2021 NFL Dynasty Rookie Rankings

Recently, we have looked at the NFL Draft from a team perspective. Specifically, we examined how teams fared in allocating their resources properly.

However, NFL general managers aren’t the only ones who have to make tough decisions right now! For owners of dynasty fantasy football teams, this time of year is a critical spot for team building: rookie drafts! Yes, we can rank players prior to the draft, but since fantasy football is so much about opportunity and volume, the stock of each player is under so much flux based on their landing spot. Now, however, we are in perfect position to cement our rookie draft boards!

Although my projection model looks at what rookies will do this season, there is so much uncertainty with projecting their role for this year and beyond, and with that in mind, I believe it’s best to rank them with opinions formulated from the model. In other words, the model projections will be the foundation for the article, but by looking at potential upside/downside with their projected future roles, in addition to the strengths of the class, slight adjustments within the rankings, in my opinion, leads to the best overall big board when it comes to “playing” the draft perfectly. It’s not always just about who the best players are, after all, but understanding value, and being able to maximize your amount of picks is the precise way to solidify your roster.

With that being addressed, let us get to the rankings! We’ll look through the top-25 rookies. before taking a look at lower-level players that could overachieve expectations. By the end of this, hopefully, you and I will not only best utilize our early selections, but perhaps find this year’s late gem!

Tier 1

RB Najee Harris- Photo Cred: Sportsnet

#1: RB Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (RB1)

  • This Season’s Projection: 13.38 PPG, RB20, 59.94th Percentile

Najee Harris might not have been the proper selection for the Steelers, but his landing spot could not have been more perfect from a fantasy standpoint. It’s rare to find a workhorse running back in an era where teams are a) passing more than ever and b) devaluing running backs more than ever, but Pittsburgh is an old-school organization that runs contrary to that notion. Le’Veon Bell consistently ranked near the top of the league in touches per game, and the main reason they’ve gone away from that over the past two seasons has been related to James Conner’s durability issues; you don’t draft a running back in the first round to not use him.

Harris was my model’s third-ranked running back prospect from a quality perspective heading into the draft, yet that’s not to say he isn’t a quality player. He posted rushing grades from Pro Football Focus of 89.8 or higher in each of the past three seasons, painted strong efficiency despite a strong workload, and also earned an 81.6 receiving grade this past season. Running backs immediately hit the ground running at the NFL level, and I expect Pittsburgh to lean into him to try to revive their offense. Will it lead to them winning footballs games? Almost certainly not. Will it lead to a lot of fantasy points? Absolutely!

#2: WR Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals

  • This Season’s Projection: 14.85 PPG, WR25, 59.63rd Percentile

We’ve had an idea for a while that the Bengals were likely to reunite quarterback Joe Burrow with his former college teammate in Ja’Marr Chase. Thus, the market has been able to account for landing spot for Chase more than other players, and, for the most part, he’s the top rookie drafted in most leagues.

Me slightly preferring Harris has nothing to do with Chase, who is a fantastic prospect and my model’s top-rated receiver prospect since PFF started charting college games. As a sophomore, he earned a 91.3 PFF receiving grade, posted 1780 receiving yards, as well as 3.52 yards/route run. He showcased his downfield ability with 21.2 yards/reception with a 14.9 average depth of target, but with 8.1 yards after catch per reception, he’s certainly not just a contested-catch specialist. Really, there is no weakness with his skillset. He’ll have to fight for targets with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, but since he plays in an extremely pass-heavy offense that strictly utilizes 11-personnel with no viable option at tight end, I don’t see why there isn’t a clear path for him getting 100 targets. If that’s the case, we definitely know he’ll make the most of those opportunities.

TIER 2

Photo Cred: Mile High Report

#3: RB Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos (RB2)

  • This Season’s Projection: 10.99 PPG, RB31, 51.14th Percentile

If Javonte Williams was guaranteed Najee Harris’ workload, I would sell the farm to try to get him on my team. That’s how talented of a player he is. We’re talking about a player who averaged 4.59 yards after contact per attempt, earned a 95.9 PFF rushing grade, in addition to a 215.4 elusiveness rating. Simply put, those numbers are absurd.

Alas, we don’t live in a perfect world, and for this season, Williams likely will split carries with Melvin Gordon in Denver. Now, there is a chance he could become the workhorse option in the future, but since he didn’t even accompany such a role at North Carolina, I wouldn’t bet on that being the case in the NFL. Given that he’s well-adept as a receiver and is such an outlier when it comes to production after the catch, however, I think it’s fair to always expect his efficiency to make up for that. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m almost talking myself into him even more! He truly is a fantastic prospect and will such a joy to watch at the NFL level.

#4: WR De’Vonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles (WR2)

  • This Season’s Projection: 13.19 PPG, WR38, 50.90th Percentile

I was always worried about having to be on the lower end of the spectrum on De’Vonta Smith. After all, the Alabama receiver was as well known as any prospect after winning the Heisman trophy, but, of course, projections don’t take accolades into account.

