2021 NFL Draft Guide: Fantasy Football Rookies
Published: Jun 21, 2021, 10:20 AM EDT
While fans and fantasy players salivate over rookie coverage in every sport, the excitement and intensity found within the fantasy football community is unparalleled. The player breakdowns and analysis begin with pro-day hype littering all websites and social media about a month ahead of the NFL Draft and don’t stop until we get to Week 1 of the regular season. And now with society starting to normalize again, we are back to spring OTA’s, mini-camps, both mandatory and optional, and a preseason filled with training camp action. If you couldn’t already tell, the rookie hype has been out of control.
But, as always, we urge you not to go too crazy. The 2021 class definitely has a leg up on last year’s rookie class with regard to preparation as they will have spent a much greater amount of time with coaches and teammates, but that doesn’t always translate to fantasy production. Talent is one thing, but opportunity is another and every situation is different. Some will flourish while others fade into obscurity, so identifying those with the clearest path towards playing time and touches will be paramount to your success.
Here’s a look at most of the 2021 class, at least those who stand the greatest chance of making an impact for your fantasy football teams.
Trevor Lawrence, JAC – No surprises here as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck tops the list of signal callers. Destined to be the No. 1 pick since his true-freshman year heroics sent Clemson on its way to an undefeated National Championship, Lawrence was, as expected, taken first by the Jaguars. Unless you have been living under a rock, you have seen Lawrence play and excel against high level competition for the last three years. In spite of a shortened season in 2020, he still put up over 3,000 passing yards for the third year in a row to go along with a stellar 90:17 touchdown to interception ratio for his career. In addition to high-level functional mobility within the pocket, Lawrence can gain yards with his legs as well and fits where offenses are trending in that regard. He had 943 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground in his Clemson career.
While Urban Meyer may be new to the NFL, he is plenty familiar with getting the most out of his quarterbacks. Assuming Meyer’s offensive magic carries over to the big leagues, being drafted by Jacksonville will not be the death knell it once could have been for Lawrence. DJ Chark, Laviska Shenault Jr., and Marvin Jones make up a solid group of receivers to grow with, along with rookie breakout back James Robinson. They could still use some help at offensive tackle, though Walker Little was a nice addition for them. Regardless, with someone of Lawrence’s ilk, we always should favor talent over situation. He is a slam dunk 1.01 pick in Superflex rookie drafts, and unlike most quarterbacks deserves mid-first round consideration in 1-QB leagues as well.
Zach Wilson, NYJ -- No one saw their draft stock rise in this upside-down year more than Wilson, who went from relatively unknown BYU starter to the No. 2 overall pick by the Jets. Wilson racked up statistics in 2020: he was third in the nation in passing yards with 3,692 (308 per game) while maintaining a ridiculous 73.5% completion rate and a 33:3 touchdown to interception ratio. He also contributed 254 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. At his pro day and throughout the season, Wilson wowed with his ability to extend plays and make off-platform throws while still maintaining accuracy and velocity, leading BYU to an 11-1 record.
However, that 2020 production comes with the caveat that Wilson faced an extremely light strength of schedule and had his worst game of the season against BYU’s highest ranked opponent in Coastal Carolina (not exactly a powerhouse program). In 2019, when he faced three ranked Pac-12 opponents and an SEC opponent, his numbers were drastically worse (234 yards per game, 62.7 completion percentage, 11:7 TD to interception ratio with only 95 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground), granted that was in 9 games vs. 12 in 2020. While Wilson makes many amazing throws, the end results of those plays often masked some questionable decision making in the process (Ted Nguyen of the Athletic has an excellent film breakdown of these weaknesses here). While one-year wonders like Joe Burrow have found NFL success, and I can see Wilson succeeding at the next level, I think it is a mistake to take him over Fields both in real life and especially fantasy.
Trey Lance, SF – Lance is easily the biggest projection of any of the top signal callers in this year’s class as he has essentially only played one season of college football two years ago, and it was at the FCS (Division 1-AA) level with no games against any Power 5 conference opponents. His team did not have a season this year due to Covid. That one season, however, was spectacular from a statistical standpoint and he seems to have all the physical tools necessary to compete at the next level. Lance threw for 2,491 yards, 25 touchdowns to zero interceptions, and tallied 870 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 128 attempts on the ground.
