Fantasy Football 2021: Late-Round Picks Who Can Help Win Your League
Fantasy managers far and wide are always giddy with anticipation about draft day—about making that first pick that begins the journey toward assembling a team.
The thing is, fantasy drafts aren't won in Round 1. Every player selected in that initial round is expected to make a big impact. The players in Round 2 are as well, for that matter.
No, leagues are won by middle- and late-round values. By players whose production wildly exceeds their asking price. By late-round lottery tickets who turn into jackpots.
Just ask the folks who drafted Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson in the 11th round a year ago.
Now, there's no guarantee that any of the players in this article will be the sort of game-changer that Jefferson or waiver-wire darling James Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars was in 2020. There are no guarantees in fantasy football.
But each of these players is available outside the 10th round, according to ADP data at Fantasy Football Calculator.
And all have the potential for a league-winning return on that minimal investment.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, MIami Dolphins
ADP: 164.3 (QB24)
Tua Tagovailoa's first season in Miami was rather unimpressive. The fifth pick in last year's draft was 6-3 as the team's starter, but he averaged just 181.4 passing yards per game and tossed 11 touchdowns. From Week 8 on, when Tagovailoa was the team's starter (except for a missed game in Week 12), the former Alabama standout was 24th in fantasy points per game among quarterbacks.
However, as ESPN's Cameron Wolfe reported, Dolphins great Dan Marino expects a big leap from the youngster in year two:
"He's been great. He's been awesome. He has all the talent in the world. Now it's just about him developing the relationship with the other players. It's been tough because he didn't have OTAs last year, a lot of the summer camp or the chance to play in exhibition games. All those things delay you somewhat. I'll tell you, he works his butt off. I'm really excited about him, his future and our future as a team."
Tagovailoa has better passing-game weapons with the addition of veteran Will Fuller V and rookie Jaylen Waddle. He'll get a full offseason of OTAs and camp to become more comfortable in Miami's offense. He's also another year removed from the hip injury that ended his collegiate career.
Better weapons. More mobility. An increased understanding of the offense.
The ingredients are all there for a breakout. Remember, it wasn't that long ago that Tagovailoa was viewed as a generational prospect and the top quarterback in his draft class.
He didn't forget how to play football.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Washington Football Team
ADP: 161.6 (QB23)
To say Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Washington Football Team is flying under the radar isn't accurate. At Fantasy Football Calculator at least, he's barely on the radar at all.
On some level, that's understandable. Fitzpatrick has made 10 starts in a season just once over the past four years. Two seasons ago in Miami, he threw for 3,529 yards and 20 scores and ranked 20th in fantasy points per game among quarterbacks.
However, that rebuilding Miami team was short on offensive talent. Now, Fitzpatrick is at the helm of a Washington squad that features running back Antonio Gibson, wide receivers Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel, tight end Logan Thomas and a stout offensive line. Per Paulina Dedaj of Fox News, Fitzpatrick told the ESPN Daily podcast he's in an ideal spot.
"This is the best situation I've ever been in or the best situation that I've ever gone into as the guy," Fitzpatrick said. "I signed to be the starter in Houston, I signed to be the starter in Miami, so this is now the third team that I've signed to come in and be the starter for."
Fitzpatrick has shown the ability to be fantasy-relevant—more recently than most think. As Mike Tagliere pointed out at Fantasy Pros, in 37 starts over the past four years, Fitzpatrick has posted QB1 (top-12) numbers 18 times. Last year, 10 starters managed QB1 numbers in over half of their starts.
Tevin Coleman, RB, New York Jets
ADP: 135.9 (RB54)
Let's make one thing clear: By the time you get into the double-digit rounds and outside the top 50 running backs, any pick at the position is a dart throw.
However, it's not that often that fantasy managers have the opportunity to land a lead back this late.
Now, there probably won't be a "workhorse" back for Gang Green in 2021—rookie Michael Carter, veteran Tevin Coleman, third-year pro Ty Johnson and second-year pro La'Mical Perine will each see work for new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur.
But when asked which back would lead the way in scrimmage yards, Randy Lange of the team's website put his money on the elder player of the bunch:
"(Coleman) seems to have come to the Jets with a fresh resolve to show the kind of player he can be for an offense in need. And when healthy, that's a back who has averaged more than 650 rushing yards and 280 receiving yards a season. If he comes in at 930 scrimmage yards in a probable backfield by committee this season, Coleman would join Bilal Powell in '17 and Le'Veon Bell in '19 as the only Jets backs to reach 900 scrimmage yards in the past four seasons. (And don't forget Coleman had 1,076 yards for Atlanta in '18.)"
If the 28-year-old were to average 10.5 yards per catch (his career average) those 280 average receiving yards would come on around 26 receptions. Add up the yardage, those catches and throw in the six TDs he has averaged in the pros, and you have about 155 PPR fantasy points.
That would be enough to land Coleman squarely in flex territory this season.
Devontae Booker, RB, New York Giants
ADP: 161.1 (RB59)
Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants is one of the most talented and electrifying backs in the game. There's little question he can finish as the No. 1 overall running back, and the 24-year-old won't make it out of Round 1 in approximately 100 percent of fantasy drafts.
But that whole "staying healthy" thing has become a real problem for Barkley. After topping 2,000 total yards as a rookie, he missed three games in 2019. Last year, he made it just two games into the season before tearing his ACL.
As ESPN's Jordan Raanan reported, Barkley didn't make fantasy managers any less anxious when he was coy about his Week 1 status while speaking to reporters at a youth football camp.
