It’s never too early to speculate on fantasy football.
We still haven’t gotten into the free agency period where a lot of high-level players are likely to get moved, and we’re still months away from the draft. But this is going to be an early look at 2021 fantasy football. I’m going to break these guys down into categories.
All stats referenced here are through week 16. I didn’t count week 17 because most people’s fantasy seasons are done after week 16.
☝ Don’t forget about these guys:
- Christian McCaffrey: He should be going 1st overall in all 2021 drafts, but in some leagues, he won’t. Some people will be afraid of the injuries. He would become a major steal if you can get him at 2, 3, or 4. If he is available, you need to take him. People might get scared away by the injuries from 2020, and that’s a legitimate concern, but he is worth the risk. This season, in the three games he played, he scored 28.5, 24.8 and 37.1 in PPR. In 2019, he had the second-greatest fantasy football season ever and averaged 27 points a game. He was the third player in NFL history to have 1000 rushing yards and 1000 receiving yards. If he is available, you have to take him–injury concerns be damned. I guarantee you there will be people who are scared to draft him. Don’t be.
- Saquon Barkley: People are going to be sleeping on him, too. He missed most of the season with a torn ACL, and has completely fallen off the radar. Normally Barkley is a guy who gets drafted in the top 3, but this year you might be able to get him towards the end of the first round. The Giants offense should be improved next season, so defenses won’t be loading the box to stop Barkley. If there are receiving weapons added to the Giants offense, that’s great because it will take a lot of the focus off of Barkley. That was always my biggest concern with him: that other teams know he’s the only threat on the Giants offense and completely sell out to stop him.
- Michael Thomas: Here’s another guy who has missed most of the season due to injury. But in 2019, he was the WR1. He might slip down into the 2nd round, and a lot of it is due to the fact that Drew Brees likely will retire after the season. If the Saints are starting Jameis Winston at QB, people look at that as a downgrade for Thomas, and it is, but maybe not as much as people think. Yes, Jameis throws a lot of picks, but he also airs it out. He’s not afraid to sling it. In 2019, his last year in Tampa, Jameis supported two top-5 fantasy WRs (Evans & Godwin). In the one game Jameis played this year, he targeted Michael Thomas 7 times but they were only able to connect twice for 27 yards. There’s going to be a ton of targets for Thomas even with a likely QB change. Also, there’s no guarantee Jameis will even be the Saints’ QB next season. This is just speculation. I have no idea who will be under center for New Orleans in 2021, I’m just assuming Drew Brees is going to retire after this season and that Jameis came to New Orleans specifically to learn from Brees and Payton and then eventually become Brees’ successor.
- Ezekiel Elliott: this was a terrible year for Zeke and the Cowboys. He lost his QB. He lost basically his entire offensive line. The transition to new coach Mike McCarthy wasn’t smooth, to say the least. Zeke’s fantasy value has been beaten down to bargain-basement prices right now. You might even be able to get him in the second round this year. He’s gotten the 5th-most targets in the passing game among running backs, so he’s got extra value in PPR. I would say Zeke is primed for a bounce-back season, and you will probably be able to get him at a steep discount in 2021 drafts.
- George Kittle: He’s the TE20 on the season despite playing only 7 games. That’s pretty damn impressive. Obviously Kelce is the top tight end in the league (more on him later), but don’t sleep on Kittle. If there’s any player in the league that can even come close to delivering Kelce-caliber value at the TE position, it’s George Kittle. Travis Kelce is going to get drafted really high, which might mean Kittle will get drafted really high, too, since elite talent is very scarce at the TE position.
📈 Guys who will have way higher ADPs in 2021 than they did in 2020:
- Stefon Diggs: He currently leads the league in targets with 158. He’s the WR3 in PPR with 314 points. The move to Buffalo has been a massive success. Josh Allen has turned him into an elite wide receiver, and he’s turned Josh Allen into an elite quarterback. It has been a match made in heaven. You want a piece of that connection. Now, Buffalo is likely to lose Brian Daboll, their offensive coordinator, as he’s probably going to become a head coach after this season, but that Allen-Diggs connection is for real.