We did not get a 40 time from him at his Pro Day, but he flashed elite athleticism for a quarterback on film (again, tough to gauge given the level of competition). NFL scouts, particularly those from San Francisco, had seen enough and after a massive smokescreen, Lance was selected No. 3 overall by the 49ers who had, apparently, traded up to acquire him all along. He cannot, nor will he, be expected to come in and start right away, but his upside, if his skillset is nurtured correctly, is tantalizing.
Justin Fields, CHI – Fields has a much wider range of career outcomes than Lawrence, but the former Buckeye has perhaps an even higher ceiling for fantasy purposes given his immense athletic (and therefore rushing) upside. He ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at his pro day, where he also showcased incredible arm strength and an ability to throw from different angles while on the move. After committing and playing backup his freshman year at the University of Georgia, Fields transferred to Ohio State and has put that program on his shoulders the past two seasons en route to back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances. His true sophomore year in 2019 was a statistical bonanza; he compiled 3,273 yards through the air with a 41:3 touchdown to interception ratio while chipping in 137 attempts for an additional 484 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He followed that up with an even higher per game passing yard average, a 70% completion rate, and 22 touchdowns to 6 interceptions (along with another 383 yards and 5 touchdowns rushing) in a shortened 2020, including an epic performance vs. Clemson and Lawrence in the CFP.
The concern with Fields from scouts seems to be around his ability to get past his first read in his progressions and a tendency to lock onto his preferred target on a given play. This has resulted in some instances where he holds onto the ball too long. It is hard to say if that is an area he can improve on at the next level, but there is no concern about his work ethic/leadership, and he has performed on the biggest stage college has to offer. Regardless, for fantasy purposes, his rushing upside far outweighs any perceived deficiencies with his passing game, which are not glaring enough to prevent him from being a long-term NFL starter. I am taking him at 1.02 in Superflex rookie drafts, and he deserves consideration in the back end of the first round in 1QB leagues.
Mac Jones, NE – After sitting in the shadows behind Tua Tagovailoa for the better part of two seasons, Jones got his chance when Tua went down in 2019. Jones stepped in and immediately contributed, finishing that season with 14 touchdowns to 3 interceptions and a 68.8 completion percentage while averaging over 250 yards passing in the five games where he played the majority of the snaps. In 2020, he exploded for 4,500 yards, a 77.4% completion percentage, and 41:4 touchdowns to interceptions on the way to an undefeated national championship. He doesn’t offer any of the rushing upside of the other rookies, but he was fantastic as a classic pocket passer. The question is, can he do that in the NFL if he’s not protected by an elite offensive line and surrounded by weapons like at Alabama? Jones will be groomed by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels and open the season playing behind a declining Cam Newton, but if he can grasp the Patriots playbook early, it shouldn’t be long before he, like Tom Brady, will be dinking and dunking down the field.
Other Notable Quarterbacks Drafted: Kyle Trask (TB), Kellen Mond (MIN), Davis Mills (HOU), Ian Book (NO), Sam Ehlinger (IND)
Najee Harris, PIT – Anyone who has watched college football the last two years knows who Harris is. He surprised a lot of people when he made the decision to return to Alabama for his senior year, but from a draft capital standpoint he probably helped himself. After sharing the backfield load with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs his freshman and sophomore years, Harris broke out in his 2019 junior year with 209 carries for 1,224 yards (5.9 YPC) and 13 touchdowns to go with 27 grabs for an additional 304 yards and 7 touchdowns through the air. He furthered that production in 2020, racking up 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns on 251 carries (5.8 YPC) along with 43 catches for 425 yards and 4 touchdowns in the receiving game. In addition to catching more balls and showing more fluidity running routes out of the backfield this past year, Harris also proved he was a plus in pass protection. Pass blocking is one of the most common flaws that keep young running backs off the field in the NFL, and that shouldn’t be a problem for Harris.