There are a lot of potential red flags with Smith. His playing weight (170 pounds) is unheard of for a 6’1″ receiver, and, most importantly, the track record of receiver prospects who came out as a senior isn’t great. Nevertheless, we also cannot ignore his skillset. Obviously, there’s his 95.6 PFF receiving grade from this past season, but even before then, he posted 11.2 yards after the catch per reception in 2019, which is unheard of, and has proven the ability to succeed regardless of average depth of target and as an outside receiver. That skillset plays really well as not only an efficient receiver, but also one who’ll accumulate targets, which he should do in a high-opportunity situation in Philadelphia. Expect him to immediately become the team’s top target in the passing game, which is notable considering they’ll likely be playing from behind in a lot of games.

#5: RB Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars (RB3)

  • This Season’s Projection: RB32, 10.76 PPG, 50.31st Percentile

As mentioned earlier, landing spot is so critical for all of these players, and the team that drafted Travis Etienne put us all in a tough predicament.

The Jaguars, really? After getting productivity from an undrafted rookie running back in James Robinson, you’d expect for the organization, even with a new regime in place, to understand the replaceability of the position and not burn a first-round pick to replace a productive player. Here we are, however, leaving Etienne is a similar spot to Williams- an ultra-efficient player whose workload may never be extensive.

For those who value a long track record of success, Etienne never earned a PFF rushing grade below 81, and he’s had multiple peak seasons, including an unreal 2019 season: 92.4 rushing grade, 5.33 yards after contact/attempt, 213.9 elusiveness rating. Although his success as a runner declined this season, he also produced the most in his career as a receiver, which is probably a worthwhile tradeoff in PPR formats. With his combination of broken-tackle ability and home-run speed, there’s a lot to like with him, and although his role isn’t solidified, that never should be something to worry too much about when a team spends a first-round pick on a running back. He doesn’t have the volume of Harris and is slightly behind Williams from an efficiency standpoint, but he’s right behind them and could turn out to be a tremendous value selection should his role be greater than expected.

#6: WR Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins

  • This Season’s Projection: 13.04 PPG, WR41, 50.09th Percentile

I think it’s fair to say the Alabama Crimson Tide have been a juggernaut when it comes to producing receiving talent, and that continued into the 2020 draft- they had two receiver drafted in the top ten! In fact, it was Jaylen Waddle, not the heisman-trophy award winner, who ended up as the first receiver taken.

As a “real-life” prospect, my model prefers Waddle to Smith on many levels. He produced more as an underclassman, was even better after the catch, and simply has him beat in terms of overall efficiency. His big-play ability is exceptional, which definitely increases his fantasy floor. However, he’s also likely to be third in the pecking order for Miami this season behind Devante Parker and Will Fuller, and won’t likely ever accumulate the targets Smith will just based on his style of play. There’s more than enough fantasy viable based on his efficiency, based as we’ve seen from Fuller, Marquise Brown, and even Tyler Lockett, he’s likely to be a very volatile fantasy option who increases your ceiling in a given week more than your floor. Hopefully, we’ll be getting the higher end of possible outcomes from him.

#7: TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons (TE1)

  • This Season’s Projection: 11.92 PPG, TE7, 47.61st Percentile

Early on in this process, I assumed Kyle Pitts would be the top pick in all rookie drafts. A high-end player at a very scarce position? Sign me up! Since then, I have had to remind myself of numerous factors, such as the general variance and learning curves present for tight end prospects, in addition to him being the third option in Atlanta’s passing game, but he’s still someone I can’t help but wonder if he’s ranked too low.

Pitts not only earned the highest PFF grade from a college tight end ever, but did so in a very valuable manner; winning down the football field (13.8 average depth of target, 17.9 yards per reception) and even as a true wide receiver (21.2% of snaps out wide). Add in his 6’6″ frame and 4.44 40-yard dash time, and you can make a case he’d be drafted over Ja’Marr Chase even if he was simply a receiver- that’s how rare of a player he is. Over time, I’d expect him to grow into a similar player to Darren Waller, which is quite the lofty comparison, but the question is: how long will that take? Tight ends usually take until their third year to reach peak form, and even if Pitts hits the ground running, he’ll be competing for targets with Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones for an offensive play-caller (Arthur Smith) who has never featured tight ends much in the past. With that in mind, he’s likely not as optimal of a selection as the top running backs and receivers from his rookie class, but if you were to draft Pitts based on his upside as one of the only elite players at his position, I wouldn’t blame you. He really will be an interesting case study as to how “blue chip” a tight end prospect can be.

Tier 3

Justin Fields- Photo Cred: Pats Pulpit

#8: WR Rashod Bateman, Baltimore Ravens (WR4)

  • This Season’s Projection: 11.21 PPG, WR53, 40.43rd Percentile

In a lot of ways, Rashod Bateman epitomizes the typical analytical darling of the fantasy process. He had an extremely high target share at Minnesota, performed at a young age, and has won as an outside receiver. Add in his success running a vertical route tree (20.3 yards per reception, 16.7 average depth of target), and it’s clear he’s an extremely well-rounded prospect.

