Garoppolo. And wideouts? Another 15 teams feature a different starting pair from Week 1 last year.
Running backs are always hurt, have the shortest career spans, and are replaceable parts with minor value in the NFL draft. Then why is it that only six teams will not use their starter from 2020? And that would have been only four were it not for losing Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins this summer. Are we sure they are interchangeable?
5.) Must-watch running backs – Week 1 is when we start to answer how backfields are going to split carries. That can and often will change as the season progresses. But this is where roles are truly earned, not in training camp or even preseason games. Make sure you check out these backfields for these player performances:
NYJ at CAR – Michael Carter / Tevin Coleman / Ty Johnson
ARI at TEN – Chase Edmonds / James Conner
SF at DET – Raheem Mostert / Trey Sermon
DEN at NYG – Melvin Gordon / Javonte Williams
MIA at NE – Damien Harris / James White / Rhamondre Stevenson
BAL at LVR – Josh Jacobs / Kenyan Drake
These are all situations that may create surprising fantasy value. Each could remain a committee, but Week 1 is when workloads start to be earned.
6.) I got a feeling – The Ravens haven’t even played a game so far, and their backfield is scrambling after the top three players were lost for the season before it ever started. The Rams’ Cam Akers was lost to an Achilles tendon injury, so everyone jumped on Xavier Jones. But then he tore his Achilles and is also gone.
This could be a bad year for running backs. Most teams already use a committee and the position has already had a profound impact on fantasy rosters. Over-the-hill retreads like Le’Veon Bell, DeVonta Freeman, and, I’d guess eventually, Adrian Peterson will find homes. The reality is that backfields could constantly shift for many teams, so expect to cruise the waiver wire for value every week.
For those who are in leagues with salary caps on their free agent bidding, realize that saving cash for running backs will be important. But wide receivers are by far the biggest bargains in Week 1 and 2 when we finally see how teams will use the position. Running backs come and go every week, but wide receivers offer nearly all their waiver wire fantasy value in the initial weeks.
This will not be a “set it, and forget it” year for lineups. Not with injuries and COVID-19.