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2021 Fantasy Football Booms, Busts & Sleepers

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The 2021 NFL season is getting closer, and with it comes the annual fantasy football drafts. Here, we discuss which players are projected to boom, bust, or be slept on. All evaluations are based on redraft leagues that maintain PPR scoring.

Booms

QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (QB7)

With Rodgers remaining in Green Bay through the 2021 season, the likelihood of the 37-year old slipping past the sixth round is minimal in redraft leagues. Since 2014, Rodgers has finished as QB7, his current projection, or better on five occasions. With the potential to leave the Packers following this season, Rodgers’ upside as an elite option is difficult to ignore. 

QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (QB13)

Coming off an ACL injury during the 2020 season, Burrow is likely to slip past being drafted at the QB13 slot in redraft leagues. In 10 starts last season, the rookie surpassed fantasy projections on six occasions. Through the first seven weeks, Burrow was listed as QB10 on the season. After gaining college teammate Ja’Marr Chase in the NFL Draft, the Bengals will have plenty of support for their quarterback as a reliable fantasy option. 

RB Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team (RB11)

In a season where Gibson is valued as a second-round selection, he could very well prove to be a valuable RB1 for fantasy purposes. In 2020, Gibson played in 43% of offensive snaps for Washington; 33rd among running backs. However, he received 20 or more opportunities in three games, and was an RB1 for PPR leagues in two of those games. With Scott Tuner entering his second season as offensive coordinator, Gibson should see an increase in volume this year; especially in the passing game. 

RB Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (RB13)

Depending on a rookie running back to carry a fantasy roster comes with fears, but Harris is worth the risk. The Steelers grabbed their featured back in the first round of the NFL Draft after averaging a league-high 42.6 pass attempts per game last season. With virtually no competition in the backfield, Harris should be projected for over 64% of carries in Pittsburgh this season. His RB13 projection is a bargain value for the late second round in a majority of leagues. 

RB J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens (RB18)

In a run-heavy offense, most are expecting a boom-or-bust season from Dobbins. The data suggests that Dobbins will exceed his RB18 projection this year. In 2020, the Ravens totaled the second-fewest targets to running backs. When given the opportunity, Dobbins led all running backs with 6.0 yards per carry. He also had a league-high breakaway rate of 8.3% last season; which calculates carries of 15+ rushing yards. Baltimore will continue to remain a run-heavy offense, especially with early injuries to receivers Marquise Brown and Rashod Bateman.  

WR Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons (WR5)

Since entering the league, Ridley’s 26 receiving touchdowns are the sixth-most among wide receivers during that span. Without Julio Jones on the roster, Ridley has a proven track record of being an elite WR1. His targets have spiked from 6.6 targets with Jones to 11.2 targets without him. From a fantasy perspective, Ridley averaged 14.7 fantasy PPG with Jones on the field. However, that number elevates to 20.1 fantasy PPG without Jones. Even with the addition of rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, Ridley will be a favorable breakout receiver this season. 

WR Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears (WR10)

The wide receiver position is deep in fantasy, as 27 receivers were responsible for 200+ fantasy points last season. However, Robinson is one of the more reliable fantasy assets entering the new year. In each of his last two seasons with the Bears, he has been listed inside the top 10 among fantasy receivers. Last season specifically, he averaged 16.4 fantasy points per game, which can be built upon if rookie quarterback Justin Fields takes over in the early stages of the season. Regardless, Robinson will be valued as an elite receiver ahead of fantasy drafts.

WR Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams (WR19)

Even in a season in which the Rams offense struggled behind Goff and Kupp only produced three touchdowns, he finished the year as the WR26 in fantasy. He has averaged five receptions per game across his first 54 games and receives an upgrade under center in Matthew Stafford. If he can remain healthy, Kupp can surpass 120 targets this season (season-high is 134 from 2019 season), leaving fantasy owners satisfied. 

TE Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots (TE13)

After the luxury names of Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and George Kittle are off fantasy boards, there is roughly a 20-pick drop until T.J. Hockenson (TE4) is selected. For those who prefer to wait on picking a tight end, Smith contains more upside than risk at TE13 value. Quarterback Cam Newton is notorious for using short yardage to his advantage, and with Hunter Henry sidelined with an ongoing shoulder injury, Smith’s 67.5% career catch percentage could be valuable for the offense.   

TE TJ Hockenson, Detroit Lions (TE4)

As mentioned, Hockenson will be valued as the TE4 entering the 2021 season, and rightfully so. The Lions decreased his usage in the slot position by 2.8% last year, and Hockenson was more valuable for fantasy owners because of it. His 101 targets were fifth among tight ends, and without Kenny Golladay or Marvin Jones, that leaves 150 targets on the table. Entering this season, Hockenson will see 120+ targets and live up to his elite projections. 