Bateman being drafted to a run-heavy Ravens offense isn’t ideal, but if he can be Lamar Jackson’s most targeted wide receiver and continue to make plays down the field, those concerns are alleviated. As much as Baltimore wants to be an outlier in terms of their pass frequency, there will be times where they’ll be forced away from that due to game script, and Bateman’s also likely to perform well from a red-zone opportunity standpoint. I’d be hard-pressed to not take him as the first option after the clear top-7 prospects.

#9: WR Elijah Moore, New York Jets (WR5)

  • This Season’s Projection: 10.49 PPG, WR55, 36.61st Percentile

I find it unlikely that a team, especially a rebuilding one, would spend the 34th overall pick on a receiver who wasn’t going to immediately start for them. Jamison Crowder is an excellent player who should be coveted by several teams, but it’s fair to assume Elijah Moore is the Jets’ starting slot receiver this season.

With that being the case, there is a great possibility that Moore exceeds this projection. Slot receivers, especially those as reliable as he is, tend to be incredibly valuable in PPR formats based on their ability to accumulate a lot of targets, as he did at Ole Miss. Overall, this isn’t a player that is going to excite you in any area, yet, as a slot receiver, he’s as well-rounded as it gets. In college, he was effective after the catch (5.5 YAC/reception), performed well in terms of being a sure-handed target (2.9% drop rate this year), and wasn’t just a short-passing game target (10.9 average depth of target).

It’s unclear how the Jets’ receiving corps will fare in terms of target share with rookie Zach Wilson taking over, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Moore led the way. That gives him an extremely high floor, and should he translate better than expected in terms of big-play ability, then he’ll be incredibly valuable. This is the lowest one should have him on a rookie draft board.

#10: QB Justin Fields, Chicago Bears (QB1)

  • This Season’s Projection: 20.5 PPG, QB13, 36.09th Percentile (If He Starts)

The fall of Justin Fields was the most mystifying storyline in the draft. In my opinion, based on my model’s prospect projections, he was at worst should have been the second overall pick in the draft, yet, somehow, the Bears were able to trade up to draft him with the 11th overall pick.

At Ohio State, Fields rated at the top of PFF’s accuracy metrics, posted an 8.4 big-time throw rate, just a 2.2 turnover-worthy play rate, in addition to back-to-back 90+ PFF grades in his two seasons as a starter. Having that efficiency and accuracy despite a 11.6 average depth of target is absurd, and did I mention he also is a dynamic rushing threat? Really, this is as well-rounded of a quarterback prospect as we have seen, especially for fantasy purposes.

The landing spot for Fields is also optimal. The Bears haven’t committed to starting him, though I’d expect him to come in very early for Andy Dalton, given the desperation of the current regime. When he does, he’ll play under head coach Matt Nagy, who is a well-regarded play-caller and actually elevated Mitch Trubisky into a viable quarterback from a fantasy perspective. There is precedent for him running a pass-heavy offense when he trusts his quarterback, and you’d obviously expect for him to utilize Fields’ mobility as well. I’m worried about his pass protection, especially since he is prone to inviting pressure, yet he also has an impact #1 receiver in Allen Robinson, and I’ll sacrifice offensive line when a) I trust quarterback, b) he has enough receiving talent to work with, c) the play-caller should get the most of him. The race for QB1 in rookie drafts this season is very tight, but I definitely would give him the edge.

#11: QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

  • This Season’s Projections: 19.8 PPG, QB16/QB17, 26.10th Percentile

Speaking of the other quarterbacks, ever since the two were in high school, Trevor Lawrence has always been slightly ahead of Fields, and that continued into the draft. Labeled as a generational prospect since he stepped foot at Clemson, there was no debate had if he was the clear #1 overall pick, and he’ll now be tasked with leading the Jaguars for years to come.

Similarly to Fields, Lawrence’s biggest strength may be his lack of a clear flaw. He earned a 90 PFF grade in each of his three seasons as a starter, posted a strong 6.9%-2.7% big-time throw to turnover-worthy play rate ratio, and improved his accuracy (77.1% adjusted completion rate) this past season. Meanwhile, he also only converted 15.8% of his pressures into sacks, and although his average depth of target (9.5) wasn’t very high, I wouldn’t expect that to be a problem at the NFL level. In fact, with his arm strength and overall big-play ability, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become more aggressive; his big-time throw rate certainly looks more impressive when you take that, as well as low average time to throw (2.45) into account.

In Jacksonville, Lawrence will be in a similar situation to Fields in that he’ll have a deep receiving corps to work with, but will have to deal with a poor offensive line. He’s certainly a quarterback where that is less of a concern and will start immediately, but he’s also playing for a less-friendly system and offers slightly less as a runner. At the end of the day, I just think that Fields is a better fantasy quarterback regardless of situation, as does my model, but I can certainly understand why you’d feel most comfortable taking a player whose trajectory has been as explanatory as it gets.

