Now that the dust has settled from the 2021 NFL Draft, it’s time to examine this year’s draft class for the upcoming fantasy season. In our Veteran Market Watch, Joe Dolan and I already broke down which players saw their stock rise and which players saw their stock fall for the 2021 season based on this year’s selections.
Based on pre-draft expectations, let’s see which fantasy rookies are looking better and which rookies are looking worse for the upcoming season. I primarily focused on playing opportunities and a player’s supporting cast to determine if I’m feeling better or worse about each prospect for the 2021 fantasy season.
Note: The available targets used for the running backs are courtesy of NBC Sports Edge.
Based on pre-draft expectations, rookies that I’m more optimistic about for the 2021 fantasy season because of potential playing opportunities and/or a strong supporting cast.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
Selected: First overall, QB1
Competition: Gardner Minshew
Lawrence’s selection as the first overall pick in the 2021 draft has been three years in the making ever since he led Clemson to the 2018 national title as a freshman. The Jaguars masterfully threw away the 2020 season to land Lawrence, who they think is their franchise quarterback for at least the next decade. It’s hard not to come to that conclusion after he racked up a 34-2 career record with a national title as a starter at Clemson. Lawrence averaged 272.7 passing yards per game and 9.2 YPA while throwing for 60 TDs and just 13 INTs in 25 games over the last two seasons. He’s also a threat as a runner despite his 6’6”, 213-pound frame as he averaged 30.1 rushing yards per game with 17 rushing TDs over the last two seasons. Lawrence has all the traits to be one of the league’s next great quarterbacks with his size, athleticism, and arm strength.
He’ll be the starter from Day One in Jacksonville with Gardner Minshew serving as his backup after the Jaguars failed to trade him during the draft. Urban Meyer came out of retirement and made the jump to the NFL to work with Lawrence, and he’s the legs of his many mobile quarterbacks in college. Lawrence will also work under OC Darrell Bevell, who opened up the deep-passing attack for the Lions the last two seasons with Matthew Stafford holding an average depth of target of 9.4 yards on his passes. Lawrence also has a strong cast of receivers at his disposal between D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones, Laviska Shenault, and his college teammate Travis Etienne. It doesn’t hurt that he could be in plenty of pass-heavy situations this season after the Jaguars allowed the second-most points per game (30.8) in 2020. Add it all up and I have Lawrence initially slotted as the QB12 this season. Lawrence had an ADP of 117.2 (QB16) during April in BestBall10s, which is likely to rise this summer with the uncertainty surrounding Deshaun Watson.
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
- Selected: 11th overall, QB4
- Competition: Andy Dalton, Nick Foles
Desperate GM Ryan Pace traded up from No. 20 to No. 11 to draft a falling Fields, who he hopes can save his job. Pace’s time in Chicago appears to be running short without a promising 2021 campaign after he whiffed the last time the Bears traded up to draft a quarterback, moving up one spot to land Mitchell Trubisky in 2017. Fields was this year’s most scrutinized quarterback prospect, but he comes into the league with a promising resume after playing the toughest competition among this year’s quarterback class. After a one-year stay at Georgia, he averaged 244.2 passing yards per game and 9.3 YPA with 63 TDs and 9 INTs in 22 games at Ohio State over the last two seasons. His rushing ability is what is most intriguing about him for fantasy as he enters the league after he averaged 39.4 rushing yards per game with 15 rushing TDs the last two seasons. Fields has the size (6’3”, 227 pounds), athleticism (4.44 40-time), and arm talent to be one of the league’s better quarterbacks, but he needs to refine the nuances of the position to become a higher-level passer.
Fields seems more likely to start in Week 1 than Trey Lance and Mac Jones, but it wouldn’t be shocking if the Bears open the year with Andy Dalton as the starter for the first couple weeks of the season. He doesn’t have the best cast of receivers around him outside of Allen Robinson, and he’s going to need Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet to make second-year leaps. Fields will also have major offensive line concerns after the team released veteran LT Charles Leno, which will elevate second-round pick Teven Jenkins into a starting role. Fields’ fantasy production this season will be contingent on his legs and hopefully, HC Matt Nagy learned his lesson after he tried to force Trubisky to be a pocket passer instead of consistently catering to Trubisky’s strengths. The Bears’ offense was at its best when Nagy got Trubisky on the move, and he needs to do that from Day One with Fields. We’ll hopefully know more about who will start early in the season in Chicago by late August, but Fields should be considered as a mid-QB2 because of his potentially elite rushing ability.