The primary concern with Harris is his age, as he already turned 23 in March. He also ran behind Alabama’s mauling offensive line for his entire collegiate career, which clouds our ability to evaluate him in a vacuum. Personally, Harris has shown enough of an ability to make defenders miss for me not to be worried about what line he ran behind in college. While we don’t have Pro Day athletic testing numbers as he elected not to participate, watching him routinely hurdle and run through/around defenders in the SEC the last two seasons leaves me no concern with his athleticism, especially for someone his size. He can run between the tackles, he can run off tackle to the outside, his one-cut style could fit nicely in the Steelers zone scheme if asked, and we’ve already talked about his plus abilities in the passing game. His age is a legit long-term concern, but as mentioned in the introduction, if you’re taking a running back early in dynasty rookie drafts you should only be banking on their first contract anyway. I have no doubts about Harris living up to an early first round rookie selection over the next four to five years.
Travis Etienne, JAC – Similar to Harris, Etienne has been on avid dynasty player’s radars for years, and he also made the eyebrow raising decision to return for his senior year in 2020. Granted he was facing less competition in his backfield, but Etienne broke out a year before Harris in 2018 as a true sophomore with 204 carries for 1,658 yards (a ridiculous 8.1 YPC) and 24 touchdowns, adding 12 catches for 78 yards and two scores. He had nearly identical rushing numbers his junior year (207-1,614-19), but his receiving production took an immense step forward with 37 grabs for 432 yards and 4 touchdowns. Partly due to playing 3 less games and partly to defenses placing more of an emphasis on stopping him, Etienne took a step back with his rushing production this past year, putting up 914 yards and 14 touchdowns on 168 carries (5.4 YPC). His receiving work continued to progress into elite territory, however, as he caught 48 balls for 588 yards and 2 touchdowns. For his career, he averaged 11.4 yards per catch (an insane number for a running back), showing how dynamic he is with the ball in his hands.
Pretty much a full year younger than Harris, Etienne will be 22 for the entirety of his rookie campaign. His college production is unquestionable and he showed out at his Pro Day, clocking a 4.40 40-yard dash and 10’8” broad jump despite coming in heavier than expected (which is a good thing as he was only listed at 205 lbs by Clemson). He has tantalizing PPR potential, especially with word that Urban Meyer is looking to use him primarily as a receiver out of the slot. Given his receiving skills, he should be able to thrive, especially in today’s pass heavy NFL. His pass blocking is adequate but not exactly the strength it is for Harris, meaning he’ll need to improve in that area to have sustainable NFL success. That is something that can be fixed via coaching and effort, fortunately for him, and his receiving prowess should keep him on the field on third downs regardless. I wouldn’t argue with someone who prefers him over Harris.
Javonte Williams, DEN – While Etienne and Harris’ names have been on the forefront of dynasty owners’ brains for several years, Williams has inserted himself into the back-end of this rookie class’ first tier through sheer force. A bruising back adept at breaking and evading tackles, Williams was first in the country in both total missed tackles forced and forced missed tackle rate per carry in 2020 per Pro Football Focus. He showed requisite NFL athleticism at North Carolina’s Pro Day, clocking a 4.55 40-yard dash, 6.97 3-cone, and a broad jump of 10’3”. In 2019 as a true sophomore, Williams gained 933 yards and 5 touchdowns on 166 carries (5.6 YPC), adding 17 grabs for 176 yards and a touchdown receiving. He turned a similar workload into even greater production in 2020, totaling 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns on 157 carries (7.3 YPC) to go with 25 receptions for 305 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air.
That production in 2020 resulted in highlight reel plays that displayed Williams’ physicality and elite tackle break ability, which should translate well to the next level. He saved his best for last in a trouncing of Miami during his final game, putting up 236 yards and 3 touchdowns on 23 carries (10.3 YPC), including a 65-yarder. The aspect of his profile that makes him especially appealing to dynasty players is that he turns 21 years old this week. He basically broke out as a 19-year-old, and was clearly on the level of Harris and Etienne (at least on the ground) as a 20-year-old. He’ll need some development in the receiving game to become a true three down back, but he has all the physical tools to do so with youth on his side. Even with Melvin Gordon sitting in front of him, he should come in right away and garner close to 10-15 carries a game (including goal line duties) with a lot of room to grow.
