Identifying rookie fantasy football players to roster on your fantasy football team can be a bit overwhelming. They obviously don’t have a proven track record that you can use to evaluate their potential fantasy production, and their general lack of predictability makes putting them in your early season lineups a risky proposition. Of course, when you take risks, there’s an opportunity for a reward.
Fantasy football managers who took a chance on rostering and starting James Robinson (17.9), Jonathan Taylor (17), D’Andrew Swift (14.9), Antonio Gibson (14.7), and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (13.5) were all rewarded with rookie running backs who finished in the top 24 in fantasy points per game (FPPG).
Many quarterbacks seem to benefit from spending parts of their rookie seasons watching and learning from the sidelines. Chargers rookie QB Justin Herbert is one exception to that rule. Herbert threw for 31 touchdowns, ran for five more and threw ten interceptions last season. He also scored the eighth-most FPPG among all fantasy QB’s with 26.2. On the other hand, we have Jalen Hurts. Hurts may eventually develop into a fine fantasy QB for the Eagles, but he played in 14 games and started just four as a rookie last season and averaged just 9.3 fantasy points per game (FPPG).
Last season only four rookies finished within the top 36 of all fantasy wide receivers when taking FPPG into account. They were Justin Jefferson (Vikings), Brandon Aiyuk (49ers), Chase Claypool (Steelers), and CeeDee Lamb (Cowboys).
Rookie tight ends are notorious for needing some extra seasoning before they become fantasy relevant. The last rookie TE to fall within the top 15 in FPPG was Evan Engram in 2017 (he finished fourth). There’s a rookie tight end that we’ll introduce you to later in this article who has a good chance at putting an end to that drought.
Let’s look at some of 2021’s fantasy football rookies and try to determine who might potentially have immediate fantasy value and when you should expect to have to target them in your preseason drafts. When referring to average draft position (ADP) we will defer to Fantasy Pros Consensus ADP and our draft advice will be based on 12-team redraft leagues.
Trevor Lawrence, JAC, ADP 111th overall
Lawrence has good leadership qualities and he’s a mobile, accurate passer who can thread the ball and complete passes into tight windows. He has a good trio of receivers to throw the ball to in D.J. Chark Jr., Marvin Jones Jr., and Laviska Shenault Jr. and while his QB coach Brian Schottenheimer had mixed results during his time at the University of Georgia, he does have experience in working with top QB’s like Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck. If he plays up to his potential there’s a chance that Lawrence can provide top 12 fantasy QB production. However, it’s more likely that he’d at least start the season as your fantasy team’s backup QB. Lawrence will almost surely be the Jaguars’ starting QB for the entire season and with the Jags likely playing from behind in many of their games he has a high ceiling and an opportunity to put up big numbers.
Draft advice: Expect to have to invest a mid-round (tenth round or so) draft pick if you plan on rostering Lawrence. Veteran QB’s like Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins have similar ADP’s to Lawrence’s and carry a bit less performance risk in comparison to the rookie.
Justin Fields, CHI, ADP 141st overall
According to the Bears, Andy Dalton will be their Week 1 starting QB. How long he holds on to that job obviously depends on his performance and how quickly Justin Fields develops throughout the season. Fields is a dual threat QB who is both quick and elusive in the open field. He has a strong and accurate arm, but despite Fields’ mobility he’s been known to take too many sacks. Fumbles have also been an issue for Fields in the past.
Draft advice: Watch Fields’ progress in training camp. The Bears may have given Dalton a vote of confidence but depending on how quickly Fields progresses this preseason he may be on a short leash. You’ll have to invest less draft capital in Fields as compared to the previously mentioned Lawrence, but the latter has a better chance of opening the season as his teams’ starting QB.
The following rookie QB’s will probably go undrafted in one-quarterback fantasy football leagues.
Trey Lance, SF, ADP 154th overall
With the recent success of mobile QB’s like Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray, a dual threat signal caller seems to be on the wish list of many NFL head coaches. Lance is the latest QB who could attack defenses with both his arm and with his legs. He ran for 1,100 yards and scored 14 rushing TD’s in 2019. Lance has all the tools needed to eventually develop into an NFL starter and with a little more experience, he’ll be under center calling plays for the 49ers. There’s a chance that he’ll become the 49ers starter by the end of the season, but for now look for the Niners to potentially design some plays that will allow them to take advantage of his dynamic attributes and occasionally use him as a change-of-pace type of QB.
