2021 is almost in the books. All but a few fantasy championships have been won and we’re wrapping up a remarkable – and challenging – season. I’ve often said that season-to-season the same thing happens, it just happens to different names. The guesswork is in figuring out which names are new and which names are gone.
But, 2021 is a very memorable season. Here’s the six items that most mark the year.
1.) COVID-19 List – We thought last year was something. We were wrong. To the best I can gather, there have been 867 players on the list including 27 who landed there twice. The rules kept changing as the virus defections grew. We never missed a game, but several were shoved off to the next week and we got to see what a Tuesday NFL game looked like. COVID-19 cast a shadow on every team. A player could go onto the list at any time, maybe they were vaccinated, maybe they were not. There was testing positive, false positives and “close contact.” When they returned, would they be 100% or take some time to get back into shape again. A full season worth should give the NFL all the data they need to make 2022 a smoother, more transparent process. We hoped 2020 would come and go and we would be back to normal. Now it appears we just have a new normal.
2.) Cordarrelle Patterson – I’ve written about the NFL for The Huddle for 25 years. There are always surprises and every season tends to produce one or two “Cinderella’s” that experience a surprising career year. It would be hard to find any Cinderella bigger than Patterson. The 30-year-old journeyman played for five teams. He was a returner, a receiver, and eventually an occasional running back. Patterson cooled over the previous four games but was the best weapon for the Falcons through Week 12. He turned in five games with 100 combined yards and totaled 1,154 yards and 11 touchdowns through Week 17. Not many players have a breakout season at the age of 30.
3.) Derrick Henry – The Titans bruiser spent his 2019 and 2020 seasons as a human battering ram. Including the playoffs, he handled over 410 touches for around 2,190 total yards for those seasons. That was a historic workload and I wrote “The problem with Derrick Henry” in the summer. He started his third season with an insane workload. His pace of the eight games he played would have ended with 438 carries for 1,874 yards plus 36 carries for 308 yards in the regular season, plus whatever he does in the playoffs. But he finally broke down in Week 8. He turns 28 next year, and he already has a lot of wear on the tires.
4.) Deebo Samuel – His rookie year in 2019 showed some promise with 57 catches for 802 yards and three scores that included three 100- yard games but 11 with fewer than 50 yards. He followed that up with just 33 catches for 391 yards and one score in 2020 when he missed nine games with various ailments. Brandon Aiyuk was the new Big Deal and Samuel was easy to dismiss. But Samuel posted 9-189 in Week 1 and never looked back. He was a receiver, he was a running back. He was a deep fantasy draft pick that ended up with 1,310 receiving yards, 320 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Both he and Cordarrelle Patterson are redefining wide receivers to a hybrid that proved highly effective.
5.) Cooper Kupp – Okay. So maybe swapping Jared Goff for Matt Stafford really was worth two first-round picks. Cooper Kupp was always good in his first four seasons and he ended the last two years with stat lines of 94-1161-10 and 92-974-3. He tore an ACL in 2018 and suffered knee and toe injuries for the last two years. But adding Matt Stafford produced nothing short of magic. He’s within striking distance of the all-time record for receptions and caught at least nine passes in nine different games. He had ten 100-yard performances. He was very well represented in fantasy championships this year.
6. Ja’Marr Chase – The LSU product only played as a starter for one year, glorious as it was (84-1780-20) and then opted out of 2020 on a COVID-19 ticket. Being the first wideout drafted showed how impressive he had been in 2019. He spent the summer dropping passes while claiming the lack of a white stripe on an NFL ball made it harder to catch. And then he caught five passes for 101 yards in Week 1 and never looked back. His 266 yards last week was a career-best, but he already gained 201 yards on eight catches in Week 7. He has the look of a stud wideout for many years to come.
One extra point:
7.) Kyle Pitts – He was the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history, so his expectations were sky high. But then Calvin Ridley took the year off and defenses all turned to look at Pitts as the most dangerous weapon. He only scored once so his rookie season seems like a disappointment, but he could break the NFL record for rookie tight end yardage if he gained 58 yards on Sunday. He’s already only the second rookie tight end to break 1,000 yards. He wasn’t quite the difference-maker his drafters wanted, but he was still one of the most productive rookie tight ends playing in a bad offense.
Honorable mentions – Jonathan Taylor, Antonio Brown, Najee Harris