Kenneth Gainwell, PHI – Gainwell is more of a projection than some others on this list as he really only has one season of production to his name, and it was two years ago (he opted out of 2020) against a Memphis schedule that was softer than that of any of the aforementioned backs. Still, that one season was dynamic from both a production and highlight reel standpoint. As a 20-year-old true sophomore in 2019, Gainwell carried the Tigers’ offense with 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing on 231 carries (6.3 YPC), adding immense production in the receiving game with 51 receptions for 610 yards (12.0 YPR) and 3 touchdowns. A home run hitter despite being the focal point of the Memphis offense for opposing defenses, he accumulated four runs over 60 yards including two over 70. While he isn’t a traditional between-the-tackles runner in terms of size, he was still able to be effective in that area on high volume.
It was more than just the raw statistics that he produced in the passing game that was so impressive, it was the manner in which he gained them. Gainwell showed an ability to line up outside and make catches downfield, not just on screens. The ability for a running back to do this effectively is hugely valuable in today’s NFL. Gainwell is not quite built like him at 10-15 pounds lighter, but there is definitely some Alvin Kamara to his game. His 201-pound weigh-in at his Pro Day is encouraging for a player who was considered undersized, and it didn’t affect his athleticism in the least as he clocked a 4.42 40-yard dash on the same day. The landing spot in Philadelphia isn’t that great given the slew of running backs they have already, but if Nick Sirianni rotates in his runners regularly, he could start to shine brighter. He should be available in the mid to late 2nd round of dynasty rookie drafts.
Trey Sermon, RB SF – Sermon seems to be gathering steam in the dynasty community as the clear choice beyond the big three running backs, especially give the injury history of Raheem Mostert and the way Kyle Shanahan loves to rotate in his backs. Physically, he certainly appears to be built more like a starting NFL running back than Gainwell. While he never had a 1,000-yard season, he exceeded 700 yards three separate times in his four-year career, the first three of which came at Oklahoma. After a 2019 where he struggled to produce and missed the final five games due to injury, Sermon transferred to Ohio State for his senior year. In those 3 seasons outside of 2019, he averaged 134 carries for 854 yards (6.4 YPC) and just over 7 touchdowns, including his freshman and sophomore years when he was 19-20 years old. He had at least one 60-yard run in each of those three seasons, showing surprising home run ability for a back who only ran a 4.57 at his Pro Day. Part of his ability to do that is his strong lateral agility for a guy his size, as evidenced by his 6.83 3-cone time. His 10’5” broad jump was also a good number given his physique.
In the context of this class, I would describe Sermon as a poor man’s Javonte Williams. He is an extremely physical runner who can also make defenders miss in tight spaces. While his overall body of work is strong dating back to his freshman year at Oklahoma, it’s worth noting that he was never the top producing rusher on his team until his senior year. He also offers limited upside in the passing game, having caught more than 12 balls just once in his college career. I can see Sermon being a productive RB2 eventually in the fantasy realm, but that would probably be dependent on getting goal-line work. Now in San Francisco, he should fall somewhere in the 2nd round of dynasty rookie drafts, but I would be wary of reaching for positional needs and taking him over some of the wide receivers in that range unless you are desperate for a running back.
Michael Carter, RB NYJ -- Javonte Williams’ slightly smaller Tar Heel running mate, Carter actually outproduced Williams in their 2019 junior year when he had 1,003 yards and 3 touchdowns on 177 carries (5.7 YPC) to go with 21 grabs for 154 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns. Carter was North Carolina’s receiving specialist out of the backfield, as he caught at least 20 balls in each of his sophomore seasons. In 2020 he also showed home run hitting ability as a change of pace to Williams out of the backfield, averaging 8.0 yards per carry on 156 totes, good for 1,245 yards and 9 touchdowns on top of his 25 receptions for another 267 yards and 2 touchdowns. Despite being classmates, he is a year older than Williams and turns 22 in May.
While he’s not quite on Gainwell’s level in terms of lining up out wide and running routes with more depth than just screens, he averaged an excellent 10.7 yards per catch in his senior year and had a memorable touchdown grab downfield on a wheel route against Wake Forest. He’s a quick twitch athlete in tight spaces, as evidenced by his strong 6.81 3-cone time at his Pro Day. I was hoping for better than his 4.50 in the 40-yard dash given his size, but it is by no means slow. He honestly reminds me of a slightly more explosive version of another former Tar Heel running back: Giovanni Bernard. As the likely third-down back for the Jets, Carter should develop into a solid PPR asset with some upside for more as Tevin Coleman never stays healthy.
