Fantasy Football 2021: New Situations That Could Produce Breakout Seasons
As usual, fantasy football managers must adjust their expectations of certain players to reflect roster movement in the offseason.
Furthermore, second-year players will go through their first full offseason following a truncated 2020 program due to COVID-19 restrictions. As a result, teams may see significant growth in young talent.
Let's take a look at players with new teams, stronger supporting casts or expanded roles because of key departures. We'll find a new crop of fantasy stars for the 2021 season and provide early stat projections for each selection.
QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Don't worry about Joe Burrow's recovery from a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. He expects to participate in training camp at 100 percent late July. The second-year quarterback should feel comfortable with his three-wide receiver sets.
Through 10 contests last season, Burrow established a rapport with Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, throwing seven of his 13 touchdown passes to the two wideouts. Both pass-catchers also had a pair of 100-plus-yard performances while Burrow took snaps under center.
The Cincinnati Bengals selected Ja'Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick in April's draft. He won the 2019 Fred Biletnikoff Award thanks in part to Burrow's Heisman Trophy-winning campaign at LSU.
Although Burrow and Chase will face tougher challenges at the pro level, their ready-made chemistry should pay immediate dividends. The Bengals signal-caller has familiarity with the top three wide receivers on the depth chart, which may result in high-end passing numbers for the 2021 season.
Stat Projection: 4,681 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, 10 interceptions
QB Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles haven't publicly named Jalen Hurts their starter, but they have no reason to kick the tires on 36-year-old Joe Flacco, who's started 21 games over the past three seasons. The club just signed Nick Mullens last week. He has a lot to pick up on going into training camp.
As a second-round pick from the 2020 draft, Hurts will likely have an opportunity to solidify a long-term future in Philadelphia. Last season, he showed flashes in four starts but completed just 52 percent of his passes. The Alabama product could benefit from a full offseason and an upgraded supporting cast.
The Eagles traded up for wideout DeVonta Smith in the first round of the draft. The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner should make an immediate impact in the passing game. Furthermore, right guard Brandon Brooks (torn Achilles) and right tackle Lane Johnson (ankle) will return from their injuries. Both offensive linemen stood on the sideline while Hurts started in the final quarter of the 2020 term.
With a stronger front line, a new go-to receiver and a full offseason, Hurts should make some strides as a passer, but his ability to run the ball puts him in the conversation among breakout candidates.
Last season, Hurts ranked ninth among quarterbacks in rushing yards (354), with three touchdowns on the ground. In a full season, he could push Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray for the most rushing yards at the position. If so, fantasy managers can find decent value in the dual-threat signal-caller midway through their drafts.
Stat Projection: 3,281 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, 7 interceptions; 724 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns
RB Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
Last season, the Los Angeles Rams had a three-man committee in the backfield. Cam Akers, Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown all logged at least 101 rushing attempts.
The Rams lost Brown to the Miami Dolphins in free agency. Therefore, Akers should see more touches. Back in February, head coach Sean McVay called him an "every-down back" and a "very special player."
A few weeks ago, McVay spoke highly of Akers' skill set.
"He's obviously a great runner, but he's got ability as a pass-catcher coming from the backfield, and we can displace him and put him in the slot or the outside receiver location," McVay said, per Kevin Modesti of the Los Angeles Daily News. "There's not any limitations, but we'll see how it comes to life."
McVay plans to use Akers in a variety of ways, which means the second-year running back may log 250-plus touches between his ball-carrying and pass-catching opportunities.
Henderson is still in the mix, but based on McVay's comments, Akers projects as the lead back with great upside.
Stat Projection: 1,116 rushing yards, 9 touchdowns; 402 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns
RB Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons have a wide-open backfield without their top three ball-carriers from the previous season. The team hasn't re-signed Todd Gurley II or Ito Smith. Brian Hill inked a deal with the Tennessee Titans.
Running backs coach Desmond Kitchings said the "the door is wide-open" for anyone to take over at the position. Right now, Mike Davis should have the upper hand because of his production as a fill-in starter last year.
In 2020, with the Carolina Panthers, Davis proved he could handle the majority of the load while Christian McCaffrey sat out for 13 contests with multiple injuries. He accumulated a career-high 1,015 yards from scrimmage through 15 outings.
Behind Davis on the depth chart, Qadree Ollison has recorded just 23 carries for 53 yards and four touchdowns in 11 career games. Tony Brooks-James has recorded 11 rushing attempts for 11 yards in four contests. Javian Hawkins and Caleb Huntley are undrafted rookies. Throughout his career, Cordarrelle Patterson has served as a hybrid playmaker who can run the ball but mostly lines up at wide receiver.
The Falcons will rely on quarterback Matt Ryan to distribute the ball to a solid pass-catching group that features Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Hayden Hurst and rookie first-rounder Kyle Pitts.
However, in the fantasy realm, managers shouldn't overlook a team's RB1. Unless one of the young backs impresses at training camp, Davis will likely have a secure workload as the lead ball-carrier in Atlanta.
Stat Projection: 1,007 rushing yards, 9 touchdowns; 301 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns
RB D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
This offseason, the Detroit Lions hired a new coaching staff, so we have little certainty in terms of roles and workloads for their offensive playmakers.