#12: QB Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers (QB3)

  • This Season’s Projections: 19.9 PPG, QB16, 27.63rd Percentile (If He Starts)

Whomever had the opportunity to be play for Kyle Shanahan’s offense by virtue of being the 3rd overall pick for the 49ers was going to be in the perfect situation to produce. Luckily for fantasy football players, that player was not Mac Jones. Rather, the quarterback the team invested three first-round picks in was Trey Lance, who may very well the greatest “unknown” of any recent quarterback prospect.

Two ways a prospect has greater risk than normal is when they have a limited sample size of playing experience and if it comes at a lower conference. With Lance, who started just one season at North Dakota State, both are concerns with him. He’s as high-variance of a prospect as there can be, and the 49ers are taking a major risk by not only trading up to select him, but doing so over Fields.

In terms of fantasy, there is a lot to like with Lance. As evidenced by his 1,150 rushing yards in 2019, he’s going to be very effective in the designed rushing game, and will be used there more than Fields, who is simply a better drop-back passer. He also plays a high pay-off style of football with an 11.5 average depth of target, making him the ultimate boom-or-bust quarterback. His accuracy isn’t optimal, but with Shanahan scheming receiving open as good as anyone, perhaps that’s less of a concern.

Lance’s playing time is unclear and he’s not as well-rounded of a “real-life quarterback” prospect as Fields and Lawrence, but his fantasy ceiling is immense. Remember, even early career Josh Allen was a top-ten fantasy quarterback, and Lance will be utilized even more than Allen as a rusher. There’s enough unknown to push Lawrence over him, yet I think you could just as easily have him as QB1. Given his small track record and the amount the 49ers invested him, it’s going to be extremely fascinating to watch his career play out.

#13: RB Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers (RB4)

  • This Season’s Projections: 8.33 PPG, RB44, 41.32nd Percentile

Sticking in San Francisco, Trey Lance isn’t the only intriguing fantasy prospect that the 49ers traded up for; they packaged multiple fourth-round picks to move up into the third round to select running back Trey Sermon.

At Ohio State and Oklahoma, Sermon never was given a workhorse role, but his efficiency has been excellent. This past season, he averaged 4.04 yards after contact per attempt this past season and never earned a rushing grade below 84.5 in his three full seasons. For what it’s worth, his workload went up in 2020, especially at the end of the season, and he still remained as productive as ever. In Kyle Shanahan’s zone-rushing scheme, especially with with Lance, the 49ers have a chance to have a special rushing attack, and when that happens, Sermon will be in line to benefit. He doesn’t provide much as a receiver, but given his draft position, I wouldn’t be shocked if he were to ultimately to take over for Raheem Mostert in fantasy. If so, he’s going to be much more valuable that this ranking, which is more reflective of a committee role. Shanahan has generally rotated running backs, so I wouldn’t bank on him being the sole beneficiary of San Francisco’s success on the ground, but with how run-heavy the team will be, he’ll have more than enough opportunities. He’s intriguing for many of the same reasons fellow Ohio State running back JK Dobbins was last offseason, but with a much lower ADP. That suggests that there is some value to be had.

#14: RB Michael Carter, New York Jets (RB5)

  • This Season’s Projection: 8.23 PPG, RB45, 40.96th Percentile

The draft may have not been friendly for some of the early-round running backs, but the same cannot be said for a couple of the mid-round running backs. Heck, if all goes well, Michael Carter may be the Jets’ lead back in 2021, something that generally cannot be said for players taken on the third day of the draft.

Javonte Williams was the standout player at North Carolina, but Carter also was a key part of the university’s rushing success. Over the past two seasons, he rushed for over 1000 yards, averaged over four yards after contact per attempt, and was the better receiving back of the two. Furthermore, he also served as a true breakaway runner with 29 15+ yard gains in 2020, which is an important feature in the outside-zone rushing attack he’ll be featured in with the Jets.

Carter doesn’t have the lofty draft capital attached to him, nor do the Jets figure to be at a team that runs the ball a lot. Still, Tevin Coleman, who is on a $2 million contract, is his only competition, and I’m sure the organization would like nothing more but to give opportunities to a cheap, young running back. He’ll have a shorter leash than most, yet the upside that he ends up as a potential RB2 in the future more than makes him an intriguing tier-3 prospect in rookie drafts.

Tier 4

Rondale Moore- Photo Cred: NFL.com

#15: WR Rondale Moore, Arizona Cardinals (WR5)

  • This Season’s Projections: 8.87 PPG, WR79, 28th Percentile

At this time last year, I never would have thought that Rondale Moore would not be a first-round pick. When you accumulate 1258 receiving yards as a freshman, that’s remarkably impressive, and with his freakish athleticism, his stock seemed to be solidified.

Unfortunately, since that elite freshman year, Moore has started and finished just six games, making him a complete unknown. Yes, that freshman year was impressive, but with a 5.5 average depth of target, he was much more of a gadget player than a true wide receiver, while he also ran 91% of his routes from the slots. Thus, landing spot was going to be critical for him, and his chances of going in the first round evaporated.

