clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 14 NFL Rookies With the Most Fantasy Football Potential in 2021

It’s hard to pick first-year breakouts during the season, let alone just days after the draft. But some talented college stars landed on teams that could put them to work right away.

Scott Laven/Getty Images

In Week 1 of 2019, a star fantasy rookie was born. Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson, who months earlier had become the highest-drafted tight end since 2006, put up a jaw-dropping performance over the Cardinals. The rookie tight end caught six passes in his pro debut, totaling 131 yards, one touchdown, and 25.1 PPR fantasy points—the most by a debuting tight end in modern NFL history.

That next week, fantasy managers rushed to pick the tight end up from the waiver wire. Only Hockenson actually wasn’t the star rookie who was born in Week 1. Earlier that afternoon on the other side of the country, a third-rounder out of Ohio State torched the Eagles’ secondary for five catches, 125 receiving yards, and a touchdown, good for 23.5 PPR points, the fifth most by a rookie receiver in a debut in the previous 10 seasons. “Scary” Terry McLaurin was the Buckeyes’ third-leading pass catcher in 2018, and had been knocked as a draft prospect for body-catching and playing small, with one evaluator labeling him a “good backup” whose main contributions would come on special teams. Despite his stellar debut, he wasn’t nearly as popular a pickup as Hockenson.

Hockenson quickly fizzled, and finished his rookie campaign with just 367 receiving yards. Instead it was McLaurin who became a consistent fantasy starter throughout the season, finishing the year with 919 yards, seven touchdowns, and 191.9 fantasy points, more than double the ballyhooed tight end.

The contrast between Hockenson and McLaurin underscores how difficult it is to project rookies in fantasy. If fantasy managers can get it wrong after Week 1, they can certainly get it wrong just days after the NFL draft. But even with that in mind, let’s attempt the impossible and look at which fantasy rookies could break out this season. I ranked my 14 favorite rookie fantasy football targets in order of projected impact and team fit, separated into four tiers. This ranking is based on full-PPR scoring, which is my preferred scoring format.

Tier 1: Week 1 Fantasy Starters

1. WR Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals: Chase is my top fantasy player in this class, and he can thank his former college teammate Justin Jefferson for that distinction. After being selected 22nd overall in the 2020 draft, Jefferson broke the rookie receiving yards record en route to the fourth-best fantasy season by a rookie receiver in league history. The consensus top receiver in this class, Chase totaled more receiving yards and touchdowns than Jefferson in their national championship season together at LSU and should become second-year quarterback Joe Burrow’s no. 1 target once again this fall. Chase is aggressive on 50-50 passes and electric with the ball in his hands, and will see plenty of volume in an offense that ranked second in pass attempts per game last year before Burrow’s season-ending injury in Week 11. There are concerns that he won’t gather a significant target share on a roster that already includes Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, but consider this: Since 2010, rookie wide receivers drafted in the top five have seen an average of 113 targets per season. Removing Corey Davis (who missed five games to injury his rookie year) from that group leaves us with an average of 122 targets, which would’ve ranked 18th among wide receivers last season. Chase is a high-end WR2, and should be drafted no later than the fourth round in 12-team leagues.

2. RB Najee Harris, Steelers: From 2013 to 2018, the Steelers’ starting running back averaged an RB5 fantasy finish, with three different players (not just Le’Veon Bell!) registering a top-six fantasy campaign during that span. While the Pittsburgh offensive line isn’t what it used to be—they finished tied for 23rd in run-block win rate last season and lost Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva this offseason—the former Alabama standout should see a heavy workload with little backfield competition, which gives him a solid shot at top-10 running back production. Expect the 6-foot-2 Harris, who’s drawn comparisons to former Bears standout Matt Forte, to be effective in goal line situations and in the passing game, where his catch radius and agility in space make him a high-floor combo back with elite RB1 upside.

3. TE Kyle Pitts, Falcons: The narratives about first-year tight ends being poor fantasy players are legit. Look no further than Hockenson, whose 25.1 fantasy points in his debut represented 31 percent of his total PPR scoring that season. But the Pitts hype is different. While I have some reservations that Pitts will be overdrafted, I think he will be an instant-impact fantasy starter in Arthur Smith’s sleight-of-hand, 12-personnel-heavy offense in 2021. A former Titans tight ends coach (say that one five times fast) and offensive coordinator, Smith is a master of presnap motion and getting his playmakers the ball in space, which contributed to receiver A.J. Brown and tight end Jonnu Smith ranking first and second, respectively, in yards after catch above expectation in 2019, and to both finishing among the top 20 in the stat again in 2020. I expect much of the same from Pitts, whose speed and generational length should make him an asset on quick screens, play-action passes, and jump balls in the red zone. The presence of Hayden Hurst—whom the previous Atlanta regime acquired with a fourth-round pick for a second- and fifth-rounder before last season—concerns me some, but Atlanta didn’t pick up Hurst’s fifth-year option, which makes me think he won’t be an offensive focal point in 2021.

Tier 2: Mid-round Picks With Upside

4. WR Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins: I was tempted to put Waddle in Tier 1, but I have concerns about the Dolphins’ offense under Tua Tagovailoa, who graded as PFF’s 33rd-best quarterback in the NFL last season. That said, the same traits that hampered Tua in 2020—a reliance on run-pass options and poor performance under pressure—will lead to short, quick passes, and make the shifty Waddle a prime fantasy candidate in 2021. Some evaluators think Waddle doesn’t have the route-running chops of DeVonta Smith or the all-around game of Chase, but Waddle’s game-breaking speed and stop-and-start ability have been compared favorably to Tyreek Hill. Many assume Waddle will be used to take the tops off defenses next season, and while he’ll see his fair share of 20-plus-yard targets, he’ll likely do most of his damage on short and intermediate routes with space to run. A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and Deebo Samuel rode yards after the catch to breakout rookie campaigns in 2019, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see a similar path toward fantasy stardom for Waddle.

