The NFL draft is, in my opinion, the most entertaining event of the year. Yes, even over the Super Bowl! Being able to see so many people see their dreams become reality is so marvelous, especially with the league continuing to be gifted with more and more talented players ready to be impact rookies.
This year is no different. With the nine of the first 111 picks of the draft being offensive players, there are a lot of marquee collegiate players that will be tasked with being key contributors for their new teams. Spotlighting these players will be the focus of today’s article. However, with there being so many players to choose from, let’s condense our search: we’ll look at players who have a clear path to contribute. Going position by position, let us take a look at the players who have a clear path to being impact rookies for fantasy this season.
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Impact Rookies for 2021 Fantasy Football
Stats via Pro Football Focus. ADP (average draft position) via NFC.com (Last 30 Days)
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: 117, QB14)
Arguably the most hyped-up quarterback since Andrew Luck, expectations will be enormously high for Lawrence to be an immediate contributor for the Jaguars. The Clemson product earned a PFF grade over 90 in all three years of his college career and is the perfect combination between strong production and high-end scouting reports. In other words, there is very little to suggest anything other than a strong NFL career.
The Jaguars should pass the ball often just by virtue of playing behind in games; there’s a reason they had the #1 pick to draft him, after all. That alone should give Lawrence enough of a boost in terms of volume statistics. However, it isn’t as though his supporting cast is barren of talent. In the receiving trio of DJ Chark, Laviska Shenault, and Marvin Jones, he has three quality receivers to distribute the football to as he pleases, and he’ll also benefit from playing in a weaker division, based on Vegas win totals.
It isn’t as though Lawrence is a pocket passer either. He’s generally seen as a plus athlete, while he was utilized both in the designed running game and as a scrambler in college. Even if he takes his lumps adjusting to the NFL, the combination of a high amount of pass attempts and enough rushing ability should be enough to let him serve as a high-end QB2 for your team in 12-team formats. That is exactly the range where you can draft him right now, making him an ideal second quarterback for Superflex rosters
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: 16, RB12)
With an increased focus being based on positional value and surplus value provided by rookie players, it is becoming much rarer to see a running back taken in the first round. Thus, when an organization selects one there, it clearly says a lot about how they feel about the player. This brings us to Najee Harris.
The Alabama Crimson Tide offense was quite dangerous last year with five first-round picks, three of whom we’ll cover in this piece. With 108.2 rushing yards/game, 5.9 yards/attempt, and 24.9 receiving yards/game, Harris certainly did his part. Yes, he played behind a strong offensive line, but he also earned PFF rushing grades over 88 in three consecutive seasons. Considering that PFF rushing grade correlates very well from college to pro, this is very encouraging; he was able to create yardage on his own as well.
Harris’ offensive line is projected to perform well on paper, but it may not matter. He’s positioned to be a true three-down running back this season, with 300+ touches very likely to be on the table for him. If so, few running backs will be able to match that opportunity. Thus, even if his rushing efficiency numbers are poor, his overall volume totals will be more than sufficient. Add in what he’ll provide as a receiver, which could be notable if the Steelers offense wants to again adopt a low-average depth of target style of play. Despite being a rookie, I’d actually argue he has one of the highest floors of any running back in the NFL. In the second round, he’s an ideal target.
Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: 47, RB21)
Harris wasn’t the only running back taken in the first round. In fact, just one pick after Harris, Travis Etienne came off the board, going 25th overall to the Jaguars to reunite with Lawrence, his college teammate. Thus, there has to be a lot of intrigue heading into his rookie season.
At Clemson, a case can be made Etienne was a better runner of the football than Harris, averaging 4.53 yards after contact per carry with elite explosiveness (51.9% breakaway). As a junior, he averaged 8.3 yards/attempt and 5.35 yards after contact/attempt, a season few running backs can match. Unfortunately, his production regression as a senior, but it wasn’t all for naught; he showcased his receiving abilities with 512 receiving yards, 2.45 yards/route run, and a 90.5 PFF receiving grade.
A lot of the issues with Harris are also present with Etienne with regards to the offensive line, and some fear he may split time with James Robinson and Carlos Hyde. Let us read the room, though. Etienne is a first-round pick, while Robinson was an undrafted free agent brought in by a previous regime and Hyde was signed to a $6 million contract. I’m always a major fan of letting the money do the talk when it comes to deciphering who wins competitions like this, and that would pretty clearly align in favor of Etienne. If so, we’re looking at a dynamic, big-play runner with demonstrated prowess as a receiver. Minor workload questions may keep him from being drafted as a top-20 running back, but there is a chance he eats up enough receptions and produces enough big plays to finish much higher. Consider him a terrific option as a low-end RB2 or elite FLEX option, with the potential to be much more than that.
Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos (ADP: 53, RB22)
The 2021 running back class was clearly a three-player race, with all of them getting recognition as the potential best option in the class. Generally, you’d like for a rookie running back to have first-round draft capital attached to them. However, if an exception were to be made, I’d recommend doing so for Javonte Williams.
On a per snap basis, I believe Williams is the best rookie running back of the 2021 class. As a junior at North Carolina, he earned a 95.9 PFF rushing grade. Let that sink in for a moment. As his numbers (4.59 yards after contact/attempt), he’s a menace after contact, is explosive enough, and is exactly what you’re looking for when it comes to a running back winning in the stable areas of play. Although not utilized extensively as a receiver, he did average more yards/route run (1.64) than Harris, though you’re buying into his abilities for what he brings to the table as a runner.
In recent years, Nick Chubb, Jonathan Taylor, and Derrick Henry have overachieved their expected fantasy output by being, in simple terms, really good runners of the football; their ability to provide extensive yardage after contact leads to them being extremely efficient, enough so to compensate for their lack of receiving ability. In Denver, Williams will likely split time with Melvin Gordon, but the veteran running back is in his final year under contract and is coming off of a disappointing season. As the season progresses, I’d expect the team to continue to put more and more on Williams’ plate, to the point where he eventually phases Gordon out. Since this will be a season-long process, entrusting Williams as a starting running back right away in 12-team drafts could be risky. However, by the end of the year, that could pay off tremendously. He might not have the guaranteed workload and floor that Harris or even Etienne have, but he’s right up there with them if he can win the job thoroughly from Gordon. If not, he still holds similar value to Etienne as a high-end FLEX from the get-go.
Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP: 56, WR24)
Back to the players selected at the top of the first round! There was a lot of debate whether the Bengals would select star receiver Ja’Marr Chase or offensive tackle Penei Sewell. In the end, they opted to reunite quarterback Joe Burrow with his college teammate in Chase. With Chase in the fold, the Bengals offense suddenly gets a whole lot scarier.
By the looks of it, Chase was one of the better receiver prospects of recent memory. As a sophomore at LSU in 2019, he earned a 91.9 PFF receiving grade, averaging 3.93 yards/route run. Meanwhile, his success working down the field was absurd. On throws 20+ yards downs the field, he averaged 26 yards/route run, in addition to a 73.1% completion rate. Add in his productiveness after the catch (8 YAC/REC), and he truly is an all-around weapon.
Although Chase will be joining an offense that already features receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, there is a lot working in his favor. For starters, his continuity with Burrow may give him an edge when it comes to leading the team in target shares. Meanwhile, considering the team ranked first in pass attempts/game when Burrow was under center last season, there are plenty of targets to go around. Remember, AJ Green had 104 targets last season. Even if Chase just took those targets, he’d be in great shape given the likelihood he looks are deeper depths on his targets, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t lead the team in targets. He’s certainly someone to target at around his ADP- the fifth-round in 12-team drafts.
DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: 81, WR35)
Chase had a dominant season, but only one receiver in this draft has a Heisman Trophy attached to their name. That would be DeVonta Smith, whom the Eagles traded up for to select with the 10th overall pick. As the organization embarks on their rebuild, expectations will be high for him to be a major piece of it.
To his credit, Smith would appear to be well-qualified to do just that. In his Heisman-winning senior year, he averaged around 155 receiving yards a game, led all of college football with 4.39 yards/route run, and earned a 95.6 PFF receiving grade. Even though he didn’t have as vertical of a route tree as Chase, he made up for it with production after the catch (career 8.8 YAC/REC), while his separation ability is cited as being elite. He might not be the strongest framed (6’1″, 175 pounds) player, but his route-running skills and prowess after the catch should allow him to thrive as the type of receiver who commands a high target share; this is perfect for PPR leagues.
That is exactly what he’ll have to do in Philadelphia. Outside of tight end Dallas Goedert, there aren’t many other players competing for targets with Smith. I do worry about the quality of his targets with Jalen Hurts under center, especially after what we saw with former Crimson Tide teammate Jerry Jeudy last season; there might not be a lot of touchdown opportunities as well for an offense that isn’t expected to score a lot of points. That said, he should certainly push for 100 receptions, and simply may be too talented to push too far down the board. There are legitimate concerns that push him to be more of a WR3 than a top-two option, yet it is easy to understand the optimism surrounding his profile.
Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 113, WR48)
Believe it or not, but Smith wasn’t even the highest-drafted receiver on his own team last year. Instead, that honor would go to Jaylen Waddle. By selecting him with the sixth overall pick, the Dolphins not only selected Waddle over Smith, but also traded a future first-round pick to move up to do so. Regardless of the trade-up, I do believe they’re onto something by making him the highest-drafted Alabama receiver.