Zach Wilson, New York Jets
- Selected: Second overall, QB2
- Competition: James Morgan
The Jets were long rumored to land Wilson with the second overall pick, and that only intensified after New York traded away Sam Darnold, its 2018 third overall pick, to the Panthers on April 5. The Jets did their due diligence scouting Wilson this winter before feeling comfortable enough to trade Darnold to Carolina. Wilson comes into the league off an electrifying junior season at BYU in which he accounted for 43 total touchdowns (33 passing, 10 rushing) while throwing just three INTs in 12 games. He averaged 307.6 passing yards per game and 11.0 YPA and he added 21.2 rushing yards per game last season, albeit against some weak competition. Wilson, who checks in at 6’2”, 214 pounds, has some major Baker Mayfield vibes coming into the league because of his size, arm strength, and second-reaction skills.
Wilson will join Trevor Lawrence as the only rookie quarterbacks who are all but guaranteed to start in Week 1. He should be a great fit for Mike LaFleur’s outside-zone scheme, but we’ll see how he handles pressure at the next level considering the consistently played from clean pockets last season. Darnold was pressured at the highest rate (42.1% per PFF) last season, but at least the Jets traded up to land top O-line prospect Alijah Vera-Tucker. Wilson also won’t have to play in Adam Gase’s offense, which is a major plus. GM Joe Douglas loaded up on receiver help this off-season by signing Corey Davis and Keelan Cole before drafting slot WR Elijah Moore at No. 34 overall after he somewhat surprisingly dropped out of the first round. The Jets’ offense is certainly on the rise but their defense could still be a work in progress, which could lead to some pass-heavy scripts after they allowed 28.6 points per game last season (seventh-most). Wilson could take some lumps early with such a major jump in competition, and he should be considered as a low-end QB2 in two-QB formats.
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
Selected: 24th overall, RB1
Competition: Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland
Available Carries: 169 (seventh-most)
Pittsburgh’s desire to draft Harris was one of the worst kept secrets entering the 2021 NFL Draft. Even with Pittsburgh’s love affair for Harris widely known, no other team jumped ahead of the Steelers to steal the Alabama running back before the 24th pick. Harris was a five-star recruit out of high school, and he lived up to the hype immediately during Alabama’s run to the national title in 2017. He became the team’s featured back over the last two seasons, when he averaged 103.5 rushing yards per game and 5.8 YPC while scoring 39 rushing TDs. Harris also showed some serious receiving chops with 70/729/11 receiving in 26 games the last two seasons. Najee has a big frame (6’2”, 230 pounds) but he has lateral quickness, loose hips, and excellent hands to make an impact as a three-down back.
Harris will immediately jump to the top of Pittsburgh’s running back depth chart, and it would be a mild surprise if he doesn’t step into a true bellcow role as a rookie. Benny Snell’s best-case scenario is that he steals goal-line work from Harris this season while Anthony McFarland will try to pry some passing-down work away, but Harris is likely to dominate the work in this backfield. He has a path to tote the rock 20+ times per game this season, especially since the Steelers have been focused on getting their rushing attack back on track after averaging a miserable 59.9 rushing yards per game in their final 12 contests. The bigger question is if Pittsburgh’s O-line Will improve off of its dismal performance at the end of last season, but Harris should at least have no issues getting volume. Harris is a borderline RB1/RB2 fantasy option, and he’s unlikely to slip past the middle of the second round so you’ll have to be aggressive if you want to draft the no-doubt rookie RB1 entering the season.
Michael Carter, New York Jets
- Selected: 107th overall, RB5
- Competition: Tevin Coleman, La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson
- Available Carries: 216 (fourth-most)
The Jets had multiple chances to address a glaring need at running back in the first two days of the draft, but GM Joe Douglas instead elected to trade up for USC OG Alijah Vera-Tucker at No. 14 and to select Ole Miss slot WR Elijah Moore at No. 34. New York finally made a move to improve one of the league’s worst backfields by selecting Carter at the start of the fourth round. He was just the fifth running back off the board in this year’s weak RB class behind Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and Trey Sermon. Carter was the lightning to Williams’ thunder the last three seasons at North Carolina. He averaged 6.6 YPC during his career and he ran for 1000+ yards in each of his final two seasons. He also added 20+ catches in each of his final three seasons. Carter lacks ideal size at 5’8”, 201 pounds, but his versatile skill set will get him on the field both as a runner and as a receiver.