On the bright side, Moore’s landing spot could not be more perfect. In Arizona, head coach Kliff Kingsbury led the league in screen passes thrown to wide receivers last season, giving Moore a chance to showcase his elite abilities after the catch. Furthermore, with Larry Fitzgerald departed and Christian Kirk struggling, the Cardinals aren’t exactly committed to anyone in the slot, opening up his opportunities further. There is a lot of variance with a player that needs to be utilized in a specific way, but Moore should be peppered a lot of targets in the fashion that allows to best showcase his abilities, which is encouraging from a fantasy perspective.

#16: WR Terrace Marshall Jr., Carolina Panthers (WR6)

  • This Season’s Projection: 7.81 PPG, WR86, 22.43rd Percentile

At the beginning of the draft process, Terrace Marshall appeared likely to be in the same category as Rashod Bateman based on his ability to win on the outside of first-round draft position. Regrettably, late injury concerns caused him to slip into the second round, bewildering his fantasy value moving forward.

If Marshall Jr. ends up as Carolina’s sole WR3, his output should be slightly higher than the projections. After moving into the slot for LSU in 2020, he earned an 81.1 PFF receiving grade and averaged 6.4 yards after catch per reception, while he performed well in 2019 as a deep receiver (15.3 aDOT). I’m a little more skeptical with his skillset given that he’s more of a contested-catch receiver without a strong track record, yet I can see why many draft pundits were high on his abilities. With the Panthers, he’ll be reunited with offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who will likely use him in a versatile role. Now, he’s well down the pecking order compared to DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, but with Anderson on the last year of his contract, there is upside to his role expanding in the future. It will be interesting to see how he’s used at the next level.

#17: WR Dyami Brown, Washington Football Team (WR7)

  • This Season’s Projection: 9.73 PPG, WR66, 32.59th Percentile

The running backs may have taken center stage at North Carolina, but they also had a very effective passing game. To that end, receiver Dyami Brown deserves a lot of credit.

With an 18.4 average depth of target in 2020, Brown strictly ran a vertical route tree in college. While he didn’t have many opportunities to make plays after the catch, he did average over 20 yards per reception, which led to him producing over three yards per route run. Even better, he won exclusively from the outside (over 98%), something few receivers in this class can claim.

Brown’s skillset is an outside deep receiver, making his fit in Washington fantastic. He’ll be paired with arguably the most aggressive quarterback in the league in Ryan Fitzpatrick, and should start on the outside along with Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel. Since they should have a pass-heavy offense, there should be plenty of targets to go around, and his average depth of target means he’s in good position to make the most of every target he’ll get. He doesn’t have as much upside in terms of future role as Rondale Moore or Terrace Marshall Jr., yet his floor is likely higher than both.

#18: WR Ka’Darius Toney, New York Giants (WR8)

  • This Season’s Projection: 9.03 PPG, WR77, 28.85th Percentile

Ironically, Ka’Darius Toney is the polar opposite of Dyami Brown. His average depth of target (7.7 yards) was more than ten yards lower, while he lined up in the slot for 86% of his snaps and has just one season as a starter. The combination of old breakout age and small track record is something that surely will concern the fantasy community.

Seen as more of a yards-after-catch specialist, Toney’s role was never likely to be expansive. As a real-life prospect, my model saw him as a first-round prospect and a very valuable playmaker. In fantasy, though, his lack of accumulation is a worry. Furthermore, the Giants drafted him despite having a deep receiving room, which likely lowers him to fourth on the pecking order in terms of targets. That limits his fantasy ceiling tremendously. Considering some of the other potential red flags in his profile, I’d consider him more of a “real-life” asset than one I’d be “pounding the table for” as a fantasy asset.

Tier 5

Zach Wilson- Photo Cred: The Salt-Lake Tribune

#19: TE Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers (TE2)

  • This Season’s Projection: 5.87 PPG, TE40, 4.41st Percentile

The Steelers continued to add skill position players to their offense even after Najee Harris; they selected tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round. While he likely will not have a prominent role this season, there is certainly intrigue about him in the future.

At Penn State, Freiermuth started all three seasons before declaring, consistently progressing in terms of his peripheral stats. He’s succeeded in a variety of roles, whether it’s making plays after the catch, working down the field, or just as a sure-handed target, something that should translate well to the NFL level. Given his consistency and lack of a clear flaw, my model appreciated him as a second-round value.

The Steelers will likely feature a pass-heavy offense, so there is a lot of upside with Freiermuth should he gain more playing time over Eric Ebron. At the very least, he’ll definitely be the starting tight end next season, and should rank at least middle-of-the-pack with such a role. I’d compare him in a lot of ways to Tyler Higbee, who has certainly been a viable fantasy option. In other words, you aren’t going to be rushing to the figurative podium to draft him, but he’s a safe option later on.

