2021 Fantasy Football Rankings: Where Do The Rookies Fit?
Welcome to my first set of 2021 Fantasy Football Rankings! The 2021 NFL season figures to be one like no other. With a seventeenth game added to the schedule, there should be more total scoring than ever before. It remains to be seen how that added scoring will be allocated. We could see coaches involve more players in their offensive schemes with the hopes of keeping them fresh. Or we could see even more production from the elite performers at each position. Odds are that it will probably be a little bit of both, depending on each team’s philosophy. Regardless, there is plenty to dive into now that the 2021 NFL Draft has concluded and rookie camps are underway. Below are my thoughts on a few of the stories to watch around the league, followed by my current rankings.
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News and Notes
Dak is Back!
Dak Prescott is on the mend after suffering a devastating ankle injury during Week 5 of the 2020 season. Coach Mike McCarthy said recently that Prescott is on track to participate in training camp. Before the injury, Prescott was on a record pace for production. In four full games, he threw for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns. He also added three scores on the ground. The inclination may be to extrapolate those numbers over a full season, but I believe that is expecting too much. There is no guarantee that Prescott will be 100 percent come Week 1. Even if he is, those numbers will be difficult to duplicate.
The Cowboys were comically bad on defense for much of the 2020 season. In the four full games Prescott played, Dallas allowed 93 first-half points. Game script necessitated that Prescott air it out to wipe away large deficits. Dallas dedicated much of the offseason to revamp their defense. Their first six selections in this year’s draft were on the defensive side of the ball. They also signed several free-agent defenders, including Keanu Neal. Provided they can at least field a competent defense, Prescott will not be asked to do as much as he was last season. He should still be a consistent fantasy starter. I just do not consider him a potential top-three fantasy quarterback currently.
What to Do with Watson?
The ongoing legal situation involving Deshaun Watson is a very serious one. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. But I believe that Watson is looking at a sizable suspension from the NFL. I would not advise drafting him under the assumption that he plays 17 games in 2021. Because of his considerable weekly upside, I am fine with drafting him as a QB2. Keep in mind, however, that bench spots are often hard to “reserve” in fantasy football. You may draft Watson with the intention of hiding him on your bench, only to need that roster spot by Week 3 or 4. I have him listed as my QB19 in my fantasy football rankings, but that is obviously subject to change. Depending on what the league decides, I may move him up a dozen spots or remove him from my rankings completely.
Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson
It is not often that a running back goes from posting a top-five fantasy finish in his rookie year to being a borderline starter in his sophomore season. But that appears to be the case with James Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jacksonville signed Carlos Hyde in free agency and added dynamic dual-threat Travis Etienne in this year’s draft. I cannot say with certainty how exactly this situation will shake out. But it is safe to say that the days of Robinson monopolizing snaps and touches in Jacksonville’s backfield are gone. Robinson should still be effective in a timeshare, but he is no longer an RB1 for fantasy purposes. I still have Robinson slightly ahead of Etienne in standard scoring but prefer Etienne in PPR formats. Etienne is working as a receiver in rookie camp, which seems to indicate he would be the preferred passing-down back.
In addition to Etienne, there will be plenty of other rookies who figure to make a fantasy impact this season. The first six selections in the 2021 NFL Draft were players who should be relevant in fantasy for years to come. Here are my thoughts on a few of these players as they relate to my 2021 fantasy football rankings.
Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson will start for their respective NFL franchises from Day One. Lawrence is far better suited for fantasy success. I would not deem him an every-week starter quite yet, but the potential is there. Wilson could be an option in SuperFlex formats, but I do not expect him to crack the top 25 fantasy quarterbacks as a rookie. Yes, I am the crazy person who has Jimmy Garoppolo ranked ahead of Trey Lance for the 2021 season. I think it will take a little time for the rookie to upend the veteran. In Best Ball formats, I do prefer Lance, because I think he has a much higher ceiling. But I am not as bullish on him opening the year as the 49ers quarterback as many seem to be.
I do expect Justin Fields to start for the Bears over Andy Dalton. Fields is an exceptional athlete who many pundits believe is no worse than the second-best quarterback in this year’s class. If he can indeed usurp the Red Rifle for the Bears’ starting gig, Fields has tremendous upside. I have him behind Lawrence, but he is still inside my top 20. Mac Jones appears to be New England’s quarterback of the future. However, I still expect Cam Newton to open the year as the team’s starter. Newton ran for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, but he was an inconsistent passer. In an era where teams are slinging it all over the field, Newton averaged just 177 passing yards per game last season. It is hard to have much faith in either Patriots quarterback in redraft leagues.
