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 receivers 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.
Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
Selected: fifth overall, WR1
Competition: Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd
Available Targets: 195 (fifth-most)
The Bengals may have found their new franchise WR after they let A.J. Green walk in free agency after a decade-plus in Cincinnati. They bypassed selecting top offensive tackle Penei Sewell to take Joe Burrow’s old LSU teammate Chase, who was regarded as one of the best WR prospects to enter the league in recent history. He opted out of the 2020 season to focus on his pro career since his status was locked in as a top pick heading into last fall. Chase was so highly regarded because of his silly good sophomore season with Burrow during LSU’s run to the national title. He averaged 6.0 catches and 127.1 receiving yards per game over 14 contests in 2019 while scoring 20 times and averaging a ridiculous 21.2 YPR. Chase is extremely athletic (4.38 40-time, 41” vertical) and he’s hyper-competitive with the ball in the air in a frame (6’0”, 201 pounds) that can help him excel at any spot on the field.
Chase will step into a Bengals’ offense that has the fifth-most targets vacated from last season with Green leaving for the desert. Green mostly wasted 104 targets last season with a miserable 45.2% catch rate and his 11.1 YPR average. Chase will have some strong competition for targets from young standouts Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, but neither player is at the special level that Chase is at even as a rookie. The bigger concern for Chase and these Bengals wideouts is Burrow’s health after his nasty knee injury last season. Cincinnati made some minor moves to improve their offensive line by signing Riley Reiff and drafting Jackson Carman in the second round, but this group is still shoddy by league standards. You’re going to have to pay a steep price to land Chase in the fifth round in drafts this summer, but he has a chance to be a fantasy difference-maker right out of the gates if Burrow is close to full health.
DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles
- Selected: 10th overall, WR3
- Competition: Jalen Reagor, Travis Fulgham
- Available Targets: 81 (12th-fewest)
The Eagles traded up two spots to steal Smith away from the division-rival Giants, which marked the second straight year Philadelphia picked a WR in the first round after taking Jalen Reagor at No. 21 in 2020. Philadelphia actually became the first team to select wide receivers in the first round in consecutive drafts in 16 years — remarkably, the Falcons, Jaguars, and Lions each drafted first-round WRs in 2004-05. Smith is coming off the first Heisman-winning season for a wide receiver since Desmond Howard did it at Michigan in 1991. He averaged a ridiculous 9.0 catches and 142.8 receiving yards per game over 13 contests in 2020, and he posted 23 receiving TDs while averaging 15.9 YPR. Smith fell to WR3 because of his slender frame (6’0”, 170 pounds) but he’s a tactician as a route runner with excellent ball skills to make up for his lack of size.
Smith landed in a pristine spot to make some early noise in an Eagles’ offense that’s devoid of a #1 WR after Reagor struggled through injuries and poor QB play from Carson Wentz last season. It can’t get much worse than Wentz’s performance last year, but it’s yet to be seen if Jalen Hurts is going to be much of an upgrade after he completed just 52% of his passes while averaging an acceptable 7.2 YPA in four games. At least Smith has plenty of experience catching passes from Hurts from their time together at Alabama. I have Ja’Marr Chase as the top fantasy WR for the upcoming season, but Smith has an outside shot of challenging him if he immediately becomes the top WR in Philadelphia. His fantasy output is also going to depend on the development of Hurts so I have him slotted in as an upside WR4 entering the season.
Rondale Moore, Arizona Cardinals
- Selected: 49th overall, WR7
- Competition: DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk
- Available Targets: 156 (11th-most)
The Cardinals didn’t move up to draft one of the Alabama WRs in the first round as they were rumored to potentially do, but they still landed a playmaker for Kyler Murray on Day Two by landing Moore. The Purdue product certainly doesn’t have the biggest frame (5’7”, 180 pounds) for the scattershot Murray, but he’ll bring some much-needed YAC ability, which has been absent in Arizona’s offense with Larry Fitzgerald manning the slot. Moore came onto the scene in a big way by leading the FBS with 114 catches as a true freshman in 2018. His college career fizzled out though, as he played in three games before opting out for last season after managing just four games as a sophomore because of a hamstring injury. Moore is quick (6.68 three-cone) and explosive (42”) with the ball in his hands, but he wasn’t a consistent vertical threat at Purdue despite his 4.29 40-time.