Zach Wilson, NYJ, ADP 156th overall
Zach Wilson is another rookie QB who’ll likely be under center for the entire season. He possesses the confidence and skillset required to be a successful NFL QB, but unfortunately Wilson has a weak supporting cast surrounding him. Pro Football Focus ranks both his receiving corps and offensive line as the 28th-best in football. Wilson has obvious value in Dynasty leagues and should also be rostered in Superflex league formats.
Mac Jones, NE, ADP 218th overall
After watching Tom Brady win a Super Bowl without him don’t expect Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to have much patience with Cam Newton if the Pats get off to a slow start. If Newton struggles like he did in 2020 and the Patriots have a losing record by the end of the first month of the season, there’s a chance that Mac Jones will be instilled as Belichick’s starting QB. Jones is an accurate pocket passer who knows how and when to use his average mobility in order to scramble out of trouble and he just might have some sleeper potential.
Najee Harris, PIT, ADP 22nd overall
Harris is a three-down power back who uses his big frame to break tackles and add yardage after contact. Harris may not possess elite speed, but his pass protection skills and the fact that he doesn’t fumble the ball will keep him on the field. He’s an excellent receiver with 70 catches over his last two seasons at Alabama. Running behind the Steelers’ revamped offensive line will be a challenge for Harris this season. However, with questions surrounding QB Ben Roethlisberger’s arm strength, head coach Mike Tomlin is committed to making the Steelers run game a bigger part of their overall offense.
Draft advice: Harris’ current ADP means that you’ll have to invest a second-round pick on a RB who hasn’t yet logged carry in the NFL, but despite the question marks surrounding the Steelers’ offensive line he has enough talent and ability to potentially have a productive season. If you’re worried about investing a second-round pick on a rookie RB, you can opt to draft Antonio Gibson instead of Harris. Gibson is coming off of a fine rookie season and has an ADP that is similar to Harris’. However, with a coach like Tomlin who has a history of using a bell cow back as one of the centerpieces of his championship team’s offenses, Harris might have a higher upside than Gibson.
Travis Etienne, JAC, ADP 64th overall
With a career 7.2 average YPC and 85 catches over the past two seasons Etienne has been a one-man wrecking crew throughout his college career. The Jaguars made Etienne a first-round pick, but in speaking with the media, head coach Urban Meyer hinted that James Robinson would be handling much of the early down work this season. He suggested that Etienne, who’s been cross-training as a receiver, could be more of a pass catching third down option in the Jags’ offense. Robinson is a better pass protector than Etienne, a factor that could affect the rookie’s playing time but otherwise, they share similar skillsets. Both are good pass catchers, and both can rack up yardage as downhill power backs. Having two solid options at RB, both of which can be used as check down options, can only help to take some of the pressure off of rookie QB Trevor Lawrence.
Draft advice: If Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt can each have fantasy value, so can Robinson and Etienne. Meyer can continue to play his games with the media, but we fantasy football players know that all head coaches lie when it comes to them divulging on how they plan on using their players during the season. The Jags didn’t waste a first-round pick on an all-around talented back like Etienne just so that he can be used in passing downs. Etienne will likely have an evolving role in this offense and provide ample fantasy value at his current ADP.
Javonte Williams, DEN, ADP 71st overall
The Broncos used a running back by committee approach in their backfield last season with Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay basically splitting carries when both were healthy. With Lindsay carrying the ball for the Texans this season, look for Williams to gradually fill his role. With Lindsay only having averaged 10.7 carries per game last season Williams will probably only provide backup fantasy running back type of fantasy production to start the season.
Draft advice: Williams has enough talent to be a future bell cow back but for this season unless Gordon is forced to miss time, his usage will be limited. It might be unwise to invest a sixth-round pick on a player like Williams who is likely to find himself on the weak side of a timeshare situation. Mike Davis (ADP 74) might be a better investment. He was fantasy football’s RB16 with an average of 14.9 FPPG among fantasy RB’s who played at least ten games last season. Williams may be the better long-term fantasy investment but barring injury, Davis should be the Falcons’ primary RB for the 2021 season.
