Fantasy Football 2021: Ranking Top Rookies After Combine

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IMarch 5, 2021

Fantasy Football 2021: Ranking Top Rookies After Combine

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    NFL rookies may not have professional track records, but many enter the league with tons of promise. That's why they can be appealing to fantasy football managers early in drafts despite their boom-or-bust potential.

    For example, many fantasy managers opted to take running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first or second round of their drafts last year, even though the former LSU standout had never played an NFL snap. He went on to have a solid rookie season for the Kansas City Chiefs, rushing for 803 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games.

    So which rookies should be the most appealing to fantasy managers for the 2021 season?

    There wasn't a traditional NFL Scouting Combine this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, although there were some combine-like events held by EXOS, an athletic training company, in various cities. Still, many top draft prospects aren't working out until their pro days, so it's not clear who has breakout potential next season.

    With the 2021 NFL draft not beginning until April 29, here's the latest look at the top rookies you will likely want to consider adding during the upcoming fantasy football season.

1. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Harris may not be taken until the mid-to-late first round of the 2021 NFL draft, but he's going to be intriguing to consider early in fantasy drafts, especially depending on what team he ends up on. If he's drafted by a team without a star running back, he could quickly work his way into the backfield mix.

    Having spent four years at Alabama, Harris is an experienced player who continued to get better throughout his college career. The soon-to-be 23-year-old rushed for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, while also notching 43 receptions for 425 yards and four touchdowns.

    Like Edwards-Helaire last year, Harris could be a great fit for a team looking to immediately boost its running game, which would make him the top rookie to consider taking in fantasy drafts. If he goes to a team that already has a clear top running back and he may not get on the field as quickly, then he might slide down these rankings a bit.

    But based on potential and pure talent, Harris could quickly become a stellar fantasy running back.

2. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU

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    Thomas Graning/Associated Press

    There's going to be some risk to taking Chase in fantasy drafts, as he hasn't played in a game since Jan. 13, 2020. The 6-foot wide receiver opted out of the 2020 season (played amid the coronavirus pandemic) and began preparing for the NFL draft rather than suiting up for LSU.

    Still, Chase is a probable top-10 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, and he could end up on a team that will quickly rely on him to be a top receiving option. If Chase has no trouble getting back into action and proves early that he can make a smooth transition to the professional level, then he could be poised for a huge rookie season.

    In case you don't remember, Chase had a huge sophomore season in 2019 for the Tigers, hauling in 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns while helping them go 15-0 and win the national championship. So there's reason to believe he's going to have no trouble adjusting to the NFL game upon his return to the gridiron.

3. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    DeVonta Smith won the Heisman Trophy last season, but will he be the first wide receiver taken in the 2021 NFL draft? It's going to be either him or Chase, and both should get selected in the top 10. And like the LSU product, Smith could quickly put up strong numbers in the NFL.

    Of these two receivers, Smith is the more experienced, as he spent four years at Alabama and showed constant improvement. That culminated with his huge 2020 season, during which he had 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns while helping the Crimson Tide go 13-0 and win the national championship.

    Smith should go to a team in need of receiver help. And because of his big-play potential, he could put up huge numbers if he's able to quickly establish a connection with his new quarterback and become a deep threat in his new offense. That should lead to some strong fantasy numbers too.

4. Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    There aren't a ton of top-tier fantasy tight ends in the NFL. The Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce is the clear No. 1 at the position, and the Las Vegas Raiders' Darren Waller is second to him. Beyond that, the other top fantasy tight ends can be hit or miss during the course of a season.

    Kyle Pitts has the potential to become a top fantasy tight end, and he could even get close to joining that class during his rookie season. He's 6'6" and 246 pounds, and he put up big receiving numbers as a junior for Florida in 2020, notching 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games.

    If Pitts stays healthy, he could put up even bigger numbers as an NFL rookie. Depending on whether he gets drafted to a team that will use him as its No. 1 tight end, he could be worthy of being one of the first five tight ends taken in fantasy drafts, potentially even right behind Kelce and Waller.

5. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    It was a bit of a surprise that Travis Etienne returned to Clemson for his senior season. His rushing numbers went down a bit, as he ran for 914 yards and 14 touchdowns in 12 games, but he set career highs with 48 receptions and 588 receiving yards while also scoring a pair of receiving touchdowns.

    Etienne's ability to contribute to the passing game should make him a valuable fantasy asset during his rookie season, especially if he goes to a team that plans to utilize him in that type of role early. Like Harris, Etienne could be selected late in the first round, so it will be interesting to see how he will fit into the backfield mix with his new team.

    After playing four years for a top-tier program, Etienne should have a smooth transition to the professional level, and he's got a skill set that could make him a quick contributor. So while Harris may be the top rookie running back to consider for fantasy leagues, Etienne may not be far behind him.