Arizona is ready for life without Fitz, since Moore is the complete opposite receiver out of the slot. The Cardinals will be running four deep at wide receiver between DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and Moore, which means Kliff Kingsbury could use more “10” personnel than he has in his first two seasons (he switched away from that strategy early in 2019, when he realized he didn’t have the personnel to do so). The worry for the diminutive receiver is that Kingsbury uses him more like a gadget player as a receiver, runner, and returner without a consistent role in Arizona’s passing attack. Moore will be a re-draft bench stash to start the season until we see if he’ll have a bankable fantasy role as a receiver in Kingsbury’s offense. At least Green and Kirk aren’t exactly the most imposing receivers, and he could quickly overtake them to be the #2 option in this passing attack this season.
Terrace Marshall Jr., Carolina Panthers
- Selected: 59th overall, WR10
- Competition: D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, David Moore
- Available Targets: 200 (fourth-most)
Marshall was being considered as a late-round first pick leading up to the draft, but he slipped to the Panthers in the bottom of the second round because of durability concerns. Marshall has suffered three separate foot/ankle fractures since high school but, injuries aside, Carolina landed one heck of a prospect on Day Two of the draft. He was overshadowed at LSU by stud teammates Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase during the 2019 season, but he still averaged 4.9 catches and 73.8 receiving yards per game over the last two seasons while scoring 23 TDs in 19 games. Marshall is long (6’3”, 205 pounds) and has plenty of speed (4.38 40-time) to make plays as a vertical threat or with the ball in his hands. Marshall primarily played on the perimeter in 2019 while Panthers’ OC Joe Brady was coaching him at LSU before Marshall took over Jefferson’s role in the slot last season with Brady moving on to Carolina.
The Panthers lost primary slot receiver Curtis Samuel (Washington) in free agency, and they brought in just David Moore to fill the void next to D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. Carolina is also breaking in a new quarterback after trading for Sam Darnold and sending Teddy Bridgewater to Denver this off-season. Darnold’s career has been a mess up to this point playing under Adam Gase with a weak supporting cast, but he’ll be getting major upgrades in coaching and personnel in Carolina. Marshall will need to beat out just David Moore to play in three-WR sets, and he could be an interesting late-round pick in best ball formats since Brady’s offense supported three fantasy WRs last year. Of course, Darnold will have to do his part to support multiple fantasy receivers, but Marshall will basically be a free pick with some upside in best ball formats if Darnold can be the next player to dramatically improve once he gets away from Gase.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions
- Selected: 112th overall, WR17
- Competition: Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, Quintez Cephus
- Available Targets: 334 (most)
Normally, the 17th WR drafted wouldn’t have much of a shot for fantasy relevance before the season started, but St. Brown landed in the ideal location to potentially make some noise early. The Lions have a whopping 334 available targets from last season, which is nearly 100 more available targets than the next closest team in the Jaguars (240). It is a bit worrisome that so many teams passed on St. Brown, causing him to fall to the fourth round. He had a strong season playing out of the slot at USC in 2019, posting a career-best 77/1042/6 receiving (13.5 YPR) as a sophomore. He moved to the perimeter as a junior after Michael Pittman left for the NFL, and he managed just 11.7 YPR on his way to 41/478/7 receiving in six games. St. Brown checked in at a shade under 6’0” and 197 pounds, but he showed some athleticism at his Pro Day with a 39” vertical and 127” broad jump.