The Lions turned over their on-field personnel as well. They acquired quarterback Jared Goff from the Los Angeles Rams, signed wideouts Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman and added Jamaal Williams to the backfield.
Despite the team's addition of a few intriguing names, Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official website listed D'Andre Swift as someone who stood out during spring practices, specifically in the passing game:
"Without the pads and the contact that comes with them, it was kind of hard to evaluate the run game portion of things with Swift. But in the passing game, he was electric all week. He's proven to be a handful for would-be defending linebackers in space with his speed, quick twitch and route running ability. He and Goff seem to be building a nice rapport, especially on option routes."
Swift's early chemistry with Goff can carry over into training camp and through the preseason, which would allow him to consistently line up on passing downs. Keep in mind, head coach Dan Campbell talked about using the second-year running back as a slot receiver.
Though offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn intends to ride the hot hand at running back, Swift's rapport with Goff gives him the early edge over (Jamaal) Williams for a breakout year.
Stat Projection: 978 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns; 562 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns
WR Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts
Quarterback Philip Rivers hung up his cleats after the 2020 season. With him under center, the Indianapolis Colts ran an efficient offense and relied heavily on the run, ranking 10th in total carries and 20th in pass attempts.
To replace Rivers, the Colts acquired quarterback Carson Wentz from the Philadelphia Eagles. He's coming off his worst season after throwing for 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, but the 28-year-old signal-caller had been disgruntled before the trade. Perhaps a change of scenery will help him bounce back.
According to Zak Keefer of The Athletic, the Colts are excited about a possible connection between Wentz and wideout T.Y. Hilton in the deep passing game. The signal-caller's arm strength should also benefit Michael Pittman Jr., who's a big target at 6'4", 223 pounds.
As Hilton goes into his age-32 term, the Colts could see Pittman further develop into a lead receiver.
Pittman hauled in 40 passes for 503 yards and a touchdown through 13 outings in his rookie campaign. He missed three games with a calf injury.
In Philadelphia, Wentz built a rapport with big-bodied pass-catchers such as Zach Ertz (6'5", 250 lbs), Dallas Goedert (6'5", 256 lbs) and Alshon Jeffery (6'3", 218 lbs). He could lock on to Pittman as a reliable target who stands out because of his size and physical play style.
Stat Projection: 76 catches, 1,071 yards, 8 touchdowns
WR Henry Ruggs III, Las Vegas Raiders
Last year, with the 12th overall pick, the Las Vegas Raiders selected Henry Ruggs III, the first wide receiver off the board. Oddly enough, they used him sparingly in the passing game.
Ruggs didn't see more than five targets in any of his 13 outings. In fact, he only saw that number of targets in two games. The Alabama product fell behind star tight end Darren Waller, Nelson Agholor and even Hunter Renfrow in the pecking order among pass-catchers.
General manager Mike Mayock challenged Ruggs to improve his route-running, strength, foot placement and ability to finish plays.
Speaking with reporters after a mandatory minicamp practice, head coach Jon Gruden said that Ruggs "looks much better" compared to last season and wants to see him more involved in the offense.
Both of Gruden's comments are good early signs for Ruggs, who caught 26 passes for 452 yards and two touchdowns in 2020. If Gruden, who's the offensive play-caller, follows through on his word, the speedy wideout could more than double his rookie numbers with the departure of Agholor.
Because of his big-play ability, Ruggs doesn't need a high volume of receptions to eclipse 1,000 yards. In a 17-game season, an average of 60 receiving yards per contest would put him over the mark.
The Raiders signed John Brown, who's the biggest threat to take targets away from Ruggs, but the 31-year-old wideout has caught fewer than 43 passes in four of the last five seasons.
Stat Projection: 68 catches, 1,014 yards, 6 touchdowns
WR Tre'Quan Smith, New Orleans Saints
Though Brees' broke several passing records in the latter part of his career, his arm strength often waned toward the end of the season over the past few years. With Winston or Hill under center, the Saints can aggressively push the ball downfield, which bodes well for pass-catchers with big-play ability.
Tre'Quan Smith could finally break out as a result of the transition. Winston has already talked to him about plans to take the top off defenses, per ESPN's Mike Triplett.
"Jameis already told me: 'Listen, when I've got the ball, whatever you do, don't stop running. Because I'm looking forward to stretching the [field] this year. So please don't stop running on me. Don't make me look bad if you're not running,'" Smith said.
Winston isn't shy about taking deep shots, and he can rack up a ton of passing yards. In 2019, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he recorded a league-leading 5,109 yards but also threw the most interceptions (30).
Hill isn't a prototypical quarterback, but he has the arm strength to make use of Smith's deep-ball tracking skills.
In his 2018 rookie term, Smith averaged 15.3 yards per reception, but he hasn't been able to make significant strides since then.
With more chunk plays to go around, Smith can put a stronghold on the No. 2 wide receiver spot opposite Michael Thomas. He won't have to compete for targets with Emmanuel Sanders, who signed with the Buffalo Bills this offseason.
Stat Projection: 74 catches, 1,042 yards, 7 touchdowns