Chuba Hubbard, CAR – Hubbard had an historic breakout as a 20-year-old sophomore in 2019, gaining the 18th most rushing yards all time in a single college season (2,094) and 21 touchdowns on his 328 attempts, adding 198 yards on 23 receptions. He’s a strong downhill runner with finishing speed, as evidenced by his 4.48 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. In 2019 he showed an ability to be a home run hitter with runs of 92, 65, 84, 75, and 53 yards, which is what makes his long run of 32 yards in 2020 even more puzzling. His overall production dipped heavily without those long runs, as he gained 625 yards and 5 touchdowns on his 133 carries (4.7 YPC vs. 6.3 in 2019), catching just 8 balls for 52 yards in the shortened season. While I can see him having a productive season or two in the NFL, I think his lack of lateral agility will prevent him from ever being a regular NFL starter. He’s still worth a dart throw in the 3rd round of rookie drafts.
Rhamondre Stevenson, RB NE -- It’s hard not to think of LeGarrette Blount when watching Stevenson run. He’s an absolute bowling ball of a man who punishes any defenders who try to get in his way. After spending his first two seasons at a California community college, Stevenson transferred to Oklahoma in 2019 and averaged 8.0 yards on his 64 carries, good for 515 yards and 6 rushing touchdowns while chipping in 10 receptions for 87 yards. This past year, he gained 665 yards and 7 touchdowns on 101 carries to go with 18 grabs for 211 yards. Stevenson was consistently listed at closer to 250 than 225 at Oklahoma, so his Pro Day weigh in of 227 pounds is interesting (he ran a solid 4.63 given his size, which may help explain why he lost weight). While he is surprisingly nimble in the passing game for a player of his build (averaged 10.6 yards per catch at OU), ultimately his upside is limited at the next level. I can see him having a Jordan Howard -like career where he has some useful years, but we’ll just have to wait and see how he fits into this crowded New England backfield.
Other Notable Running Backs Drafted: Chris Evans (CIN), Khalil Herbert (CHI), Elijah Mitchell (SF), Larry Rountree (LAC), Jermar Jefferson (DET), Gary Brightwell (NYG)
Ja’Marr Chase, CIN – Were we secretly thinking of Chase when we designed the cover of this year’s Draft Guide? Maybe. 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.
Breakout age and dominator rating (receiving yards as a percentage of total team passing/receiving yards for the offense that season) 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 did NFL scouts. Neither did the Cincinnati Bengals brass as they capitulated to the request of Joe Burrow to reunite him with his favorite collegiate target. 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, PHI – The first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in 30 years, Smith’s production has been otherworldly his 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, MIA – 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 Miami may value his speed more than his ball skills. Now reunited with Tua Tagovailoa, with whom he played at Alabama in 2018 and 2109, Waddle is a no-brainer pick in the latter half of the first round of dynasty rookie drafts.
Rashod Bateman, BAL – 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. Now we just have to hope Lamar Jackson can feed him the ball.
Terrace Marshall Jr., CAR – 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 was actually garnering late first-round consideration in the NFL draft; that type of draft capital would have 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. For more on Marshall and his landing spot in Carolina, check out the Fantasy Football Sleepers article here in the Draft Guide as Howard Bender seems to be a big fan.
Elijah Moore, NYJ – Easily the leading receiver for the Rebels the last two seasons, Moore is a dynasty twitter darling who projects as a high-volume slot receiver at the next level and 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). If the Jets rebuild is in full effect, they could cut Jamison Crowder and open up an immediate opportunity for Moore.
Kadarius Toney, NYG – 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 was generating some first-round buzz, though some seemed surprised to see the Giants take him where they did. 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. Keep an eye on him during training camp as he is also expected to return punts and kick-offs which is potentially detrimental to his work with the offense.
Rondale Moore, ARI -- Even more so than Smith and Toney, Moore is likely to garner contentious opinions from dynasty prognosticators during his training camp development. 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.