Our Greg Cosell compared St. Brown to another USC receiver, Robert Woods, because of his ability to line up all over the formation and his ability to create separation with his quickness and route running. St. Brown could challenge for immediate playing time in three-WR sets with just Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, and Quintez Cephus likely ahead of him heading into training camp. He could easily move back into the slot this season with Williams and Perriman playing on the perimeter for new QB Jared Goff — T.J. Hockenson should pace this roster in targets this season. The Lions are going to own one of the league’s worst offenses, but they should at least be in plenty of pass-heavy scripts for St. Brown to potentially rack up some catches for PPR formats. St. Brown could be worth a late-round pick in best ball drafts and there’s a chance he could become a late-round option in re-draft formats if he’s performing well in August.
Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
- Selected: fourth overall, TE1
- Competition: Hayden Hurst
- Available Targets: 145 (12th-most)
Pitts was arguably the top player in this year’s draft outside of Trevor Lawrence because of his generational talent at the position. He’s a rare tight end like Travis Kelce or Rob Gronkowski who has the ability to take over games as a receiver because of his unique length and speed regardless of position. He’ll be a matchup nightmare for years to come for the Falcons, who made him the highest-drafted tight end in the common draft era, which began in 1967. Pitts scored a ridiculous 12 TDs and he averaged 17.9 YPR in eight games last season. He also averaged 5.4 catches and 96.3 receiving yards per game in his final season as a junior. Pitts has unique length (6’6”, 83” wingspan), athleticism (4.44 40-time), and ball skills, which will instantly make him one of the toughest covers for defenders in the league.
Pitts does have some elite talents to compete with for targets in 2021 between Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones, but they should also make his transition to the NFL a little easier since they’ll command attention on the perimeter. The Falcons also have Hayden Hurst still in the fold, but they declined his fifth-year option after the draft and his role is likely to quickly dwindle under Arthur Smith’s new regime. Pitts is just 20 years old and he immediately jumped to the top of the tight end dynasty rankings. I’m also ranking Pitts as the TE6 in my initial rankings for 2021, behind T.J. Hockenson and ahead of Dallas Goedert. You’ll have to be prepared to use at least a sixth-round pick to land him this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising if his hype continues to build if he makes a play or two during the preseason. Rookie TEs typically underwhelm for fantasy, but no rookie TE has possessed Pitts’ league-winning upside entering the league, so be prepared to pay up for him.
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.
Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins
- Selected: sixth overall, WR2
- Competition: Will Fuller, DeVante Parker
- Available Targets: 69 (10th-fewest)
The Dolphins were down to scrubs at receiver by the end of last season, which made it tough to fully evaluate Tua Tagovailoa’s performance as a rookie last season. Tua’s receiving corps won’t be an issue this season after drafting speedster Waddle at No. 6 and after the Dolphins signed Will Fuller during free agency. Waddle made the most of his limited opportunities in an absolutely loaded Alabama receiving corps over the last three seasons, and he actually ended up being drafted higher than Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, and 2020 Heisman winner DeVonta Smith. Waddle averaged a silly 18.9 YPR on 3.1 catches and 58.8 receiving yards per game with 17 TDs in 34 career games with the Crimson Tide. He received Tyreek Hill comparisons in the pre-draft process because of his electric speed and quickness in a smaller frame (5’10”, 183 pounds) and because of his ability to create explosive plays at all levels of the field.
Waddle can line up all over the formation but he primarily played out of the slot at Alabama, which is likely where he’ll find himself the most this season playing between Fuller and DeVante Parker in three-WR sets. The Dolphins had no downfield presence for Tagovailoa outside of Mike Gesicki last season, but that’s changed in a big way with Fuller and Waddle in the fold. It’s yet to be seen if Tua will be able to take full advantage of his speedy WRs after he finished near the bottom of the league in percentage of 20+ yards passes (10%) and NFL passer rating on those attempts (76.7). I don’t think Waddle has as much upside as Ja’Marr Chase and DeVonta Smith in this year’s rookie class because of his competition for targets because of Tua’s unimpressive rookie season. With that said, Fuller will serve a one-game suspension to open the season and he’s had injury issues before 2020. Waddle’s history with Tua at Alabama could also give him a chance at more targets than anticipated so he’s still a worthy WR4 target in drafts.
