2021 NFL Draft: Wide Receiver Preview
Joey Cartolano breaks down the wide receiver position of the 2021 NFL Draft class for dynasty, keeper and re-draft fantasy football leagues!
In the first article of this series, I looked at the incoming crop of quarterbacks from a dynasty fantasy football perspective. Now we turn our attention to wide receivers, which are the lifeblood of any sustainable dynasty roster. Nailing a first-round rookie pick on a true fantasy WR1 can fill a starting roster spot for you for the next decade. Due to limited injury exposure and a longer production life cycle that is more consistent on a year-to-year basis than other positions, receivers just age better from a value perspective than their peers, especially running backs. As Stevie Nicks once said, running backs - they will come and they will go. Therefore, in dynasty rookie drafts, I always lean towards loading up on wide receivers unless you already have a core built up at the position and are truly ready to compete.
There are different metrics and characteristics to be considered when evaluating different positions for incoming rookies, and perhaps no position has been more analyzed in this respect in dynasty circles than receivers. One such metric is age adjusted production (or “breakout age”). An 18-year-old true freshman winning against older players (at a point in a human being’s physical development when a year or two can be a massive difference) is a lot more meaningful than a 22-year-old redshirt senior producing against younger players. Another key indicator for wide receiver success is dominator rating aka market share. Dominator rating is defined herein as receiving yards as a percentage of total team passing/receiving yards for the offense that season. Generally, you would want at least a 20-25% dominator rating from your receiver prospects, and preferably closer to 30-35% for elite prospects. An ability to garner targets at the collegiate level is indicative of an ability to do so at the next level as well.
While it may not possess as much blue-chip talent as last year or 2014, this receiver class is as deep as any in recent memory. There will be great value to be had in the late second and early third rounds on some of these guys when other dynasty owners start reaching for positional needs (usually at running back). Don’t be one of those guys. Take advantage of the depth of talent at receiver. As we will explore in my next article, the secondary tiers of running backs don’t offer much this year.
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU (6’0”, 201 lbs)
We all saw what Justin Jefferson did in his first year in the NFL. He is already a top 10, if not top five dynasty asset. In 2019 at LSU, Chase’s play was deemed so prodigious by the coaching staff that Jefferson was relegated to slot duties, where he unsurprisingly dominated weaker coverage defenders. Meanwhile on the outside, facing the top corners in the country’s most talent rich conference, Chase led what might be the best college offense of all time in receiving with 84 grabs for 1,780 yards (21.2 yard per catch) and 20 touchdowns, good for a team-high 29.5% dominator rating in an offense brimming with talent. The cherry on top? He did it at 19 years old as a true sophomore.
As mentioned above, breakout age and dominator rating are two of the biggest indicators of wide receiver success, and Chase checks both boxes emphatically while possessing the prototypical physical traits of a true WR1 at the next level. He is an elite athlete for his size, as shown by his Pro Day measurables: 4.38 40-yard dash, 41” vertical, and 11’ broad jump. Given the context, I have no concerns whatsoever about the fact that he only has one season of production or opted out of 2020, and neither do NFL scouts as he is expected to be a top-seven overall pick a week from Thursday. There isn’t much else to say here - if you have the 1.01, this is a pick you don’t have to think twice about for the next 10 years, unless you are in a Superflex league and need to consider Trevor Lawrence.
Devonta Smith, Alabama (6’1”, 174 lbs)
The first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in 30 years, Smith’s production has been otherworldly the last two seasons for the Crimson Tide. Playing in a 2019 Alabama receiver core that included prolific talent in Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and fellow incoming rookie Jaylen Waddle, Smith still managed to lead the team in receiving with 68 grabs for 1,256 yards (18.5 YPC) and 14 touchdowns, good for a 28.2% dominator rating. In 2020, Smith had a ridiculous 39.9% dominator rating while hauling in 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. He has produced in a crowded receiver core, and he has produced as an alpha WR1 who every opposing defender knew was getting the ball after Waddle went down with an injury early in 2020. He is a strong hands-catcher, his route running is crisp, and his ability to separate down the field makes him a devastating big play waiting to happen.
