Through Week 9 in 2020, Justin Jefferson was the fantasy PPR WR22, Brandon Aiyuk the WR35, and Diontae Johnson the WR53.
Jefferson went on to have one of the best rookie campaigns by a receiver in league history and finished the year as the PPR WR6. Johnson, overlooked in a wide-receiver room that included Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster, averaged nearly 18 points per contest over the last eight weeks of the season. And Aiyuk, the sixth wide receiver selected in last year’s draft, produced three consecutive games of 20-plus fantasy points during the playoff run from Week 13 to Week 15.
What if we could have seen these breakouts coming? The cliché of the casual fan—that these performances and others like them “came out of nowhere”—holds that this was unpredictable. But that line of thinking ignores advanced stats such as routes run, yards after contact, and situational pass-run ratios, as well as anecdotal data like snap percentages and remaining strength of schedule. The smart fantasy GM could have traded for those players for pennies on the dollar, and been immensely rewarded for it.
There are several ascending fantasy players on the brink of similar breakouts this year, and for fantasy managers who don’t have the time or interest to scour box scores or watch film, we’ve produced a list of eight players to target via trade or free agency who have league-winning potential for the second half of the 2021 season.
For the purposes of clarity and brevity, all the rankings listed in this piece will refer to full PPR scoring unless otherwise noted.
QB Justin Fields, Bears
Fields may be figuring this NFL thing out. In his first five starts, the Bears rookie quarterback completed 58 percent of his passes, was sacked 20 times, and had two touchdown passes and five interceptions. He also fumbled five times (losing two) while averaging just 21 yards rushing on five carries per game. Heading into Week 8, he ranked as the QB33 (at 7.2 fantasy points per contest).
But in his last two games against talented 49ers and Steelers defenses, he’s been one of the most productive passers in football, ranking 10th in EPA per play and second in PFF passing grade. He’s also running more, averaging nine carries and 74 yards over the past two weeks (including a 103-yard effort against the 49ers) en route to ranking as the QB3 in fantasy during that span.
Fields is still missing some easy throws, but his dual-threat ability gives him one of the highest upsides in fantasy. With just marginal accuracy improvements and a natural progression as he becomes more comfortable in the Bears offense, Fields could be a top-10 fantasy quarterback for the rest of the season.
RB James Conner, Cardinals
Through nine games in a committee with Chase Edmonds this year, Conner ranks as the RB11 despite playing on just 46 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. He’s logged eight rushes from inside the opponent’s 5-yard line, which ranks tied for third, and managed to find pay dirt 10 times, which is tied for the league lead with Derrick Henry. Edmonds’s high ankle sprain—a type of injury that tends to linger—will reportedly sideline him for multiple weeks, which vaults Conner into short-term RB1 territory and gives him a chance to seize the job for the remainder of the season.
Even with Eno Benjamin looming in the Arizona backfield, Conner will see a majority of the receiving game usage (he logged a season-high five targets against the 49ers) while maintaining his goal-line role. Conner finished as the RB6 filling in for Le’Veon Bell as the Steelers starter in 2018 before various injuries limited his effectiveness over the past two seasons; with increased usage over the next few weeks, Conner should once again profile as a top-10 fantasy running back. Edmonds will be a factor upon his return, but Conner has proven to be a viable fantasy starter with big-time scoring upside, which makes him far more valuable than his RB35 average draft position.
RB Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers
Fournette may never live up to his billing as the fourth pick in the 2017 NFL draft, and therefore may never be seen as more than an early-round bust to many NFL fans. In fantasy, though, he’s been a consistent RB2 with RB1 upside throughout the 2021 season, and ranks as the RB6 by PFF’s expected fantasy points per game.
Playing for one of the league’s most prolific offenses (the Bucs are first in offensive DVOA), Fournette has averaged 15.2 fantasy points per game this season, which ranks ahead of higher-drafted players such as Dalvin Cook, Josh Jacobs, and Antonio Gibson.
Coming into the season, the Bucs were expected to employ a dreaded running back committee, but Fournette is far outpacing backfield mate Ronald Jones II in touches (131 to 48) while taking 74 percent of the team’s red-zone running back carries. He’s also one of just seven running backs to see at least five targets in five or more games this season. After a poor showing in Week 8 against the Saints and a Week 9 bye, fantasy GMs may have forgotten just how good Fournette has been, slipping back into that old perception that he’s a bust. That makes Fournette a potential buy-low opportunity at a shallow fantasy position.