Kadarius Toney, New York Giants
- Selected: 20th overall, WR4
- Competition: Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton
- Available Targets: 134 (15th-most)
The Giants desperately wanted to upgrade Daniel Jones’ receiving corps this off-season, and they made their desperation a little too evident leading up to the draft, which resulted in the Eagles leaping over New York to draft DeVonta Smith at No. 10. GM Dave Gettleman wisely traded down out of the 11th overall pick to No. 20 after they could no longer draft Smith, but he reached a bit to select Toney. The Florida product will be a bit of a project as a rookie receiver, but he has the potential to be an explosive playmaker for Jones for years to come. Toney didn’t emerge until his senior season at Florida, but he exploded with 6.4 catches and 104.1 scrimmage yards per game with 11 TDs in 11 games. He primarily played out of the slot at 6’0”, 193 pounds, and he possesses some major explosiveness after registering a 136” broad jump and a 4.42 40-time at his pro day.
The Giants are suddenly five deep at receiver between Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, Darius Slayton, and Toney. It means that target competition is going to be fierce behind Golladay, who projects to be a bit of a ball hog after inking a four-year, $72 million contract this off-season. Toney lined up all over the formation at Florida, including in the backfield, and OC Jason Garrett is going to be tasked with generating weekly touches for him, which will offset the lack of targets he’s likely to see as a rookie. Toney is likely to be a work in progress as a rookie receiver and the Giants have no reason to rush him since they have a capable receiving corps. I’ll be considering him as a WR6/7 in best ball leagues despite his first-round NFL Draft status.
Rashod Bateman, Baltimore Ravens
- Selected: 27th overall, WR5
- Competition: Marquise Brown, Sammy Watkins, Devin Duvernay, Miles Boykin
- Available Targets: 70 (11th-fewest)
The Ravens drafted Bateman with their first pick in this year’s draft, which marked the third time in the last four years they selected a receiver with their first selection — they previously selected Marquise Brown in 2019 and Hayden Hurst in 2018. Bateman had a prolific three-year run at Minnesota before he opted out after five games in 2020. He ended his career by posting 4.7 catches and 77.3 receiving yards per game while averaging 16.3 YPR with 19 TD receptions in 31 career games. Bateman checked in a bit smaller (6’0”, 190 pounds) than anticipated at his pro day but he surprised with a 4.39 40-time. Our Greg Cosell believes he can excel at any WR spot and he saw shades of Michael Thomas and Allen Robinson because of his smooth route running and his competitiveness with the ball in the air.
The Ravens have gone out of their way to improve the receiving options around Lamar Jackson this off-season, drafting Bateman and Tylan Wallace (fourth round) and signing Sammy Watkins. The Ravens have said they want to expand the passing game this season, and their off-season moves back that up. However, Baltimore should still be among the league leaders in run volume after attempting a league-low 25.9 passes per game in 2020. Brown easily paced Baltimore’s WRs in targets last season with 100 looks, which was 52 more than the next closest WR, Willie Snead. Brown has no chance of doubling up Baltimore’s #2 WR this season, whether that’s Bateman or Watkins, but these WRs are unlikely to see a massive influx of targets, especially with Mark Andrews and his 88 targets from last season still around. Bateman should see the field plenty early in his career but he’s unlikely to see enough volume as the third or fourth option to offer much upside as a late-round dart throw.
Elijah Moore, New York Jets
- Selected: 34th overall, WR6
- Competition: Jamison Crowder, Corey Davis, Denzel Mims, Keelan Cole,
- Available Targets: 118 (16th-fewest)
GM Joe Douglas could’ve drafted for bigger needs at the start of the second round, but he elected to go with the best player on the board in Moore after he unexpectedly slipped out of Day One. Douglas was hellbent on giving No. 2 pick Zach Wilson the best possible chance at success right out of the gates as a rookie after watching Sam Darnold flame out in New York after just three seasons. Moore became the focal point of Ole Miss’ passing attack over the last two seasons after D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown moved onto the NFL after the 2018 season. He averaged a healthy 7.7 catches and 102.2 receiving yards per game with 14 receiving scores in his last 20 games in 2019-20. He’ll be mostly confined to the slot because of his small frame (5’9”, 178 pounds), but his speed (4.35 40-time) and quickness (6.66 three-cone) make him a dynamic route runner and a threat after the catch.