The concerns around Smith are his weight and “late” breakout age. Comparable players in his weight range that have been successful in the NFL are admittedly few and far between (Marvin Harrison would be a best-case scenario, with DeSean Jackson perhaps being the most grounded). He also will turn 23-years old midway through his rookie season in the fall. Personally, I think these concerns are overblown. As a 20–21-year-old sophomore he paced the best receiving core in the country, and the wide receiver size dynamic in the NFL is evolving with modern offensive schemes and rule changes that favor receivers more than ever. Detractors point to the natural comparison to Henry Ruggs, but that comparison is quickly rendered foolish when you consider that Smith had more catches, yards, and touchdowns in 2020 alone than Ruggs had in his entire Alabama career. Chase is the only receiver I would take over him, and he could end up being a value in the mid-first round of rookie drafts.
Jaylen Waddle, Alabama (5’10”, 183 lbs)
Like Smith, Waddle was an undersized yet electric playmaker for the Crimson Tide, albeit without the prolific production and breakout age. That is caveated by the fact that Waddle broke his ankle after just four games this year. In those games, all against SEC competition, he put up 25 catches for 557 yards (22.3 YPC) and four touchdowns, which would have been elite production over the course of a full season. He possesses the best straight-line speed of any of the top receivers in this class. He is an immense downfield and yards after the catch threat, as evidenced by his lofty yards per catch average (18.9 on 106 catches in his college career).
While he stands a full three inches shorter than Smith, he has 10-15 pounds on him. The general public seems much more concerned with Smith’s weight than Waddle’s height. I just can’t reconcile the production difference in the same offense when evaluating the two, and they are less than a month apart in age. That is not to say Waddle isn’t deserving of the praise he has received. His dominator rating would not have been far off from Smith this year if he stayed healthy, and the NFL may value his speed more than Smith’s ball skills. No matter where he lands, Waddle is a no brainer pick in the latter half of the first round of dynasty rookie drafts.
Rashod Bateman, Minnesota (6’0”, 190 lbs)
The Golden Gopher product may be the highest floor receiver in this class outside of Chase. He’s an elite route runner who has an ability to win at all levels of the field while lining up all over the formation. He’s also a red zone scoring threat with strong hands and good body control in contested situations. Bateman broke out as a 19–20-year-old true sophomore in 2019, averaging a ridiculous 20.3 yards per catch on his 60 grabs, which went for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 37% dominator rating from that season is even more impressive when you consider Tyler Johnson was soaking up targets on his way to his own 40% dominator rating. Bateman admittedly underwhelmed relative to that production in five 2020 games before opting out to focus on training for the draft, putting up 36 catches for 472 yards (13.1 YPC) and two touchdowns, which was still good for an elite 33.8% dominator rating even with the missed games.
I have gone back and forth all winter on where I rank Bateman vs. Waddle, until Bateman’s Pro Day. In one of the strangest developments of this draft season, Bateman came in barely over 6’ tall and weighing 190. He had consistently been listed at 6’2” and 210, a significant difference in terms of prototypical NFL wide receiver size. This is somewhat offset by the fact that at that same Pro Day he clocked a blazing 4.39 in the 40-yard dash. Perhaps he dropped some weight to enhance his speed for that showcase, but that doesn’t explain the height difference. Even still, I feel safe projecting Bateman as a solid late first round pick in both the NFL and dynasty rookie drafts.
Terrace Marshall, LSU (6’2”, 205 lbs)
Marshall has forced his way into the back end of this third tier for me as I consider him closer to Bateman than the next group of receivers in my rankings. Overshadowed by Justin Jefferson and Chase over the last two years, his overall production was held back but Marshall checks just about every box you are looking for in an NFL wide receiver. He has prototypical size and, at LSU’s Pro Day, surprised the draft community when his 40-yard dash time was in lock step with Chase at 4.38. Marshall has proven to be a touchdown monster, scoring 13 touchdowns in 2019 despite being Joe Burrow’s third option as a 19-year-old true sophomore. Operating as LSU’s top wide receiver this past season, Marshall put up 731 yards on 48 grabs (15.2 YPC) and 10 touchdowns, giving him a good but not elite 23.4% dominator rating. Still, it was impressive enough that he is garnering late first round consideration in the NFL draft; that type of draft capital would probably make him a lock to be taken in the first round of dynasty rookie drafts as well. He doesn’t even turn 21 until June.