Waddle only ran 560 routes throughout his three-year college career, but he was incredibly efficient when on the field. His career 3.57 yards/route run is higher than Smith’s, while he was just as productive (4.38 yards/route run) as Smith before going down with an ankle injury last season. In fascinating fashion, he also has experience working multiple target depths; in 2018 and 2020, his average depth of target was 11.7, but in 2019, that average dropped to 5.9. What does this mean? It just speaks to his playmaking abilities. Whether it is stretching the field vertically or making plays after the catch (career 9.8 YAC/REC) in the short passing game, he is well adept to contribute in a multitude of ways, making him a fit for practically any offense.
Will it work in Miami, though? Paired with former college teammate Tua Tagovailoa, it is likely he sees a lot of time in the slot as a weapon after the catch. Although he’ll compete for targets with Will Fuller V and DeVante Parker, Waddle would appear to be the best fit for Tagovailoa, who preferred to throw to shallower target depths last season. Either way, there are multiple pathways to success; a big-play, low volume receiver, or a high-reception slot weapon (a la Sterling Shepard). While I’d rank him third amongst the rookie receivers in terms of immediate fantasy value, his current ADP makes him the best value in the group. Especially in dynasty, I’d be very intrigued by his profile if he continues to be slightly overlooked.
Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: 54, TE4)
By being taken with the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, Trevor Lawrence was anointed as the most-valuable prospect. However, it’s hard to side with anyone other than Kyle Pitts as the most talented player in the draft. After being selected with the fourth overall pick by the Falcons, he now holds the honor of being the highest-drafted tight end of all time. As they say, with that honor comes great responsibility!
Generally, it isn’t a good idea to take a player at a lowly-paid position so high in the draft, yet it’s hard to believe that Pitts isn’t an exception to the rule. As a junior, he earned a 96.1 PFF grade, averaged 3.26 yards/route run, and worked a vertical route tree (13.8 aDOT). From the tight end position, one can make the case his season was more impressive than Smith’s. Remember, he was just 20-years-old, which is two years younger than Smith! Considering he was lined up out wide of 21.2% of his snaps and was utilized so much down the field, he’s essentially a wide receiver with the ability to play tight end- a scary combination.
That said, Pitts might be the riskiest player to bet on amongst this group. His ADP means you’ll need to sacrifice a fifth-round pick to get him, so he’ll need to be a top-five player at his position immediately to match it. With more proven players such as TJ Hockenson and Mark Andrews being selected after him, I’d probably play it safer with one of them. It is easy to buy into Pitts’ upside, but it generally takes at least a year before tight ends adjust to the NFL level. Meanwhile, since he’s such a rare player that will require creativity to use properly, it may take some time for new head coach Arthur Smith to mold an offensive with a lot of moving parts. Pitts may be a top-five tight end come playoff time, yet he could hit his low range of outcomes early on, preventing you from making the playoffs. How you view him depends on how you value “floor” versus “ceiling”, though I fully expect him to establish himself eventually as one of the top tight ends in the NFL. Dynasty owners, rejoice!
In addition to these players, there are more than could be impact rookies.
Quarterbacks Justin Fields and Trey Lance each are dual-threat quarterbacks that could easily be top-10 finishers at their position with enough playing time and would rank ahead of Lawrence for me if they were to somehow win the starting job. Zach Wilson, meanwhile, will be the starting quarterback for the Jets, but likely doesn’t provide enough as a runner to bet on a rookie quarterback.
Running backs Trey Sermon (49ers) and Michael Carter (Jets) are each mid-round picks with a lot of elusiveness and the potential to make a major impact. Sermon will be featured in one of the league’s most dynamic rushing attacks, meaning his efficiency will be off the charts, while Carter may win the lead running back role for the Jets. Furthermore, his new teammate, Elijah Moore, could be an impact rookie out of the second round. He was ultra-productive as a junior at Ole Miss, and appears to be trending well based on training-camp reports. If all goes well, I could see him ending as the second-best receiver in this class and with 100+ receptions out of the slot. Also keep an eye on first-round rookie Rashod Bateman, who produced at a high level in college, but goes to an unfavorable offense for receiver production in Baltimore.
Generally, investing in rookies, especially outside of running back, is a risky proposition. If drafted appropriately, though, these eight players are the best bets to be impact rookies. Expect Harris and Chase to be immediate starters for the fantasy teams that draft them, while the rest could all end up there as well; the extra risk attached with them means that you shouldn’t reach TOO far to take them. It is always exciting to see so much talent enter the league, and who knows, anyone could end up as the most impactful player! Remember, undrafted free agent James Robinson finished as the RB7 last year! Being able to make quick adjustments as these rookies first take the field, while also not overreacting too quickly, can be the difference between winning and losing your league. It is the delicate balance we are constantly battling!
For more Rankings and Analysis please check out our full 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
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