Busts

QB Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans (QB9)

Valued as an early selection in the seventh round, most platforms will argue that Tannehill is a safe choice for this season. The offense added Julio Jones to offset the loss of Corey Davis (92 targets in 2020) and Jonnu Smith (65). Up front, the team returns most of its starting offensive line, yet it ranked 25th in pass blocking last season. Tannehill was 10th of 63 qualified passers last season when operating in a clean pocket, but finished 18th in the league in dropbacks. The Titans found themselves in a lot of two tight end formations in 2020, so the adjustment may take time.  

QB Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles (QB11)

Reports indicate there have been early inconsistencies from the Eagles offense through training camp, and the team at one point was reportedly interested in dealing for Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson. Between Week 14-16, there have been a total of 28 different quarterbacks to throw the ball 51+ times. Despite finishing 7th in passing attempts (113) during that span, Hurts was last in on-target percentage (57.5). Since 2001, only Cam Newton, Blake Bortles, and Josh Allen have finished above the QB12 mark by finishing with a completion percentage under the 60% mark. Based on his projection as QB11 this season, that is a large risk that some may not be willing to take. 

RB Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders (RB20)

There are plenty of reasons to fade Jacobs this season, with the most obvious note being the $14.5 million acquisition of Kenyan Drake. The current RB20 projection of Jacobs appears to be his ceiling, as the Raiders face one of the toughest schedules entering the 2021 season. In PPR-driven leagues, Jacobs finished 31st among running backs in targets per game. Without being featured in pass-catching opportunities, fantasy owners are reliant on his production from last season to carry over. 

RB Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams (RB22)

With Cam Akers out for the 2021 season with a torn Achilles, some assume that Henderson will be a reliable three-down back. Based on history, we find that Henderson scored 13.2 fantasy points per game over the first five games last season. After that, however, he only totaled 10 or more fantasy points twice for the rest of the season. Henderson has earned 15 or more rush attempts three times across 22 career games. Only Todd Gurley and Alfred Morris (2014 season) have thrived under Sean McVay’s play-calling in the backfield, which gives plenty of reason to not trust Henderson this season.

RB Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars (RB24)

For fantasy owners that want to win early and often, Etienne won’t be the preferred direction to pivot towards. James Robinson is coming off a season with 240 rush attempts and 60 targets, making it hard to believe that Jacksonville will permit Etienne with immediate RB2/FLEX production. In most redraft leagues, Etienne (#54 ADP) is projected in the fifth round. At the same value, I would rather take the upside on a receiver such as Brandon Aiyik (#59 ADP) or Ja’Marr Chase (#64 ADP).

WR Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (WR16)

In a year where Evans finished as WR11 last season, he did have a “down year” with a career-low 109 targets and 62.9 receiving yards per game. He did find the end zone on 13 occasions, which was one of the only significant increases in his production. Still, six of those touchdowns came in the first five weeks. As Brady continues to play in his later years, the Buccaneers offense becomes more liable to checking down to running backs and tight ends en route to a possession-style of play. 

WR Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers (WR20)

Johnson has his fair share of upside, but Juju-Smith Schuster and Chase Claypool are unpredictable factors entering next season. We already mentioned how Pittsburgh maintained a heavy pass-first offense last year, where Johnson totaled 144 targets. The Steelers will need to defer to the run game more often through rookie Najee Harris, and I believe Johnson will be the one to suffer the most from a fantasy aspect this season. 

WR Odell Beckham Jr, Cleveland Browns (WR27)

The primary factor in why Odell Beckham Jr. can’t be trusted from a fantasy perspective relates to his lack of volume in Cleveland’s offense. Since joining the Browns, Beckham Jr averaged 8.3 targets per game during the 2019 campaign to just 6.1 targets per game last season. From 2014-18 with the New York Giants, his career-low sat at 10.3 targets per game. Beckham Jr has not surpassed fantasy projections in two of the last three seasons, leaving skepticism for upcoming drafts. 

TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons (TE6)

The hype surrounding the 6’6” Kyle Pitts is astronomical, as he’s drawn comparisons to Tony Gonzalez and Travis Kelce prior to playing a single regular season snap. His 96.1 PFF grade in college was the highest among tight ends in the history of the platform. So why the skepticism? In the last 20 years, there hasn’t been a single rookie tight end to surpass 175 or more fantasy points. In the same time span, only 10 rookie tight ends have scored more than 120 fantasy points. With Arthur Smith transitioning from the Tennessee Titans offense to the Atlanta Falcons as head coach, Pitts should eat a lot of the targets that previously belonged to Julio Jones. Still, a fifth-round projection is too steep of a price among redraft leagues. 

TE Evan Engram, New York Giants (TE15)

Coming off his first Pro Bowl nomination, fantasy owners seem to be warming up to the idea of Engram as a value selection. He was second in the league in drops (11) last season, and now shares the field with Kenny Golladay and a healthy Saquon Barkley. Engram has an ADP within the 10th round of fantasy drafts as TE15, which is low-risk. Still, I’d prefer hoping Jonnu Smith (TE13) or Irv Smith Jr. (TE14) drop as value selections. 