- Keenan Allen: He was being drafted somewhat lower this year because of the uncertainty about his quarterback. The Chargers moved on from Philip Rivers, the only QB Allen has ever played with, and seemingly replaced him with Tyrod Taylor, who isn’t a guy that slings it around the yard. So people thought Allen would suffer in terms of fantasy production. But when Justin Herbert took over the starting job in week 2, Allen immediately turned into the elite fantasy wide receiver he’s been for his entire career. He was the WR9 in PPR for the season, but in terms of points-per-game, he was the WR7. He was 3rd in the league in targets with 147. Justin Herbert is only going to get better, which means great things for Keenan Allen. If he stays healthy next year he’s a no-brainer WR1.
- Travis Kelce: Absolutely do no hesitate to take him with a late first-round pick. Imagine if you can get Saquon Barkley and Travis Kelce at the turn of the first round. Saying that Travis Kelce is the TE1 does not do him justice. He is the TE1 by a mile and a half. He’s got 312.7 fantasy points right now in PPR. The next closest tight end is Darren Waller with 251.9. Travis Kelce is the TE1 by over 60 points. In fact, Waller and Kelce are the only tight ends this year that are over 200 PPR points. In fact, Kelce has nearly double the fantasy points of the TE3, Robert Tonyan, who has 166.8. Travis Kelce is in a category all by himself. He’s had 145 targets this year and 105 receptions. He just set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end and has 1,416 right now. He’s got 11 TDs and averages 20.9 PPG. His fantasy production would equate to being the WR4 overall. This is why you can absolutely use a first-round pick on him. He’s not just an elite tight end, he’s an elite fantasy football player period. Because of how limited the options at TE behind him, Waller and Kittle are, if you draft him you have a major advantage over your competition because they’ll probably all be streaming with all the other TD-dependent options. There’s way more depth at WR and RB than there is at TE.
- DK Metcalf: Many people were high on him coming into the season, and the hype paid off. He was a major value pick in 2020, having been drafted probably in the 7th or sometimes 8th round in most leagues. But those days are over. Metcalf is now a top 10 fantasy WR. He’s currently the WR6 on the year. I bet he’ll be coming off the board in the second/third rounds in 2021 drafts. The best part is that they say WRs really don’t fully “arrive” until year 3, and Metcalf is still in year 2. I saw signs of him improving as the season progressed: they started throwing more to him in the end zone, they started using him in more medium-length throw situations. His route tree has expanded. Imagine when they’re fully comfortable throwing him fade routes in the endzone. You know it’s coming: the guy is 6′ 4″. He was awesome in 2020. He’ll be even better in 2021.
- Antonio Gibson: This guy is the RB12 despite having missed 2 games, and getting knocked out of another one in the first quarter due to injury. He’s a rookie, so he should be even better next season. However, he was incredibly fortunate on touchdowns this year, scoring 11 in basically 12 games. I worry about his ability to produce without the touchdowns: in the 3 games this year where he didn’t score a TD (excluding the Pittsburgh game where he got hurt early), his fantasy output was: 6.4 points, 10.1, 9.5, 9.9. Not bad, but not quite as good as you’re looking for out of a guy who is potentially going to be your #2 RB. In fact, some people may have him as their top running back if they go WR-heavy early. 34% of his total fantasy production has been from TDs. The average this year among the top 36 running backs was about 25%. So that’s likely to come down. Gibson is going to go in the 2nd or 3rd round this year. I like him, but I don’t know if I’m fully sold on him at that price. I would be thrilled to get him in the 4th round, though.
- Jonathan Taylor: He had a bit of a mid-season slump following Indy’s week 7 bye, but he has been on fire over the past month or so. He averaged about 23ppg over weeks 13-16. He’s 2020’s RB7 on the year, and has officially lived up to all the pre-season hype. People are going to be very high on him going into next season, and I think that’s warranted. He’s similar to Gibson, though, in that he’s gotten a lot of TDs and you worry about TD regression. Dude is gonna be a first round pick in 2021.