#20: WR Nico Collins, Houston Texans (WR9)

  • This Season’s Projection: 8.25 PPG, WR82, 24.75th Percentile

Opting out of the 2020 season hurt some player’s draft stocks more than originally anticipated. With that in mind, perhaps Nico Collins could be an underrated asset.

Collins never had great production at Michigan, but he dealt with awful quarterback play in college and lined up in the slot for only 3.5% of his routes. Even with that, he still average over 6 yards after the catch per reception and 19.7 yards per reception in 2019, and worked a deep route tree (14.8 average depth of target). After running a 4.45 40-yard dash and 6.79 three-cone drill to complement his 6’4″, 218 pound frame, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be utilizes as a downfield threat at the next level.

Although you’d wish Collins would be guaranteed better quarterback play than what is likely to come in Houston (assuming Deshaun Watson doesn’t play), he does have the benefit of coming to a team with a thin receiving corps. That will give him the opportunity to make an impact, especially since the team traded up to draft him in the third round. Add in the fact that the Texans may have a chance to draft an elite quarterback prospect in next year’s draft, and the situation suddenly looks like a positive for the Michigan product. It’s always nice to bet on the ceiling provided by vertical big-play threats to have on your bench, and Collins fits that bill perfectly.

#21: WR Amon-Ra St.Brown, Detroit Lions (WR10)

  • This Season’s Projection: 8.14 PPG, WR83, 24.18th Percentile

We often talk about fantasy situation being about a wide receiver gaining the benefit of strong quarterback play. However, should we account for volume and opportunity better.

Like Collins, Amon-Ra St.Brown isn’t walking into a great offense in Detroit, but that means he’ll have the chance to make an impact as a fourth-round pick. At USC, he never “dominated”, yet he produced as a freshman (75.8 PFF receiving grade), and has been extremely consistent. On the other hand, model wasn’t a major fan of him; he didn’t create much yardage after the catch, nor did he run a vertical route tree. Still, he profiles as a reliable chain-mover from he slot, which means plenty of targets!

There’s a great chance St.Brown starts immediately in the slot for the Lions. They will be more than open to giving opportunities to young players, traded up to draft him, and have as thin of receiving corps as it gets. With them likely to be in a lot of negative game scripts, there will be plenty of passing opportunities, and that will allow him to flourish in terms of overall volume. Once again, you don’t have to be an efficient “real-life” receiver to produce from a fantasy perspective.

#22: QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets (QB4)

  • This Season’s Projection: 19.1 PPG, QB19/QB20, 16.29th Percentile

In reality, although there were five first-round quarterbacks, only three should be coveted highly from a fantasy perspective. That excludes second-overall pick Zach Wilson, even if he was in the top tier from as an actual quarterback prospect.

After a breakout season at BYU in each he earned an absurd 95.5 PFF passing grade, 8.6% big-time throw rate, and 1% turnover worthy play rate, Wilson’s draft stock soared as much as any prospect’s stock could. Generally, you’re concerned about the sample size, though it is encouraging that he had relatively strong production as a freshman, while his sophomore struggles align with him undergoing thumb surgery. As his 80.3% adjusted completion rate in 2020 demonstrated, he’s a very accurate quarterback who is also aggressive (10.9 average depth of target), which makes him a well-rounded quarterback.

Nevertheless, players with major breakouts like this are generally more riskier than those with strong track records. Wilson’s numbers before this year were nowhere near what a first-round quarterbacks production should be, so he’s not the “sure thing” a normal #2 overall pick is. Even then, he isn’t likely to provide a significant amount as a rusher, lowering his floor even more. Early on, he’s an interesting QB2 target in redraft leagues based on the projected volume for a subpar Jets team, but I’d likely rather bet on some of the other skill position players in this tier.

#23: TE Tommy Tremble, Carolina Panthers (TE3)

  • This Season’s Projection: 6.09 PPG, TE37, 5.98th Percentile

It’s been difficult to find tight ends through rookie drafts in recent seasons, and after Pitts and Freiermuth, that remains the case in 2020. The best bet of the bunch, however, is Tommy Tremble.

Last season, Panthers’ starting tight end Ian Thomas ranked last in the NFL in yards/route run (0.31). Thus, it’s safe to say they had a right to be looking for upgrades this offseason. Although they signed Dan Arnold in free agency, Tremble likely will be who they rely on for competent production at the position. The Notre Dame product didn’t produce much in college, but he also didn’t have the opportunity in a deep tight end room and with the offensive scheme. With high-end athleticism (4.65 40-yard dash, 122-inch board jump, 36.5-inch vertical jump), he has the tools to produce at the next level if utilized better, and I expect that to happen in Carolina. You’re obviously not going to be eager to draft him, but as a potential TE2 in the future, it makes sense to take a chance on an above-average athlete with untapped potential.

