Six quarters into the season, Derrick Henry had zero touchdowns and 127 scrimmage yards on 34 touches. That underwhelming production probably had many fantasy GMs sweating, as whiffing on a top-five pick is akin to flushing a fantasy season down the drain. Then, Henry exploded. In the second half of the Titans’ victory over Seattle, Henry ran for 126 yards (plus added another 21 in overtime) and three touchdowns en route to 44.7 half-PPR points, the second most of his career. In one afternoon, the Titans star went from being labeled an early-round bust to the fantasy RB1.
Henry is a player who shows the value of patience in fantasy. Sure, there were reasons to panic: The addition of Julio Jones portends a more pass-happy approach for Tennessee this season, and no one knows what to make of the offense under first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing. But Henry—who has accrued 57 percent of his career rushing yards in the second half of games and saw significant passing game usage in Week 1—had strong enough peripheral stats heading into the third quarter against Seattle for astute managers to remain confident in his top-shelf fantasy status.
Using advanced data to assess early-season performances allows managers to successfully navigate the trade market while avoiding the pitfalls that come with overreacting to standard box score statistics. With that in mind and with Week 3 kicking off Thursday night, we’ve placed 12 underperforming fantasy stars into panic meter tiers ranging from “R-E-L-A-X” to “Cannot Win With Him.”
QB Josh Allen, Bills
Through two weeks, Allen is the QB18, and nearly 21 percent of his passes have been considered “bad throws” by Pro Football Reference, up from his career-best 16 percent last season. Some critics consider Allen’s breakout 2020 campaign a fluke, and while they’re almost certainly wrong, they may have more evidence after Week 3, when the Bills take on Washington’s vaunted defense in Buffalo. Even if Allen regresses as a passer this season and falls somewhere between last year’s production and 2019’s, he’s heading toward a third consecutive top-five fantasy campaign thanks to a pass-happy offense and his significant rushing volume in the red zone. Allen was inches away from a rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins in Week 2. If he had scored there, he would have moved up to QB13 despite playing two of the NFL’s most talented defenses to start the season. He’ll be fine.
RB Jonathan Taylor, Colts
Workload was the main concern for Taylor heading into this season, as former Indianapolis starter Marlon Mack returned from injury to form a Cerberus backfield that also includes receiving specialist Nyheim Hines. Taylor has yet to find pay dirt in 2021, but he leads the league in red-zone rushes—including six inside the opponent’s 5-yard line—and has secured 64 percent of the Colts’ running back touches. Even though Indianapolis still slightly prefers Nyheim Hines in passing situations, Taylor is on an early pace for about 60 catches this season, which would’ve ranked fourth among all running backs in 2020. Taylor is the half-PPR RB26 through two games, but PFF’s expected points metric suggests he should be the RB3. He also runs behind one of the best offensive lines in football. Don’t overthink it!
RB Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
Elliott was drafted as the half-PPR RB5, which makes sense considering he averaged an RB6 finish across his first five NFL seasons and never placed outside the top 11 at his position. With consistent usage and a typically great offensive line, Elliott is one of the safest draft picks a fantasy manager can make.
The emergence of Tony Pollard is somewhat concerning, but Zeke’s been on the field for more than 70 percent of the offensive snaps in each game (he ranks first in total backfield snaps with 114) this season, something he hadn’t done since Week 8 of 2020. Pollard will be a factor, but there’s no reason Elliott can’t put up Nick Chubb–like production in an electric Dallas offense that faces the second-easiest running back schedule in the fantasy regular season.
TE George Kittle, 49ers
The 49ers are tied for 27th in pass attempts and Kittle is the half-PPR TE13 despite being drafted as the TE3. Should fantasy managers worry? Nah. In 2019, when Kittle was the TE2 and tied with Travis Kelce for first among tight ends with 12.9 half-PPR points per game, the 49ers ranked 29th in pass attempts. Sure, he hasn’t had many balls thrown his way this season, but that should change soon in the next few weeks, when the Niners will likely need to adopt pass-heavy scripts against the Packers, Seahawks, and Cardinals. Kittle was a rookie the last time he saw fewer than six targets in consecutive games. He’ll get the ball, and when he does, expect the YAC machine to make the most of his opportunities.
On the Hot Seat
RB Saquon Barkley, Giants
Barkley wasn’t expected to see significant volume early this season after returning from a torn ACL that kept him out almost all of last year. That said, it was encouraging to see the Giants running back jump from 48 percent of offensive snaps in Week 1 to 84 percent of snaps in Week 2 despite the team’s quick turnaround for Thursday Night Football. There’s not enough film or data to panic on Barkley this early, but regardless, he was always a long play for managers who drafted him. If Barkley doesn’t log at least a mini-breakout against a moribund Falcons defense in Week 3, it may be time to worry, especially for managers off to 0-3 starts.