😴🤫 Potential Sleepers 😴🤫
- D’Andre Swift: I wrote a bit about him earlier this season, calling him one of the biggest sleepers in fantasy football. He’s currently the RB20 in terms of total points, and the RB17 in terms of points-per-game (he’s missed several games due to injury). The presence of Adrian Peterson on that offense really caps his rushing upside, but he makes up for it by getting a lot of receiving work. He’s been a pretty TD-dependent player (more on this shortly), but if you look at his games, you can clearly see that the more opportunities he gets, the better his production. The Lions’ next coaching staff needs to give him more carries and touches. There were 4 games this season in which Swift got 13 or more carries, and his fantasy production in those games was 27.3, 12.7, 25.9 and 22.2. He was still able to produce decently in games where he didn’t get a lot of carries, but the point is that if you give him carries, he will do good things. If the new Lions HC understands this, Swift will be a great fantasy option in 2021.
- JD McKissic: The only running back this season to come close to Alvin Kamara’s receiving numbers is JD McKissic. Kamara has 83 receptions, McKissic has 75. The next closest RB? Mike Davis with 59. There are only 5 running backs in the league that have more than 50 receptions, and McKissic is one of them. He’s a PPR monster. He has gotten an unbelievable 102 targets this season, behind only Kamara who has had 107. The next closest? Mike Davis and Nyheim Hines who had 70 targets. He’s got little rushing upside and is only really going to be viable in PPR leagues, but he is one of the most slept-on players in fantasy football. And, as we’ll go over shortly, he is hardly reliant on getting TDs at all. JD McKissic is your ace in the hole, a secret weapon that will almost undoubtedly be flying under the radar in your league, other than with the guy who owned him this season. Antonio Gibson gets all the hype and love in that Washington backfield, while nobody ever talks about McKissic.
- David Montgomery: Would you believe he’s the RB6 on the year? He did not have a great start, but he’s been absolutely on fire for the Bears the past month or so. When Matt Nagy gave playcalling duties up to Bill Lazor, this Bears offense took off. This offense might actually be good next season. Montgomery is quietly 5th in the league in rushing yards and 4th among running backs in receiving yards. You might see him come off the board as early as the second round, but if people in your league are sleeping on him, he could provide some great value for you if you’re able to get him in the third or even the fourth round. I think he might be going in the second or third, though.
- Will Fuller: He was the WR6 before he got suspended. DeShaun Watson was ballin’ out this season and Will Fuller was the primary beneficiary. Maybe, though, it wasn’t a coincidence that the only season Will Fuller didn’t get hurt was the one he got suspended for using PEDs. The guy is fast as hell and has always had tons of potential, but could never stay on the field. He’s a risk.
😬 TD Dependency 😬
We hear a lot about “outliers” and “mean regression” in fantasy football. If a guy has 25 touchdowns in a season, chances are that the next season, he’ll “regress to the mean” and score way fewer TDs.
It’s a very important concept for evaluating fantasy football players from year to year. You have nothing but a guy’s past performance to go by when deciding whether or not you’re going to draft him this year, so what you have to do is figure out whether his past performance is sustainable and replicable.
Touchdowns are considered “random” in fantasy football. Not “random” in the sense that every player has the same chance to score a TD on a given play, because that’s not the case. The better players are more likely to score TDs. The “randomness” of TDs in fantasy football is more a way of saying you cannot predict how many TDs a guy is going to score in a given season, or even a given game. Some games, Alvin Kamara had 0 TDs. But in one game this year, he had 6. This season, Kamara had 21 total TDs, but last season he only had 6. See what I’m getting at here? There’s a lot of potential for variance with TDs.
On the flip side, over the past three seasons, Alvin Kamara has averaged 58.9, 56.9 and 62.1 rushing yards per game. He’s also had 81, 81 and 83 receptions in the past three seasons respectively. Not a lot of variance there, but definitely a ton of variance in his TD totals.
So you want guys that are not reliant on scoring TDs to deliver production, because those guys are going to be more consistent for you. They’ll have a solid floor.