Other Notable Wide Receivers Drafted: Dyami Brown (WAS), Amari Rodgers (GB), Nico Collins (HOU), Tutu Atwell (LAR), Anthony Schwartz (CLE), Tylan Wallace (BAL), Jaelon Darden (TB), D’Wayne Eskridge (SEA), Seth Williams (DEN)
Kyle Pitts, ATL – The top player in this class is no secret as he is a young, generational talent who produced at a big school. Pitts didn’t do much as a true freshman but broke out as a 18-19-year-old sophomore with 54 receptions for 649 yards (12.0 YPC) and five touchdowns in 13 games. His 2020 as a 19–20-year-old is even more impressive when you consider that his 43 grabs for 770 yards (17.9 YPC) and 12 touchdowns came in just 8 games, easily leading the nation in yards at his position. His yards per catch average was absolutely insane for a tight end on that volume, and is indicative of his downfield/yards after the catch prowess. He’s a good enough blocker that it won’t prevent him from getting on the field even before Hayden Hurst, and he has the physical ability to develop in that area regardless. Not that you want him blocking much anyway, as he has the ability to split out wide or line up in the backfield and create mismatches all over the field. Unlike most rookie tight ends, his talent is such that you can expect short term returns in addition to long term dominance (he won’t be 21 until October).
The question isn’t whether Pitts should be the first tight end off the board in rookie drafts; it is how high do you take a seemingly generational player at a position that generally doesn’t garner much dynasty draft capital? Even with the most recent example of a tight end going in the top 10 of the NFL draft in Hockenson, he was regularly available in the bottom half of the first round in rookie drafts. Pitts is in another tier of talent, however, a tier that may not have been touched since Vernon Davis came out in 2006. Ja’Marr Chase, Najee Harris, and Travis Etienne are all the only players I would 100% take over him in rookie drafts. Think of it this way - if you knew you could have the positional advantage afforded by a Travis Kelce or George Kittle for the next 10 years, where would you value that? Pitts is that good, and tight end offers less blue-chip talent than any other skill position. If I’m picking at 1.04, he’d have to be in consideration.
Pat Freiermuth, PIT – A traditional in-line blocking tight end, Freiermuth does most of his damage bullying people after the catch and in the red zone, although he is a capable seam stretcher when asked to be. He has a massive frame that he leverages into strong blocking, something which should get him on the field right away in the NFL. His freshman season doesn’t jump off the page as he never caught more than three passes in a game, but eight of his 26 catches overall went for touchdowns, showing his scoring potential. His best statistical season came as a 20-21-year-old sophomore in 2019 when he caught 43 balls for 507 yards (11.8 YPC) and seven touchdowns. It should be noted that he was on pace to have even better output in 2020 until surgery cut his already shortened season into just four games. In those four games he caught 23 balls for 310 yards (13.5 YPC) and one touchdown, including a dominant seven for 113 (16.1 YPC) line in his final college game against Nebraska where he had easily the longest catch of his career (74). He would be in contention for TE1 in a normal year, and the Steelers wasted no time in grabbing him in the second round. He should be a fantasy starter at some point, but I do not see the elite upside his “Baby Gronk” nickname would imply. I would start considering him in the late second round of rookie drafts. He’s a full two years older than Pitts.
Brevin Jordan, HOU – Jordan is a different flavor of tight end than Freiermuth, as the Hurricanes used him as more of a “move,” lining him up out wide and as an H-back in addition to being in-line. Jordan also has incredible youth: he doesn’t turn 21 until July. While his 32-287-4 line from his 2018 freshman season may not stand out, it is impressive when you consider he was an 18-year-old playing a tough position to transition from high school against a Power Five schedule. He built on those numbers the last two years and established himself as an explosive playmaker with lofty yards per catch averages for a tight end. In 2019 as a 19-year-old sophomore, he caught 35 balls for 495 yards (14.1 YPC) and two touchdowns, following it up in 2020 with a 38-576-7 (15.2 YPC) line as a 20-year-old junior. His 4.64 40-yard dash at Miami’s Pro Day was not bad for a guy his size. From a pure receiving standpoint, he has more upside than Freiermuth, but I worry about how he will be used in Houston relative to his skillset (ex: Evan Engram). That being said, I would understand someone preferring Jordan of the two, I just lean towards Freiermuth’s blocking skills getting him on the field more often. The two comprise a clear second tier behind Pitts for me, although neither are anywhere close to Pitts’ caliber.
Other Notable Tight Ends Drafted: Jacob Harris (LAR), Tommy Tremble (CAR), Hunter Long (MIA), Tre’ McKitty (LAC), Kenny Yeboah (NYJ)