The Jets went from having one of the thinnest WR depth charts to having one of the deepest receiving corps after signing Corey Davis and Keelan Cole and drafting Moore this off-season. But now, Moore’s fantasy value this season is going to be a bit contingent on Jamison Crowder’s status on the Jets roster. Crowder averaged 7.5 targets per game over his first 28 games with the Jets, but there’s a strong possibility they’ll release or trade him before the season starts since he has $10 million in non-guaranteed money left on his contract for 2021. I’ll be feeling much better about Moore if the Jets move on from Crowder, and Moore could quickly turn into PPR gold out of the slot with his rookie quarterback. He’s unlikely to be a league-winning player who is available 100+ picks into drafts, but I could see him turning into a plug-and-play WR3 as a rookie if he earns a full-time role.
Tutu Atwell, Los Angeles Rams
- Selected: 57th overall, WR9
- Competition: Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson
- Available Targets: 176 (eighth-most)
Everyone and their mother is expecting DeSean Jackson to be hurt at some point in 2021, and the Rams drafted their backup plan for D-Jax by selecting Louisville speedster Atwell. He dominated ACC competition over the last two seasons, posting 5.2 catches and 86.2 receiving yards per game while averaging 16.5 YPR with 18 receiving TDs. Atwell is an absolute burner with better playing speed than his registered 4.42 time at his pro day, but he comes into the league in a pint-sized frame (5’9”, 155 pounds) that is similar to Marquise Brown’s coming out of Oklahoma.
The Rams must’ve really wanted to make sure they had a vertical element in their passing attack for new QB Matthew Stafford if they used their first pick on a risky prospect, who is essentially a depth piece for this season. Atwell will start the year behind Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Jackson, and Van Jefferson on the WR depth chart this season. Atwell is likely to pop for a couple of big plays playing with the strong-armed Stafford this season, but he’s unlikely to see consistent targets and snaps as a rookie. Atwell will be off the radar in most drafts since it looks like he’ll be a situational player as the team’s #5 WR this season. That could change in August if he’s generating buzz in camp and if Jackson is dealing with injury issues so keep an eye on Atwell’s progress in the preseason.
Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Selected: 55th overall, TE2
- Competition: Eric Ebron
- Available Targets: 63 (eighth-fewest)
The Steelers surprised many in the second round by bypassing their glaring offensive line needs and drafting the consensus TE2 in Freiermuth. It’s not an ideal spot for the rookie TE to make an immediate fantasy impact since Eric Ebron is one of the better receiving TEs in the league, but the Penn State TE is the future of the position for the Steelers. Freiermuth scored 15 TDs in his first two seasons at Penn State in 2018-19 and he was averaging 5.8 catches and 77.5 receiving yards per game in his first four games last season before a shoulder injury cut ended his year early. Our Greg Cosell actually compared Freiermuth to a former Steelers legend Heath Miller in the pre-draft process because of his complete skill set as a receiver and as a blocker.
Freiermuth will slot into Vance McDonald’s old spot on Pittsburgh’s depth chart this season as the secondary option at the position. The Steelers are also stacked at receiver between Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster so it’s difficult to see Freiermuth commanding many targets as a rookie. The Steelers have also made it known that they’re trying to fix their broken rushing attack from last season by drafting Najee Harris so Pittsburgh’s passing volume should dip after they led the league with 42.6 pass attempts per game. Freiermuth will be a dynasty bench stash since he’ll be cutting his teeth before he takes over as the team’s starter after Ebron’s contract expires after the 2021 season. The big question for the future is who Pittsburgh’s quarterback will be starting in 2022 with Ben Roethlisberger nearing retirement. The best-case scenario is that Freiermuth emerges as a waiver wire option late in the season as Cole Kmet did when he jumped Jimmy Graham late last season with the Bear.