Carter has the chance to see significant playing time immediately in New York since his only competition will come from Tevin Coleman, La’Mical Perine, and Ty Johnson. Coleman managed just 28 carries in eight games last season, Perine didn’t show much of anything as a 2020 fourth-round pick, and Johnson could be in a fight for a roster spot under a new coaching staff. It’s difficult to get too excited for a fourth-round pick since the Jets didn’t exactly invest much into him, but he’s easily the most talented back on the roster at this point. There’s a good chance the Jets will view Carter just as a complementary back since he lacks the size to be a sustaining runner. Still, he’s the best bet to lead this backfield in touches this season, and I’ll be considering him after 100+ picks in drafts.
Based on pre-draft expectations, rookies that I’m less optimistic about for the 2021 fantasy season because of a lack of playing opportunities and/or a weak supporting cast.
Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
- Selected: Third overall, QB3
- Competition: Jimmy Garoppolo
Lance comes into the league with extremely limited experience playing at the FCS level, which didn’t deter HC Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch from pulling a mild upset and drafting Lance over Mac Jones at No. 3. Lance played at North Dakota State like Carson Wentz before him, and he has just 17 starts under his belt coming into the league, which included just one exhibition game in 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns. He incredibly didn’t throw an interception in 16 games as a sophomore in 2019 while throwing for 28 TDs. Lance averaged a pedestrian 174.1 passing yards per game and 9.7 YPA, but he did add 68.8 rushing yards per game and 14 rushing scores. He’s easily the most intriguing prospect in this year’s quarterback class because of his lack of experience, but he has the size (6’3”, 224 pounds), athleticism, and arm strength to develop into a high-level quarterback.
Lance could be given the chance to be the Week One starter in training camp, but he’s also the one first-round quarterback I could see sitting on the bench for the entire 2021 season. I believe Lance will be starting games by November at the latest, but there’s a slim chance Jimmy Garoppolo holds onto the job with a strong start this season. The 49ers aren’t necessarily in a rush to get Lance on the field early this season, but he’ll have an explosive receiving corps to work with once he steps onto the field. George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and Deebo Samuel form the most dynamic trio in the league after the catch so Lance just needs to get the ball in their hands and let them do the work. Lance will get plenty of help getting the rock to his playmakers from arguably the best offensive schemer in the league in Shanahan. Lance will be a bench stash in two-QB leagues this season since Jimmy G is likely to see starts early in the season. He’d rise to mid-QB2 status if the 49ers would find a trade partner for Garoppolo this summer.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots
Selected: 15th overall, QB5
Competition: Cam Newton
Jones went from possibly being the third overall pick for the 49ers to falling to the middle of the first round. However, he had no complaints about his landing spot at No. 15 with the best team of this century, especially since he was way off the first-round radar before the 2020 season. Jones flew up draft boards and into the top-15 picks because of his performance during Alabama’s run to the national championship last season. He averaged 346.2 passing yards per game while completing 77.4% of his passes and averaging 11.2 YPA on his way to 41 TDs and just four INTs in 13 games. Jones is unlikely to ever be an elite fantasy option because of his lack of mobility (he accounted for just 14 rushing yards all of last season), but at least showed enough pocket mobility to avoid the rare pressure he saw while at Alabama. Jones played with elite receivers like DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, but he was an efficient executor with excellent accuracy to get the most out of his elite weapons.
Jones will see significant playing time at some point in 2021, but Bill Belichick is likely to give Cam Newton one last chance as the starter to begin the season. Cam will have to play much better than he did in 2020 if he has any chance to hold off Jones, and I would bet against it after what we saw from a broken-down Cam last season. Tom Brady, another sub-par athlete coming out of college, of course, flourished under Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels, and they’d likely move the offense back to more of a quick-passing attack when Jones eventually gets inserted into the lineup. The Patriots have also significantly upgraded their receiving corps from last season by bringing in Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne this off-season. Jones will have to develop into one of the best pocket passers in the league to overcome his lack of mobility to be on the fantasy radar, and we can’t expect it to happen as a rookie. He’ll be nothing more than a low-end QB2 once he cracks the starting lineup this season.
Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Selected: 25th overall, RB2
- Competition: James Robinson, Carlos Hyde
- Available Carries: 15 (fourth-fewest)
Etienne made a questionable decision returning to Clemson for his senior season in 2020, but he certainly ran into some bad luck with COVID-19 breaking out across the world just weeks after he announced his return. All’s well that ends well as Etienne still worked his way into the first round in the 2021 NFL Draft despite a down senior season. He averaged just 5.4 YPC and 76.2 rushing yards per game as a senior after averaging 121.2 rushing yards per game and 8.0 YPC in 2018-19. On a positive note, he improved as a receiver during each of his four seasons, culminating 48/588/2 receiving, which led all running backs in 2020. Etienne was easily the most explosive back in this year’s class with his 4.41-speed in his strong 5’10”, 215-pound frame, and the only question is if he’ll be deployed as a volume back at the next level.