#24: RB Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles (RB6)

  • This Season’s Projection: 6.19 PPG, RB55, 33.43rd Percentile

Over the past few years, Nyheim Hines has been a very useful fantasy running back based on his productiveness as a receiver. His offensive coordinator during that time in Indianapolis? Nick Sirianni, who is taking over as the head coach of the Eagles. Given Hines’ receiving prowess, it isn’t a surprise that Sirianni would try to find his own receiving back. Some thought that Boston Scott may be that option, but, instead, it looks like that honor will go to fifth-round pick Kenneth Gainwell.

As a sophomore at Memphis last season, Gainwell demonstrated the receiving aptitude needed to thrive in such a role. He earned an 85 PFF receiving grade, posted 610 receiving yards, in addition to 2.39 yards/route run and 9.8 yards after catch per reception. Those are fantastic numbers for a running back. For the most part, running backs tend to have an average depth of target near the line of scrimmage, but Gainwell’s (2.5) was far from that. In fact, he lined up as a receiver for almost 25% of his snaps, which is exactly what you want to see from someone your’e going to entrust with a lot of targets.

As a fifth-round pick, Gainwell’s future role is always going to be in a murky spot. Plus, Hines as a ceiling comparison isn’t exactly strong. Nevertheless, he has an immediately high floor, and at this point of the rankings, might be the only player left who has the potential to start in fantasy lineups in given weeks. Outside of the “big-five” running backs, he’s who I’d take a chance on.

#25: WR Dwayne Eskridge, Seattle Seahawks (WR11)

  • This Season’s Projection: 7.01 PPG, WR91, 18.19th Percentile

The Seahawks are notorious for having their passing attack completely centered around Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. There is certainly reason to concentrate your offense around your top players, the inability to have a third option in the passing game makes them very volatile on a week-to-week basis. Thus, it makes sense they made an attempt to combat that, drafting Dwayne Eskridge in the second round.

As a 24-year-old rookie who didn’t produce at an elite level at Western Michigan until his fifth year in college, there are a lot of significant red flags with Eskridge that made him a risky selection. Still, it’s worth noting that his production this season was impressive. Not only did he earned an 85.9 PFF receiving grade, but he also posted 14.4 yards after catch per reception, 4.94 yards/route run, and 23.1 yards/reception. Although that occurred in a six-game sample size, it is worth noting that he has constantly been a big-play threat who can make plays after the catch.

Eskridge can line up on the outside if need be, though I expect him to split time with Tyler Lockett in the slot. The intrigue lies if Lockett were to miss time, something that is quite common. If so, Eskridge steps into that role and immediately becomes someone worth starting, which is quite the enticing potential option. We often talk about handcuffs with running backs, but why not with receivers at the end of your bench? At the very worst, you’re getting the Seahawks’ third receiver. On given weeks, though, you’re getting more than that; that’s the definition of a end-of-the-draft flyer.

Honorable Mention: WR Amari Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Rodgers could potentially serve a similar role to Rondale Moore and Ka’Darius Toney as a slot receiver/running back gadget hybrid, though he’s more constrained to being on the gadget end of the spectrum as the other two. If he ends up starting in the slot, there’s some intrigue with him, but he’s far less proficient after the catch as the other two, and Green Bay’s passing offense is so concentrated around Davante Adams anyways. Eskridge simply has more big-play upside and potentially handcuff value, which is why he slots in ahead.

Potential Sleepers

Quarterback

  • Mac Jones, New England Patriots

Jones has first-round pedigree and was extremely productive at Alabama last year. However, for his entire college career, he posted 41 rushing yards, and didn’t take many chances throwing the ball down the field. Even in his peak year, Jimmy Garoppolo wasn’t a top-20 fantasy quarterback, so it’s not advisable to bet on Jones being more than that- there isn’t enough pay-off present.

  • Davis Mills, Houston Texans

Mills has an outside chance to start for the Texans last season after being drafted at the top of the third round. Nevertheless, he’s not a rushing threat, nor did he produce in college.

  • Kyle Trask, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Trask was very productive as a senior at Florida. Hey, he even has second-round pedigree, which isn’t nothing! I’m not betting on Tom Brady playing fewer than two more years though, and it’s not like Trask has the rushing upside to wait on.

  • Kellen Mond, Minnesota Vikings

Mond does have the athleticism to be featured more as a rusher, but without adequate production and no path to playing time in Minnesota, consider me skeptical of his fantasy value.

Running Back

  • Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers

My. model actually had Mitchell ranked as the 4th-best running back prospect solely based on quality from an analytical perspective after producing at a high level at Louisiana as both a receiver and in terms of yards after contact. Considering he also tested well at his pro day, keep an eye on him if the opportunity ever presents himself with Kyle Shanahan’s offense in San Francisco.

  • Chubba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers

Hubbard’s stock was greatly decreased in the COVID-19 impacted 2020 season, so you could perhaps be buying low on him. Mainly, though, he’s an intriguing handcuff to Christian McCaffrey.

  • Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots

Stevenson was excellent producing yards after contact in his small sample size at Oklahoma. However, he’s also in a crowded backfield and has very limited athleticism; the Patriots aren’t known for having a workhorse running back and are generally a team to avoid for running backs in fantasy.