Sleepers

QB Justin Fields, Chicago Bears (QB22)

Projections have Fields taking over for Andy Dalton at some point during the 2021 season, and based on early preseason play, it could be sooner than later. No one is expecting fantasy owners to expect Fields to be named the Week 1 starter and gamble in their upcoming drafts as their week-to-week starter, but he is worth the late investment in case matters change. The offense saw growth from running back David Montgomery and is accompanied by one of the most reliable fantasy receivers in Allen Robinson. If Fields is permitted the playing time, he will have more upside than most of the other rookies in this most recent draft class. 

QB Cam Newton, New England Patriots (QB28)

The passing statistics for Newton in 2020 will force most fantasy owners to shy away, but he has the potential to be a late-round sleeper in most drafts. His 12 rushing touchdowns were matched with eight passing touchdowns in 15 total games en route to finishing at QB16 last season. In an offseason where New England spent the most in NFL history on free agents, it’s clear the team is surrounding Newton with the weapons he needs. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones is more likely to take over at the start of the 2022 season than he is during the early stages of the upcoming campaign.

RB Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos (RB27)

All reports from Denver’s training camp indicate the split between Williams and Melvin Gordon will be 50/50 this upcoming season. The offense was towards the bottom of the league when it came to offensive yards last season, but finished 13th in rushing. Pat Shurmur returns as the play-caller for the Broncos, which marks the first time the team has had the same offensive play-caller for two seasons since 2016 (Rick Dennison). Regardless of who becomes the lead back, I would expect both Gordon and Williams to each end with 150+ rush attempts in the 2021 season. If that’s the case, Williams’ value as RB27 becomes very intriguing. At this time, Gordon continues to labor a groin injury, leaving an opening for Williams to gain trust in Denver’s offense.

RB Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions (RB41)

The most obvious note favoring Williams ahead of the 2021 season is the fact that D’Andre Swift continues to rehab from an ongoing groin injury. In PPR leagues, Williams has maintained a catch rate of 85% or above in each of the last two seasons, proving himself to be a reliable option in Detroit’s backfield a pass-catcher. Fantasy owners who are awaiting their respective drafts will likely see Williams fly off the board earlier than his #113 ADP, but if Swift continues to struggle to stay on the field, his value will skyrocket in PPR leagues. 

RB Xavier Jones, Los Angeles Rams (RB92)

With Darrell Henderson previously being listed as a bust, it’s only fitting that someone else from Los Angeles’ backfield steps up. Head coach Sean McVay continues to note the work Jones has impressed this offseason, which could ultimately foresee a RBBC (Running Back By Committee). With a #278 ADP, the upside of Jones is difficult to ignore when comparing the talent projected ahead of him. 

WR Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys (WR46)

In a contract year with the Cowboys, most assume the front office will not consider an extension at this time. With Amari Cooper overcoming injuries before the start of the regular season, Gallup should only witness increased value. Even with Dak Prescott sidelined in 2020, Gallup finished as WR38 on the year. If Prescott is not healthy, however, then that becomes a different story. 

WR Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears (WR50)

After a productive rookie season, Mooney could be primed for an even more successful sophomore campaign. His 98 targets were fifth among rookie receivers in 2020, as Mooney totaled 61 receptions, 631 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. The biggest downside of Mooney this season is that going from Mitchell Trubisky to Andy Dalton isn’t an immediate upgrade by any means. In 2020, Mooney saw 22 targets from 20+ yards downfield, but 17 of those targets were deemed uncatchable. If Fields were to take the starting position, the value of Mooney skyrockets. 

WR Russell Gage, Atlanta Falcons (WR57)

Last season was a career-best in multiple categories for Gage, which included 108 targets, 72 receptions, 786 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. Outside of Calvin Ridley, Gage is the next-most proven receiving option for Atlanta. There is a lot of hype surrounding rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, but if he fails to meet expectations, it’s because Gage is finding further success within the Falcons offense. 

TE Blake Jarwin, Dallas Cowboys (TE20)

The Dallas Cowboys offense holds a lot of depth, but with a variety of backup quarterbacks last season, Dalton Schultz found a way to finish the year as TE14. Jarwin will go undrafted in most leagues, but has potential to break out as high as TE10 this season. With Schultz dealing with an ankle injury leading up to the regular season, there is very little competition for Jarwin on the depth chart. 

TE Anthony Firsker, Tennessee Titans (TE26)

As a deep sleeper, Firsker set a career-high in receptions (39) and receiving yards (387) last season behind Jonnu Smith. For reference, Smith finished last season with 39 receptions while playing almost twice as many offensive snaps. Only three of his receptions came from play-action situations, while two-thirds of receptions resulted in a first down. As a flyer in the later rounds, Firsker has the potential to shine in select matchups this season. 

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