What I wanted to do here was identify the guys whose fantasy point production came from TDs the most. I took the top 36 running backs in fantasy, I totaled up their TDs, multiplied the number by 6 (because you get 6 points per TD) and then calculated the percentage of their total fantasy production that came from TDs. So, for example, 34.57% of Nick Chubb’s total fantasy point production this year came from TDs, which makes him the most “TD-dependent” running back of 2020.
We want to focus on that column “Touchdowns as % of Total Pts.”:
As you can see, the average was 25.21%, represented by the green line on the chart. Guys who are above the green line are more likely to see their TDs–and thus total fantasy production overall–come down next season. Guys who are below the green line are more likely to see their TDs–and therefore their total fantasy production overall–go up next year.
We can see that guys like Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley and Antonio Gibson all got very fortunate with touchdowns this year, and so it might be wise to have lower expectations for them next season. We want guys that have solid floors without scoring TDs. That’s why I’m high on guys like James Robinson, Zeke, CEH, Ekeler, and David Montgomery going into next year. They should all see an uptick in TDs next year.
This is yet another reason to like JD McKissic. Touchdowns were less than 10% of his total 2020 fantasy points. This means he’s got a tremendous floor and could produce even without scoring TDs.
In the last column, you have “fantasy points ex-touchdowns,” meaning how many points each guy scored if you subtract all the TDs. McKissic ranks 8th among running backs in this category. He’s only one point behind Zeke in non-TD scoring.
🚀 🤩 ROOKIE HYPE SECTION 🚀 🤩
This is my favorite part. I love rookies in fantasy football. This year you had Justin Jefferson, Justin Herbert, Antonio Gibson, Chase Claypool, CEH, Swift, Jonathan Taylor and all kinds of high-performing rookies. You can find some awesome value in your drafts by going after rookies. And the 2020 season was the one you would’ve expected rookies to bust considering there was no preseason. But no: lots of rookies popped off in 2020.
There are some highly promising rookies coming down the pipeline for 2021. Now obviously a lot of this depends on where these guys land, but just because the draft hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean we can’t get hyped. Here are the biggest names:
- Devonta Smith, WR, Bama: The Alabama receiver who seems like he’s always open is the #1 WR in college football and it’s not even close. He’s got 1,511 receiving yards this year and the next closest is Elijah Moore with 1,193. He’s got 17 TDs. He is the first wide receiver to win the Heisman since Desmond Howard in 1991, and he’s the only wide receiver to ever win AP Player of the Year. This dude is incredible. He’s projected to be a first-rounder and depending on where he lands, he could put up huge numbers as a rookie. The only knock on him is he’s a little bit on the small side, only weighing 175lbs. But I think he’s going to be a stud in the NFL and a stud in fantasy. However, I’m sure now that he’s won the Heisman, the fantasy hype on him is going to be through the roof. Nobody is sleeping on him anymore. You can’t keep him in your back pocket as your late-round sleeper because now all your leaguemates know about him. I have a feeling his ADP is going to be over-inflated, like CEH last year. I still think he’ll be a good fantasy option next year, but you’re going to probably have to pay a steep premium on him.
- Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: He’s one of those tight ends that only comes along once every 5 years or so and gets drafted extremely high. He’s a freak athlete who stands 6′ 6″ and can outrun DBs. I’m interested to see what his 40 time is. He’s been a TD machine at Florida this season, catching 12 in just 8 games. I do wonder about his size, though. He’s listed at 245lbs, which is on the smaller side for a tight end. Is he going to be able to block in the NFL? I know modern NFL tight ends are primarily pass-catchers, so I’m not really too worried about Pitts’ ability to succeed. He’s like a WR/TE hybrid. I’m excited to see where he goes; he’s got the potential to be a monster. Be advised, though: the general wisdom on NFL tight ends is that they don’t do much as rookies, and it takes around 3 seasons for them to fully arrive. Even guys like TJ Hockenson, who was drafted #7 overall in 2019, didn’t do much as a rookie. It took him two seasons to really turn into a stud. But I think Kyle Pitts is just such a great pass catcher that he’ll start producing immediately. He’s such a weapon. I don’t see how any team could afford to not get him involved in their offense.
- Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson: The consensus #1 RB in the 2021 draft. Etienne has been a monster at Clemson for 4 years now and should become a great fantasy football option almost immediately due to his ability to catch the ball. Sure, he didn’t do much against Ohio State in the playoff game (10 carries for 32 yards and TD, 4 catches for 64 yards). But Clemson was down 35-14 at half. They abandoned the run early. I wouldn’t worry about that performance. Etienne is great at catching the ball and running after the catch, he will be a PPR stud in the NFL.
- Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: We all know who he is. The future Jaguars QB is the most hyped football prospect since Andrew Luck. I think he’ll be a viable fantasy option almost immediately, too. He’s going to be slinging it to DJ Chark, Keelan Cole and Laviska Shenault, who aren’t bad WRs, but I’d like to see Jacksonville target one of the guys on this list and pair Lawrence up with a real stud. But don’t sleep on Lawrence’s ability to run the football: that’s what’s going to make him fantasy viable from day 1. I’m not saying the guy will be Lamar Jackson, but he can definitely be a Josh Allen-type of QB in terms of running the ball. He’s probably faster than Allen, too. I’ve written on this site that I am still not sold on Lawrence and I think he might be overhyped, but his running ability will make him a great fantasy option next season. Trevor Lawrence averaged almost 7 rushing attempts a game this season. He’ll be fantasy-relevant.
- Najee Harris, RB, Bama: Dude has 24 rushing TDs this season, 27 total. He’s the next in a long line of Bama running backs built like an absolute truck at 6′ 2″ and 230lbs. I mean, what else can I say? Bama churns out these massive running backs almost every single year. Imagine him going to a team like the Steelers, who have the fewest rushing yards in the NFL this year. Or what about the Buccaneers, who have the 5th-fewest rushing yards?
- Jaylen Waddle, WR, Bama: People are forgetting about him because he’s missed most of the season with a broken ankle, but there’s a slim chance he could actually come back for the playoff game against Notre Dame, and if not then, the National Championship (assuming Bama makes it, and they will). Waddle has insane speed. I don’t know if he’s got Tyreek Hill speed, but he’s close. He takes short passes, turns upfield and just blows everybody away. He can cut and juke, too. He’s been Alabama’s punt and kick returner for the past two seasons, and has housed TDs in both roles. The guy is electrifying. And he’s not just a speedster, either: he can make contested catches, too. Due to his injury, he’s been overshadowed by Devonta Smith this year, but there’s a chance Waddle could be taken before Smith in next year’s NFL draft. Keep him on your radar for fantasy.
- Jamarr Chase, WR, LSU: He didn’t play at all this season, having opted out before it started. So people might have forgotten about him. But in LSU’s incredible 2019 season, Chase was Joe Burrow’s leading receiver. He actually had more yards and more TDs than did Justin Jefferson, and we all know how good Jefferson is. The whole 2019 LSU offense put up monster numbers, but Chase’s were truly special: 84 catches for 1,780 yards and 20 TDs. He won the Biletnikoff Award that year. He’s a great route-runner, he makes contested catches, and he can run after the catch. Some people think he’s the best WR prospect in the 2021 Draft, even ahead of Smith and Waddle. He’s not an elite athlete, but he’s an elite pass-catcher and should be able to come into the NFL and start producing immediately.
- Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue: A shifty, explosive little playmaker who is hard to tackle and can house it at any time, I’m excited about his potential in the NFL. He’s got this crazy burst of acceleration that freezes defenders, and he can make cuts like nobody’s business. Purdue ran him on a lot of jet sweeps, and also loved to throw it to him on short routes and even swing passes and let him do work after the catch. He would be awesome on the 49ers or the Patriots, and he’ll need a creative offensive coordinator to really take advantage of his skillset. But the dude is a weapon and I think in today’s NFL he can definitely be a x-factor type of player. Again, he needs to go to the right team because he has a non-traditional WR skillset, and if a team tries to use him like a traditional WR they’re not going to be taking advantage of his potential. He’s like a pass-catching running back that plays receiver. I haven’t seen a player quite like him before. I want to say he’s like Tyreek Hill, because he’s a little guy with off-the-charts athleticism, but he wasn’t really used as a deep threat at Purdue. He’s more shifty and agile than he is a straight-line speed guy, but apparently he did run a 4.3 40 yard dash in high school, so we’ll see how he fares at the combine. The dude is listed at 5’9″ but he can dunk a basketball, he’s a freak athlete. I hope he lands on an NFL team with a creative coach that can put his skills to good use.
- Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, USC: I never really watch Pac-12 football so I haven’t seen much of this dude outside of his highlight reel on YouTube, but he has a really cool name and he has a brother who’s already in the league, Equanemius St. Brown, a WR for the Packers. If you’re wondering if there actually is a “St. Brown,” the answer is no. So where does the name come from? Apparently their father just wanted to pimp out the last name “Brown,” so he slapped a “St.” in front of it. Their dad’s name is John Brown–well, I guess John St. Brown–and apparently he’s a professional bodybuilder and 2x Mr. Universe back in the early 1980s. So these kids come from good stock. The name “Amon-Ra” is the name of the Ancient Egyptian god of all gods, so that’s badass. This dude was a major prospect coming out of high school and he’s projected as a late first-rounder, so that means he could end up on a team like the Chiefs or the Saints or the Packers or something like that. That’s good for his fantasy prospects.
- Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota: He’s a big dude at 6’2″, 210lbs. He’s graded as a mid-late first-rounder but he’s kind of getting slept on because there’s so many other big-name WRs out there like Chase and the Bama guys. He was only able to play 5 games in the 2020 season due to the Big Ten’s Covid rules and that whole fiasco, so we didn’t get to see much of him this year, which sucks because he was the 2019 Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year. When you watch him play, you’re not wowed by his speed, and in fact he almost kinda looks slow because he takes long strides, but somehow the dude gets open all the time. He’s a good route-runner and he has good hands, too, so he makes contested catches. Scouts are pretty high on him and he’s projected to be a back-half of the first round prospect, so he’ll probably end up on a good team.
- Jaret Patterson, RB, Buffalo: I wrote about this dude last month; he’s the guy who ran for 400 yards and 8 TDs in one game. He has officially declared for the 2021 NFL draft, and CBS has him as the #5 running back. I can’t wait to see where he ends up. I will definitely have him on the bench in fantasy next season in hopes that he becomes a star.
- Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: We didn’t get to see much of him this year, but he was Justin Fields’ favorite target. He had a massive performance in the semifinal game against Clemson, and if he goes off in the Natty, he’s going to be another name people are hyped about. But he’s not getting anywhere near as much attention as the Bama WRs. He might be one of the biggest sleeper prospects at the WR position, assuming his draft stock doesn’t skyrocket after the National Championship. But I think it probably will because that game is expected to be very high-scoring. Justin Fields loves to air it out to Olave, so expect bombs coming his way. Olave missed the Big Ten Championship against Northwestern due to Covid and Justin Fields really struggled, but Olave was able to play against Clemson and Justin Fields had the game of his life. Coincidence?
The bottom line here with rookies is: grab as many of them as you can once you fill out your roster. You see how many rookies did well last year even with no preseason–Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Jerry Jeudy, Antonio Gibson, James Robinson, etc. And in 2019, you had AJ Brown, McLaurin, Deebo, DK Metcalf, Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders, etc.
A lot of these rookies are ready to go. Yes, it still takes some of these guys a few years to realize their potential, but so many of these guys are ready to come in and be stars from day one. Alvin Kamara was a star from the moment he stepped onto an NFL field. Odell Beckham was, too. And there’s so many other guys I’m forgetting that burst on to the scene.
Get your hands on as many of these young rookies as you can.
So that’s the early look at the 2021 fantasy football season. It was a long post already, and it could’ve been even longer. There’s just so much to cover. But I wanted to hit on the most important names and topics right now. We’ve still got plenty of time before August when the fantasy drafts start up again, so I’ll make some fantasy football posts periodically over the next 8 months or so, ramping them up as we get closer and closer to August.