Michael Carter, NYJ, ADP 94th overall
Carter possesses two traits that coaches like to see in their RB’s. He doesn’t fumble and he’s a good pass protector. Based on his ADP he’s being drafted alongside talented RB’s like James Conner, David Johnson, Damien Harris and Kenyan Drake, who all have question marks surrounding their 2021 season. With Carter listed third on the Jets’ RB depth chart, there are also questions regarding how he’ll be used in their backfield, but don’t be too surprised if he finishes the season as the Jets’ primary back.
Trey Sermon, 49ers, ADP 113th overall
Raheem Mostert is expected to start the season as the 49ers’ primary back, and the Niners signed Wayne Gallman as a free agent this offseason. However, with Jeff Wilson Jr. out for four-to-six months as he recovers from meniscus surgery, Sermon has an opportunity to carve out a role form himself in the 49ers’ offense this season. Injuries forced the Niners to use a committee approach in managing their backfield last season, but they traded up to draft Sermon and obviously like his potential. He’s a versatile back with excellent speed and above average pass catching and pass protection ability. With Mostert already having dealt with a minor knee injury last month the 49ers backfield will continue to be a work in progress and one that needs to be monitored closely as Week 1 approaches.
Ja’Marr Chase, CIN, ADP 70th overall
Chase, who opted out of the 2020 college football season, gets a chance to reunite with his old LSU QB, Joe Burrow, this season. Chase is an explosive receiver who has been a big-time playmaker. The last time that he and Burrow played together in 2019, they connected for 1,720 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns, eight of which were for 50 yards or more.
Draft advice: Reconnecting with his old QB should help Chase shake off some of the rust of nearly 16 months of football inactivity. Even though the Bengals have two other high quality receivers in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd on their roster, even as a rookie Chase has a good chance of out producing both of them in the Bengals’ pass happy offense. Chase should play up to his ADP.
DeVonta Smith, PHI, ADP, 95th overall
With a new coaching staff and with second year QB Jalen Hurts continuing to learn the ropes it may take a few weeks for the Eagles offense to find their way. One thing does seem certain, and that is that DeVonta Smith will likely be the Eagles’ WR1 this season. He’s a smallish six-foot, 170-pound sure handed receiver who runs great routes and has plenty of speed. Smith might not put up the same kind of numbers as the previously-mentioned rookie receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, but he’s just as talented. With the Eagles in full blown post-Carson Wentz rebuild mode Smith is likely to get off to a slow start but expect him and the Eagles’ offense to gradually improve as the season progresses.
Draft advice: Smith’s overall fantasy production might benefit with the Eagles likely having to rely on their passing game as they potentially play from behind for much of the season. Fantasy football managers who drafted Smith in the eighth round of their 12-team fantasy drafts may drop him after a few weeks but might eventually pick him up off of waivers in the middle of the season as the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner and the Eagles offense starts to click.
Jaylen Waddle, MIA, ADP 111th overall
Waddle is another rookie receiver who will have a familiar arm trying to get him the ball this season. He and Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa were both members of Alabama’s 2018 and 2019 teams. Waddle’s speed separates him from the pack and routinely separates him from defenders as well. He’s a versatile receiver who has the potential to be a game changer.
Draft advice: He’s a dynamic receiver who can lineup and make a big play from almost anywhere on the field. There’s sometimes a bit of boom or bust quality when it comes to receivers with Waddle’s type of skillset, and consistency could be an issue when it comes to his week-to-week fantasy production. Draft him as a WR3 or flex play, and hopefully he’ll exceed those expectations.
Kyle Pitts, ATL, ADP 72nd overall
It usually takes a rookie TE a season or two to become fantasy relevant, but Kyle Pitts may be an exception to that rule. The 6’6” 245-pound former QB has already drawn comparisons to Darren Waller, but with his unique blend of size and ball handling ability, some have compared him to Calvin Johnson as well. Pitts’ blocking skills can use a bit of fine tuning, but at his core, he’s an elite pass catcher who can line up and be successful when playing from both the slot and the outside.
Draft advice: There are no sure things in fantasy sports, but Pitts is close to being a can’t miss top ten fantasy TE. Selecting him in the sixth round of a 12-team draft ahead of TE’s like Logan Thomas and Noah Fant seems a bit ambitious. However, with 18 touchdowns in 24 career college games and his ability to make contested catches, Pitts does have a chance at out producing both of those more experienced fantasy TE’s.