5. WR DeVonta Smith, Eagles: The concerns about the Heisman Trophy winner’s size are legitimate, but they won’t matter too much if Smith can get open consistently. Smith will benefit greatly from motion looks and lining up off the line of scrimmage to avoid getting pressed out of plays in year one, and I’m confident he’ll find his way into fringe WR3/flex territory by midseason, which makes him a viable eighth- or ninth-round fantasy pick in 12-team PPR leagues. There’s some boom-or-bust fantasy potential here, especially with an unproven, mobile quarterback in Smith’s college teammate Jalen Hurts, but I’m betting on a top-35 fantasy finish for the former Crimson Tide receiver.

6. RB Michael Carter, Jets: So much of fantasy projection is about opportunity, and Carter landed in an underwhelming New York Jets running back rotation where he should see significant action right away. A bit undersized at 5-foot-8, 201 pounds, Carter runs with strength and elusiveness, and reminds me of former Falcon Devonta Freeman, another diminutive fourth-rounder with a penchant for initiating contact. It’s probably bold to rank Carter above his college teammate Javonte Williams and Clemson standout Travis Etienne, but I can’t shake the feeling that Carter will be the Jets’ unquestioned lead back coming out of training camp. Even if he’s merely a checkdown safety net for rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, Carter has the best combination of floor and upside among the remaining running backs on this list.

7. RB Javonte Williams, Broncos: Williams is a better player than Carter, which is why he was drafted 72 picks before his college teammate. But Williams finds himself in a backfield with veteran Melvin Gordon, last year’s PPR RB14, who rushed for 4.6 yards per attempt (2.1 after contact) and nine touchdowns across 15 games in his first season with the Broncos. Williams, the highest-rated college running back in PFF history, led the FBS in broken tackles last season and has a strong argument for being the top dynasty running back in this class.

8. RB Travis Etienne, Jaguars: Urban Meyer’s admission that he would’ve selected Kadarius Toney with the 25th pick had the former Gator fallen to Jacksonville was … strange. It was almost as strange as Jacksonville drafting a running back in the first round a year after James Robinson, who tied for fifth in rushing yards in 2020, had one of the most impressive rookie campaigns by an undrafted running back in league history. A similar scenario unfolded last season in Denver, when the Broncos signed the aforementioned Gordon to a deal that diminished Phillip Lindsay’s fantasy value, even though the latter was coming off two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Etienne is a special back, but sharing the load with Robinson and Carlos Hyde significantly lowers his fantasy ceiling, especially if the rookie is featured primarily as a third-down back as Meyer suggested after the draft. Sure, Etienne could have a late-season breakout à la Cam Akers, J.K. Dobbins, and D’Andre Swift, but each of those backs had a clearer path toward RB1 usage than Etienne does now.

Tier 3: Late-Round Fliers

9. QB Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars: Sixteen of the top 20 all-time fantasy seasons by a rookie quarterback have come since 2010, and Lawrence has the most hype of any rookie passer since Andrew Luck. Just last year, Justin Herbert became the sixth rookie quarterback since 2011 to finish as a top-10 per-game fantasy player at the position, joining Cam Newton (2011, third), Robert Griffin III (2012, fourth), Russell Wilson (2012, eighth), Dak Prescott (2016, ninth), and Deshaun Watson (2017, first). The Jaguars added a couple solid pieces to their near-league-worst defense this offseason, but unless they hit big on their defensive draft picks, Lawrence should see a pass-heavy, come-from-behind script for much of 2021. Also, the kid runs like a gazelle:

10. WR Terrace Marshall Jr., Panthers: Marshall Jr. slid on draft day reportedly because of medical red flags that popped up at the combine, and he eventually landed with former LSU wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Joe Brady in the second round. If his medical checks out, Marshall, who saw a majority of snaps in the slot during his last season in Baton Rouge, will likely step into Curtis Samuel’s role in the Panthers offense. Marshall could be looking at immediate fantasy stardom—Samuel was the WR12 in the final 11 weeks of the 2020 campaign.

Tier 4: Potentially Undrafted but Worth Monitoring

11. WR Elijah Moore, Jets: Moore is arguably the best slot receiver in a slot-receiver-heavy draft class. Jets general manager Joe Douglas claims the team didn’t draft Moore at the 34th pick to replace Jamison Crowder. But if that does happen, the Ole Miss product could see significant usage in year one.

12. QB Zach Wilson, Jets: I like Wilson. He’s mobile, has a cannon for an arm, and has drawn comparisons to Patrick Mahomes. Still, the new Jets coaching staff is mostly unproven and we’ve yet to see Wilson play against elite competition. I wouldn’t count on immediate fantasy stardom for the young quarterback out of BYU.

13. WR Rashod Bateman, Ravens: Bateman’s balanced skill set compares favorably to Davante Adams, who’s averaged nearly 22 PPR points per game since 2018, the most among all receivers during that span. But the former Minnesota standout may not be an impactful fantasy starter in year one—the Ravens ranked last in pass attempts in 2020 and first in nearly every major rushing category.

14. WR Kadarius Toney, Giants: Toney joins a crowded Giants receiving corps and an offense looking to make a big jump in Daniel Jones’s third year. But if the elusive former Gator—who forced 20 missed tackles his senior season in Gainesville—immediately fills Golden Tate’s vacant slot role full time, look out.