RB Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
Last month, head coach Ron Rivera said he hoped Gibson would grow into a Christian McCaffrey–type role in Washington’s offense. Some fantasy fanatics ran with that and took it to mean that Gibson would assume that role this season. Those who invested in him with early-round picks were sitting pretty after Gibson’s 23-touch Week 1, which included a team-high five targets. But Week 2 brought the passing game return of JD McKissic, who ran 24 routes and saw six targets, compared to Gibson’s 22 routes and two targets. McKissic’s increase from 16 passing snaps in Week 1 to 26 last week should slightly concern Gibson managers who banked on the second-year rusher becoming a three-down RB1 this season. If McKissic proves to be Washington’s lead receiving back, Gibson profiles as a low-end RB2 due for touchdown regression after a strong rookie year.
RB Mike Davis, Falcons
Davis filled in admirably for Christian McCaffrey last season, finishing the year as the PPR RB12 behind top-15 running back volume. He was expected to lead the Atlanta backfield this season but has been outshined by Cordarrelle Patterson, who leads the duo in touchdowns, scrimmage yards, yards after contact per rush, and red zone touches. Davis still profiles as the better goal-line back, and he should see more scoring opportunities to supplement his strong early-season receiving usage as the offense improves under first-year head coach Arthur Smith. Davis has played 69 percent of the offensive snaps (11th at his position) this season and gone up against two strong defensive fronts. He’s also 28, was drafted as the half-PPR RB22, and before filling in for McCaffrey had never started more than eight games in a season. Better days are ahead, but don’t expect superstardom from the mid-round pick.
Time for the Next Man Up
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs
Edwards-Helaire has been one of the biggest disappointments in fantasy after being drafted in the first round by Kansas City in 2020. Since his breakout debut against the Texans last season, CEH has averaged about 54 rushing yards, 23 receiving yards, three catches, and 0.2 rushing touchdowns per game. He’s been the RB28 during that span (on 12.1 PPR points per contest) despite being drafted as a top-15 back each of the past two seasons. He also has by far the worst rushing grade among any running back in PFF’s system this season.
The production—and perhaps the talent—simply isn’t there to justify Edwards-Helaire as the set-it-and-forget-it starter he was expected to be.
RB James Robinson, Jaguars
Last season, Robinson averaged about 21 touches per game and finished the year as the RB7 in PPR and half-PPR formats. In his first two games under Urban Meyer, though, Robinson has logged eight and 14 touches, each of which would’ve ranked as his lowest output in a game in 2020. We knew Meyer wasn’t all-in on Robinson after the Jaguars selected Travis Etienne with the 25th pick of April’s draft, but many expected the former undrafted free agent to assume lead-back duties after Etienne suffered a season-ending foot injury. Robinson holds a slight usage lead in the Jacksonville backfield over Carlos Hyde, but neither back is a fantasy starter with the Jaguars’ offense looking like one of the league’s worst after two weeks.
Cannot Win With Him
RB Myles Gaskin, Dolphins
Gaskin was a dark-horse RB2 candidate coming into this season after averaging 19.3 PPR points over his final six games of the 2020 campaign. Through two starts, though, he’s averaged just 12 touches and ranks as the PPR RB30. While Gaskin appears to hold a slight lead in a running back committee that includes Malcolm Brown and Salvon Ahmed, the Miami offense has looked terrible thus far and things may be getting worse with Tua Tagovailoa likely shelved through the next few weeks.
WR Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers
Aiyuk produced one of the best fantasy rookie receiving seasons of the past decade last season, but he’s been a major disappointment through two weeks in 2021. While he’s still working his way back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for some of the Niners’ preseason practices and one game, it appears Aiyuk lost his spot on the depth chart to Trent Sherfield not solely because of injury, but also because of Trent Sherfield’s strong play. Heading into Week 3, Aiyuk has run 34 routes but been targeted just twice.
WR Marquez Callaway, Saints
Callaway was supposed to be the lead receiver in the Saints offense to start the year, with Michael Thomas expected to miss the first six weeks of the season to an ankle injury. Instead, Callaway has totaled three receptions and 22 yards through the Saints’ first two games. Starting quarterback Jameis Winston hasn’t been the prolific fantasy QB many expected thus far, as the Saints rank last in the NFL in total pass attempts. When he has thrown, though, Winston has averaged a career-low 8.7 average depth of target and seemed to prefer checkdowns to Alvin Kamara. Callaway was once viewed as a worthy stand-in WR1 for a pass-friendly team; now he’s looking like a roster bubble candidate.