James Robinson’s underdog story from last season had a not-so-happy ending when the Jaguars’ new front office selected Etienne as the second RB off the board in the first round of the 2021 draft. It’s also a less than ideal landing spot for Etienne since he’ll have to outperform Robinson to get on the field, which isn’t going to be easy after what we saw from the UDFA back last season. It’s also not great that Meyer went out of his way to sign his former Ohio State star Carlos Hyde to a two-year contract during free agency. The Jaguars overpaid for Hyde, who was unlikely to get a multi-year contract from any of the other 31 teams. Meyer likely has a role in mind for his former recruit, whether that’s on early downs or at the goal line, and he’s likely to steal a few carries per game, which adds up for fantasy. Etienne is the most talented back and he has a chance to emerge as a three-down back, but the presence of Robinson and Hyde will push him into the low-end RB2 mix since he’s unlikely to be a volume hound out of the gate.
Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
- Selected: 35th overall, RB3
- Competition: Melvin Gordon
- Available Carries: 121 (13th-most)
The Broncos passed on selecting a quarterback in this year’s draft, but they landed another running back feature back after signing Melvin Gordon to a two-year, $16 million contract last off-season. Denver traded up from No. 40 to No. 35 to draft Williams, who projects to be a feature runner and a potential three-down back at the next level. He split the workload at North Carolina the last two seasons with fourth-round pick Michael Carter, and Williams rose up the running back class with an outstanding junior season in 2020. He averaged 103.6 rushing yards per game and 7.3 YPC while rushing for 19 TDs in 11 games, and he added a career-best 25/305/3 receiving. Williams received some comparisons to Nick Chubb because of powerful build (5’10”, 212 pounds) and his tackle-breaking ability, and I see some similarities in their situations as rookies. The Browns also drafted Chubb with the 35th overall pick in 2018 and, after a slow start to his rookie season, Chubb became a fantasy difference-maker after overtaking Carlos Hyde in the back half of the season.
Gordon and Williams are likely to start the season in a timeshare, with the rookie potentially ascending to Denver’s top option by the end of the season. Gordon did have his DUI charges from last fall dropped in March, but he could still face some sort of suspension this season. If the NFL would suspend Gordon, it could be a huge development for Williams if he’s able to open the season as the starter with Gordon on the sidelines, which would give him a chance to impress early. Even if Gordon avoids a suspension, Williams will get plenty of opportunities to take more work from Gordon as the season progresses since he’s the future of the position for the Broncos. Denver failed to significantly upgrade at quarterback this off-season, pairing Teddy Bridgewater with the underwhelming Drew Lock, which is going to hold this offense back a bit. Still, I’ll be viewing Williams as a borderline RB2/RB3 with major upside and I’ll be targeting him starting in the fifth round.
Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers
- Selected: 88th overall, RB4
- Competition: Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, Wayne Gallman, Elijah Mitchell
- Available Carries: 124 (12th-most)
HC Kyle Shanahan loves to keep a full stable of running backs at his disposal, and the 49ers added to their backfield by trading up to No. 88 to select Sermon. He’ll join Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, Wayne Gallman, and JaMycal Hasty in San Francisco’s competition for playing time next season — the 49ers also drafted RB Elijah Mitchell on Day Three. Sermon has plenty of experience playing in crowded backfields at Oklahoma and Ohio State, which limited him to fewer than 500 touches in four seasons. He busted out in a big way late last year, averaging 7.5 YPC for the season while totaling 636/4 rushing in his final three full games against Ohio State’s toughest competition. Sermon has great size (6’0”, 215 pounds) and good contact balance to develop into a volume runner, but he doesn’t have game-breaking speed (4.57 40-time) and he wasn’t asked to do much as a receiver with just 48 career catches.
Sermon landed in a pristine spot for dynasty leagues, but he’ll have a difficult time climbing so many bodies on this San Francisco depth chart to stand out for fantasy this season. He’s currently San Francisco’s long-term solution at running back since he’ll be under contract for the next four years. Mostert, Wilson, and Gallman are each signed only through the upcoming season. He’s a good fit for Shanahan’s offense after running plenty of outside-zone schemes at Ohio State last season. I certainly wouldn’t bet against Sermon this season and I’ll be targeting him once drafts get into the double-digit rounds this summer. I’m planning on having more Sermon shares than Mostert shares simply based on price, but expectations need to be kept in check this season since Shanahan is likely to use a committee approach with his backfield.