Dyami Brown, North Carolina (6’1”, 189 lbs)
Brown was a critical part of a strong Tar Heel offense the last two years, one that was fifth in the nation in total yards per game in 2020. The 21-year-old has made a name for himself with stellar downfield plays, averaging over 20 yards per catch each of the last two seasons. As a 19–20-year-old true sophomore in 2019, Brown connected for 1,034 yards and 12 touchdowns on 51 catches (27.8% dominator). He followed that up with a nearly identical 55-1,099-8-30.4% line in 2020 in one less game. He has requisite NFL receiver size and put up some strong measurements at his Pro Day: 4.46 40-yard dash, 35” vertical, 10’8” broad jump, and a 6.87 three-cone drill. It is absolutely within his range of outcomes that he could develop into an NFL team’s WR1. He should be a second-round value in rookie drafts when owners start to reach because of scarcity at other positions.
Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State (6’0”, 194 lbs)
Wallace has been a consistent and steady producer for the Cowboys ever since breaking out as a 19-year-old true sophomore in 2018, a season in which he put up 86 grabs for 1,491 yards and 12 touchdowns (37% dominator rating). His 17.3 yards per catch despite that type of volume is truly outstanding, and the fact that he never failed to average less than 15 yards per catch in any season in his college career shows it was no fluke. Wallace put up very similar junior and senior seasons, averaging 56 grabs for 913 yards and seven touchdowns over that two-year span, turning in elite 31% and 35% dominator ratings in his junior and senior years, respectively. He is a bully both in downfield contested catch situations as well as after the catch and in the red zone. It’s hard to take the ball from him or bring him down in the open field. Similar to Brown, Wallace lacks ideal true WR1 size but he’s not small by any means. He ran a solid 4.48 40 at his Pro Day. Wallace has the skillset of an alpha outside receiver who could also play the “big slot” role that is ever-growing in popularity in the NFL. I love him in the mid-late second round of rookie drafts.
Kadarius Toney, Florida (5’11”, 193 lbs)
Toney is going to be a polarizing prospect in dynasty circles and will likely go higher than where I have him ranked both in real life and fantasy. From a production standpoint, he is a one-year wonder, and even that one year was not out of this world statistically. Prior to breaking out for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns on 70 receptions (21.7% dominator) as a senior, Toney had 50 catches for 606 yards and two touchdowns in his freshman through junior seasons combined. Still, if you saw Toney play this year, it was undeniable that he was an explosive playmaker with routine highlight reel grabs and after the catch heroics, and he confirmed that elite explosiveness at his Pro Day with a 4.39 40-yard dash, 39.5” vertical, and a 11’4” broad jump. He is generating first round buzz, even more so than Marshall if mock drafts are to be believed. Personally, the lack of production prior to this year is worrisome for me, but he clearly has the athleticism necessary to succeed in the NFL if a coaching staff can fine tune his game. His landing spot will mean more to me than others on this list because of his raw nature.
Elijah Moore, Mississippi (5’9”, 185 lbs)
Easily the leading receiver for the Rebels the last two seasons, Moore is a dynasty twitter darling that projects as a high-volume slot receiver at the next level who can also win deep when asked to. As a 19-year-old true sophomore in 2019, Moore carried an absolutely abysmal Ole Miss passing offense with a 36.5% dominator rating while reeling in 67 grabs for 850 yards and six touchdowns. He continued that strong production in 2020, turning in an 86-1,193-8 line, good for another outstanding 34.5% dominator rating. Moore uses strong route running and double moves to get open at all levels of the field. Lacking ideal top receiver size, the recently turned 21-year-old will likely find his home in the NFL as he did in college, working out of the slot and gaining most of his yards after the catch while contributing intermittent splash plays. He has both breakout age and dominator rating firmly in his corner, as well as elite athletic measurables from his Pro Day in two drills very relevant to slot receiver play (4.35 40 and 6.63 three-cone times).
Rondale Moore, Purdue (5’7”, 180 lbs)
Even more so than Smith and Toney, Moore is likely to garner contentious opinions from dynasty prognosticators during this process. I loved Moore as much as anyone when he broke out as an 18-year-old true freshman in 2018 for 114 catches, 1,258 yards in 12 touchdowns (31.5% dominator). Subsequent lack of production, proneness to injuries, as well as a closer examination of how he gained that initial production has worn some of the shine of that season off, however. Moore has produced a mere 64 catches for 657 yards and two touchdowns combined the last two years while dealing with a myriad of lower body ailments.