RB D’Onta Foreman, Titans
Adrian Peterson seemed like a must-add after signing with the Titans last week, and he did manage to score a touchdown and lead the Titans’ backfield in fantasy points against the Rams. But he “produced” while looking every bit of his 36 years, rushing for just 21 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
Since the merger, no running back over the age of 35 has rushed for 1,000 yards in a season. The best fantasy season by a running back Peterson’s age came from Marcus Allen in 1996, when the Hall of Famer averaged about 12 points per contest while securing a little less than half of the Chiefs’ backfield touches. That’s Peterson’s ceiling, if he can maintain early-down usage in Nashville and match Allen’s nine rushing touchdowns.
But if he can’t maintain that usage—and his debut didn’t inspire much confidence—then it’s time to look elsewhere on the roster. Jeremy McNichols profiles as the clear third-down back and should see a majority of the backfield’s receiving opportunity, leaving Henry’s bruising, in-between-the-tackles role up for grabs in a likely competition between Foreman and Peterson for the rest of the season.
Foreman—who rushed for 29 yards on five carries—looked like the better back on Sunday, getting low and hitting open holes despite losing his balance at the end of a couple impressive runs:
With Peterson and McNichols now rostered in a majority of ESPN and Yahoo leagues, Foreman represents the best value of the Tennessee running backs. If he can wrestle the early-down role away from Peterson and start seeing consistent red-zone usage, we could be looking at the sneakiest league-winner of the season.
RB Jordan Howard, Eagles
Howard has played in only two games this season, but he already has the same amount of rushing touchdowns as backfield mates Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell, each of whom have played in every game for the Eagles. Over the past two weeks, Howard also has 12 red-zone rushes, which ranks ahead of Miles Sanders, the team’s starter through the first seven games of the year.
Sanders still projects as Philadelphia’s leading rusher after he returns from an ankle injury that landed him on the IR after Week 7, but head coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen are reportedly taking a wait-and-see approach before committing to a starter for the rest of the season. If Howard maintains his goal-line usage and efficiency through contact (2.0 yards after contact per rush), he could be a strong late-season addition for running-back-needy fantasy teams, especially in standard and half-PPR scoring formats.
WR Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers
Oh, how the mighty have fallen … and gotten back up again! After being drafted as the WR23 on average coming into the season, Aiyuk began the year fighting for playing time despite producing one of the most impressive seasons by a rookie wide receiver in 2020.
Through his first six games to start this season, Aiyuk totaled nine receptions on 16 targets for 96 yards. To put those numbers in perspective, Aiyuk caught 10 of 16 targets for 119 yards … in Week 14 of 2020 alone. Something clearly wasn’t right to start the year (Aiyuk recently stated he “didn’t know how to practice” coming into the NFL), but it’s possible the tide turned over the weekend.
After logging fewer than 30 receiving routes in five of his first seven games, Aiyuk led San Francisco receivers with 43 routes run in Week 9, while logging season highs in targets (eight), receptions (six), and receiving yards (89). And that was with George Kittle returning to the offense. There’s still time to acquire Aiyuk at a discounted price on the trade market, but he may vault into “untouchable” territory with a big Week 10 against the Rams.
WR Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins
The second receiver selected in the 2021 NFL draft is on the verge of fantasy stardom. Waddle leads all receivers in routes run, and he ranks third in the NFL in targets over the past four weeks, averaging 10.2 per game. While he hasn’t been the downfield threat many expected him to be coming out of Alabama, Waddle has been effective in the short passing game and explosive after the catch.
If Miami’s defense continues to be among the league’s worst, expect a pass-heavy script for the offense and tons of volume for Waddle during the second half of the season, which would make him a reliable WR3 candidate with WR2 upside, regardless of whether Tua Tagovailoa or Jacoby Brissett is under center. Waddle has built a good rapport with Tagovailoa, and has double-digit targets in two of four games with Brissett. A tough matchup against the Ravens on Thursday Night Football could make the prized rookie an even stronger buy-low trade candidate heading into Week 11 against the Jets.
TE Mike Gesicki, Dolphins
Like Fournette, Gesicki is having a very under-the-radar season this year, as the Miami tight end ranks among the top five at his position in routes (second), targets (fourth), receiving yards (fourth), and fantasy points (third). He also has by far the most slot snaps at his position this season, and has been utilized more like a wide receiver than any tight end outside of Travis Kelce and Kyle Pitts.
About the only major knock on Gesicki’s résumé is his lack of scoring and red zone usage, but in each of the past two seasons he’s finished among the top six tight ends in end zone targets, so the 6-foot-6 athletic outlier seems due for positive scoring regression in the second half of the season.