Najee Harris figures to battle Etienne for top honors among rookie running backs this season. The former Alabama star was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in this year’s draft. Harris is the best bet among rookies to immediately step into the lion’s share of backfield touches. The Steelers let incumbent James Conner walk via free agency, so there are plenty of touches there for the taking. Harris has a good chance to exceed 15 touches per game right away. He is not the fastest runner, but he is strong and should be able to withstand the rigors of pounding the rock in the NFL. Volume is king in fantasy football, so Harris should have plenty of value. I expect him to be an RB2 in all formats, and he should have a relatively safe weekly floor.
There are some other names to keep an eye on outside of Harris and Etienne at the running back position. Javonte Williams could very well lead Denver’s backfield when all is said and done this year. Williams is elusive and Melvin Gordon is 28 years old and has averaged fewer than four yards per carry in four of his six NFL seasons. Granted, one of the two outlier seasons was in 2020, his first with the Broncos. But Williams could find his way onto the field more than most rookie running backs. Fellow Tar Heel Michael Carter finds himself in a New York Jets backfield that is ripe for the picking. The Jets currently have Tevin Coleman, LaMical Perine, and Ty Johnson, but none appear to be the long-term solution at the position. Carter’s size may limit his upside, but he should produce solid per-touch numbers.
Trey Sermon enters the league in arguably the most fantasy-friendly backfield in the NFL in San Francisco. He will have to navigate his way through the likes of Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, and Wayne Gallman. But Sermon is another back who should perform well on a per-touch basis. Mostert and Wilson have not exactly been the pillars of health throughout their careers, either. If Sermon can somehow manage to move his way up the depth chart, he could be a late-round steal in drafts. I currently have Chuba Hubbard much higher in my fantasy football rankings than most seem to. Of course, Hubbard faces a rather large obstacle to significant playing time in the person of Christian McCaffrey. But even CMC is not invincible, as last season proved. Hubbard makes for a great late-round dart throw in redraft leagues.
Ja’Marr Chase should be a fantasy standout right away after being reunited with Joe Burrow in Cincinnati. He will have to fight for looks with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, but Chase is simply too talented to ignore. I have Chase as a WR3 at the moment, but he could vault his way even higher with relative quickness. I may be a bit too low on Devonta Smith. The Heisman Trophy winner figures to have less competition in Philadelphia than Chase does, for example. I believe the concerns about his size are baked into his current draft price, so I would not be opposed to grabbing him ahead of his current ADP. Fellow Crimson Tide alum Jaylen Waddle should be Miami’s starting slot receiver right away. The volume may not be elite, but his upside certainly is.
I am quite high on Rashad Bateman, now of the Baltimore Ravens. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher is an exceptional route runner who can win both inside and outside. If the Ravens plan on expanding their passing attack, Bateman could be the driving force behind that shift in philosophy. Nico Collins is a guy I like a lot late in drafts, particularly in Best Ball leagues. He could step into Houston’s number-two receiver role right away following the departure of Will Fuller. The Deshaun Watson saga could have a major impact on Collins, but if he does play at some point this year, Collins should benefit greatly. I love Elijah Moore’s talent, but I am less in love with him presumably playing behind Jamison Crowder in the slot. If the Jets decide to move on from Crowder, I will move Moore up in my fantasy football rankings.
With all due respect to the likes of Pat Freiermuth, Tommy Tremble, or Hunter Long, Kyle Pitts is the only tight end worth mentioning here. Pitts should be a fantasy starter right out of the gate. The former Florida Gator has gifts that others simply do not. He combines a 99th percentile 40-yard dash time with a 98th percentile speed score and wingspan. It is why he was the highest tight end ever selected in the NFL Draft. Oh yeah, and he is still just 20 years old. With Matt Ryan at the helm, and with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley commanding attention on the outside, Pitts should be able to have his way with opposing safeties and linebackers who try to defend him. I have him as a top-10 fantasy tight end in all formats, and he is a top-five Dynasty pick.
2021 Fantasy Football Rankings
ADP – Average Draft Position
Also check out Meng Song’s SuperFlex Rookie Rankings for 2021 Fantasy Football!
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