As expected, he lit up his Pro Day with elite athletic measurables: 4.28 40-yard dash, 42.5” vertical, and 6.65 three-cone. All that may not matter much given his height, however. There has only been one instance in NFL history of a receiver measuring 5’7'' or below recording a 1,000-yard season. In addition to long historical odds because of his size, anyone who watches the film can see that Moore’s production has been largely manufactured for him on short passes and gadget plays, and the numbers bear that out. Per one of my favorite fantasy analysts Rich Hribar, 78% of Moore’s receptions at Purdue came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Needless to say, I am lower on Moore than most and I think it is a huge mistake to take him anywhere near the first round in dynasty or reality, but that is where he is projected.
Seth Williams, Auburn (6’3”, 211 lbs)
Once I get to the late second and early third round of dynasty rookie drafts, I raise my risk tolerance and start considering a player’s ceiling and upside much more than I do their floor. Picks at this point in drafts are generally dart throws anyway, so why not shoot for the moon. Williams averaged 53 catches for 795 yards and six touchdowns in his last two years at Auburn, numbers that wouldn’t necessarily be considered elite production in a vacuum. However, his dominator ratings of 30.8% and 31.4% as a 19-year-old sophomore and 20-year-old junior, respectively, tells me that he was being held back by the offense he was in. As you would expect from a receiver of his size, his primary strengths are downfield contested catch situations, but he also put up solid athletic numbers at his Pro Day: 4.50 40, 37” vertical, 10’4” broad jump. He needs to refine his game, but he is dripping with classic size/speed upside.
Tamorrion Terry, Florida State (6’3”, 207 lbs)
Like Williams, Terry is a size/speed freak who ran 4.45 and had a 10’6” broad jump at FSU’s Pro Day, but there are other pieces to the puzzle to consider with Terry. The former Seminole is a YAC and deep ball monster. He had an elite 34.1% dominator rating as a sophomore in 2019, collecting 60 grabs for 1,188 yards and nine touchdowns. However, this is caveated by the fact that he was 21 years old when he did it. Breakout age is not exactly on his side; he was redshirted after being an older prospect to begin with. In his first season of college ball in 2018 as a 20-year-old “freshman” he put up a solid 35-744-8-23% line. His 2020 was a wash as he missed games due to injuries and a death in his family, but he still managed to light up then #5 Notre Dame for a 9-146-1, showcasing all his abilities. I like his tape and production enough to overlook the age factor given what his dynasty ADP will be (low). Like Williams, he could be a diamond in the rough.
Amari Rodgers, Clemson (5’9”, 211 lbs)
Rodgers was Trevor Lawrence’s go-to receiver in 2020, hauling in 77 catches for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns (24.4% dominator). His production was limited in the two years prior to that, though you have to factor in Clemson’s perpetually loaded wide receiver corps. He gobbles up YAC and uses his athleticism to get open down the field while playing bigger than his size. He put up excellent numbers at the Clemson Pro Day, including a 4.40 40-yard dash and an otherworldly 12’1” broad jump. Rodgers could end up making this ranking look silly, but at the end of the day, I would have liked to have seen more out of him statistically playing with such an elite QB in Lawrence for all three years of his college career.
14. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Southern California (6’0”, 197 lbs)
The younger brother of Equanimeous, St. Brown has produced since his first year on the USC campus as an 18–19-year-old true freshman when he put up 60 grabs for 750 yards and three touchdowns. His true breakout came the following season as a sophomore when he collected 77 catches for 1,042 yards and six touchdowns. Still, even in that breakout season he only managed a 23.9% dominator rating while playing second fiddle to Michael Pittman Jr. He produced reasonable stats despite only playing six games in 2020 (41-478-7), but again he failed to lead the team in receiving, this time being outgained by sophomore Drake London. I just don’t see a ton of NFL upside, but he does have age adjusted production on his side.
Best of the rest: Nico Collins (Michigan), Anthony Schwartz (Auburn), Dazz Newsome (North Carolina), Jahmon Ausbon (Texas A&M), Sage Surratt (Wake Forest), Elijah Mitchell (Louisiana), Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell (Louisville), Tyler Vaughns (Southern California)
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