  • Khalil Herbert, Chicago Bears

Herbert broke a lot of tackles at Virginia Tech and is the likely handcuff to David Montgomery in Chicago.

  • Javian Hawkins, Atlanta Falcons

Although he was undrafted, Hawkins also created a lot of yards after contact in college and enters a thin Falcons backfield that is friendly from a running back perspective with head coach Arthur Smith calling the plays.

  • Jarrett Patterson, Washington Football Team

Also undrafted, Patterson may make the team in Washington and would therefore potentially be the handcuff to Antonio Gibson.

  • Kylin Hill, Green Bay Packers

As the third running back in Green Bay, it’s unlikely Hill ever gets much of an opportunity.

  • Chris Evans, Cincinnati Bengals

Although not productive at Michigan, Evans is a high-end athlete and the clear backup to Joe Mixon.

  • Jermar Jefferson,Detroit Lions

My model is low on Jefferson, and he’s still the clear RB3 in Detroit.

Wide Receiver

  • Josh Palmer, Los Angeles Chargers
  • Tylan Wallace, Baltimore Ravens
  • Dez Fitzpatrick, Tennessee Titans

All of these receivers profile from the outside. Wallace has Palmer clearly beat from a productiveness standpoint, but he’s likely the fourth wide receiver in Baltimore, whereas Palmer has a more open path to playing time. This is a clear case of analyzing the landing spot over just the prospect. Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, could get some playing time in Tennessee, but that’s too much of an unknown with him also not profiling well from a quality perspective.

  • Jaelon Darden, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Marquez Stevenson, Buffalo Bills
  • Tutu Atwell, Los Angeles Rams
  • Simi Fehoko, Dallas Cowboys
  • Anthony Schwartz, Cleveland Browns
  • Kawaan Baker, New Orleans Saints

These are slot receivers with proven abilities after the catch. Atwell (second round) has the highest draft position, but he’s extremely lightweight and more likely to be a future WR4; the same can be said about Fehoko and Schwartz in terms of their future role, though my analytical model appreciates them. Stevenson and Darden are intriguing, though both enter crowded receiver situations. The sleeper here is Baker, a late seventh-round pick out of South Alabama. The Saints don’t have a deep receiving corps and demonstrated the ability to get production out of Deonte Harris in the slot last year. Baker profiles similarly with a model comparison to Darnell Mooney, so keep an eye on him if he beats out Harris.

  • Tammorion Terry, Seattle Seahawks
  • Cade Johnson Jr., Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks don’t have a deep receiving corps, and my model is a fan of both of these prospects. Terry specifically stands out as an athletic player who can make plays after the catch and suffered from brutal quarterback play, though the hit rate on undrafted free agents is very small.

Tight End

  • Hunter Long, Miami Dolphins
  • Kylen Granson, Indianapolis Colts
  • Brevin Jordan, Houston Texans

These are all quality tight end prospects who simply don’t have a great path for playing time in crowded tight end rooms. Jordan is the best as a player young for his catch and proficient after the catch, but there is limited value with all of them without any clarity on their future role.

  • Tre McKnity, Los Angeles Chargers
  • Noah Gray, Kansas City Chiefs
  • John Bates, Washington Football Teams

Based on my model projections, I’m not sure any of these players end up as more than second/third reserve tight ends for their respective teams, so their fantasy value isn’t much at all.

Top Sleepers: RB Elijah Mitchell, WR Kawaan Baker, TE Brevin Jordan

Mitchell simply stands beyond all of the other running backs from a quality perspective, and Kyle Shanahan is known for a) rotating his running backs and b) not caring about draft position; Raheem Mostert was an undrafted free agent, after all. Baker, meanwhile, has a clearer path to playing time you’d expect out of the slot for a receiver-friendly offense in New Orleans; I believe the Darnell Mooney comparison may have some legs. As for Jordan, there is a legitimate case he’s as talented of a player as Pat Freiermuth and offers a lot as a receiver, and a new regime in Houston may not care about the investments made with other tight ends on the roster. If so, he could become a viable TE2, which is more than worth a late-round flyer in rookie drafts.

Overview

This is quite a fun class! The amount of top-end talent at wide receiver is incredibly intriguing, while all three quarterbacks offer loads of potential. If I could give one piece of advice with your rookie drafts, it’s to not overvalue your evaluation of the prospect heading into the draft. Landing spot plays a significant role in the fantasy value of these players, and being able to adjust to that while others in your league don’t can give you a noticeable edge. Do you believe Javonte Williams is a better prospect than Najee Harris? That’s great, but you have to side with the player projected for 100 more carries. The same goes for wide receiver and tight end; opportunity for targets is key. Distinguishing actual value from fantasy value, and as you look to solidify your roster longterm, always make sure to analyzing the downside and potential pay-off with each potential pick. This is the precise cost-benefit analysis that NFL general managers have to make during the actual NFL Draft, and is what makes fantasy football so exciting!

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