"I don't know. We'll see," he said. "Taking it day by day. Just listening to my body. Whenever I'm able to get out there, just make sure I'm 110 percent. Not just for ... my well-being, but just so I go out there and compete at a high level and show the world who Saquon is."
With Barkley likely to be eased into training camp, more and more drafters who select him are looking to nab backup Devontae Booker late. We saw Wayne Gallman produce as a solid RB2 with Barkley out a year ago until the Clemson product fell off late in the season, and it can be argued Booker is a better talent. The latter has averaged 4.5 yards per carry each of the past two years and caught 17 passes in limited action with the Raiders in 2020.
Booker is admittedly a lottery ticket. But if Barkley falters again, he could be the sort of late-round bonanza that wins leagues.
Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
ADP: 120.9 (WR47)
Los Angeles Chargers receiver Mike Williams has had his moments: In 2018, he caught 10 touchdown passes, while the season after, he nudged his way over the 1,000-yard mark. Now, as he enters a contract year, Williams will man the X receiver role in new coordinator Joe Lombardi's offense.
It's the same spot that Michael Thomas turned in some record-breaking numbers in New Orleans, the ex-QB coach's last stop. Expecting that from Williams might not be realistic, but Lombardi told Daniel Popper of the Athletic that he expects big things from the lanky 26-year-old in 2021:
"As much as this offense will resemble New Orleans, he plays the 'X' and the ball has always kind of found the 'X' receiver in this offense. I think that there will be some natural production that comes his way because of the nature of the offense. I see a big role for him. If I were a betting man, I'd bet on nice numbers coming from him on the stat sheet, that's for sure."
Williams just hasn't put together a season in which the yardage and the touchdowns come together. In 2021, there's a scheme that (on paper) benefits him. A No. 1 receiver opposite him in Keenan Allen to draw coverage. And the motivation of playing for a new deal.
Williams is an ideal late-round target. He's being drafted at his floor, while his ceiling could be a slot in fantasy WR2 territory.
John Brown, WR, Las Vegas Raiders
ADP: 166.2 (WR63)
There may not be a late-round pick I like more in all of fantasy football than Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver John Brown.
The team signed him as a replacement for the departed Nelson Agholor, and as Levi Edwards wrote for the Raiders' website, Vegas quarterback Derek Carr said Brown is already stepping into that role:
"Awesome person, great teammate. Reminds me a lot of Nelson [Agholor]. Very fast, very smart, works hard. But he's a great person just like Nelly. I think that they are very similar players. So, sad to lose Nelly – love him and wish him the best [but] love the guy so much, but happy to get 'Smoke' here. Love that guy. Great relationship with him already."
The fantasy community is much more interested in second-year pro Henry Ruggs III, who is coming off the board over three full rounds ahead of Brown on average. But it wasn't Ruggs who led all Raiders wideouts in targets, yards and touchdowns—Agholor did that on the way to finishing as a fantasy WR3 in 12-team PPR leagues.
Two years ago in Buffalo, Brown topped 1,000 receiving yards, scored six times and finished inside the top 25 at the position.
Tight end Darren Waller may be the king of the Raiders' pass-catchers. But it's Brown (and not Ruggs) who will occupy the No. 2 slot in the passing-game pecking order this year.
Tyler Higbee, TE, Los Angeles Rams
ADP: 135.8 (TE15)
Last year at this time, Tyler Higbee of the Los Angeles Rams was a trendy breakout pick. From Week 12 on in 2019, only George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers had more PPR points among tight ends.
However, that 2020 breakout didn't happen. Far from it, in fact. Higbee saw his numbers drop in several categories, and he finished the season 17th in fantasy points at the position.
After that disappointment, most drafters are looking at Higbee as little more than depth or a so-so platoon option. But there's reason to believe a rebound could be coming.
For starters, after setting a career high with 62 targets last year (two more than Higbee), Gerald Everett signed with the Seattle Seahawks. Now, Higbee won't get all those targets, but he'll get some—the 89 targets he got two years ago might be optimistic, but a bump is coming.
Also, Higbee is quietly really good at going damage with the ball in his hands. Per Blaine Grisak of Downtown Rams, the 28-year-old ranked 11th in yards after the catch among tight ends, eighth in Football Outsiders' YAC+ metric, ninth in DVOA and fifth in DYAR.
With a bump in targets and a better quarterback in Matthew Stafford, Higbee has a good chance of finishing well within TE1 territory.
Irv Smith Jr., TE, Minnesota Vikings
ADP: 154.6 (TE17)
As Lindsey Young reported for the Minnesota Vikings' website, while appearing on Good Morning Football, tight end Irv Smith Jr. said he's looking forward to taking a major step forward in 2021:
"We've got a lot of weapons on offense. Kirk [Cousins], he told us he's just the point guard out there. He's just going to deliver the ball and put it in the playmakers' hands, and we're going to make some plays. … He's playing with a chip on his shoulder, he's got a lot more swagger this year, for sure, and I'm very excited. It's going to be fun."
Smith also apparently has high expectations this season. When Good Morning Football host Nate Burleson suggested a 60-catch, 900-yard, 10-touchdown stat line for the tight end in 2021, he responded, "We gotta break 900."
In case you were wondering, a 60/900/10 line would land the third-year pro 210 fantasy points, which would have slotted him third among all tight ends in PPR leagues in 2020.
That's more pipe dream than prognostication. Sure, veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph is gone, but he and Smith only had 80 targets combined a year ago. The latter's career catch percentage (73.3) isn't far off from what it would take to nab 60 catches on 80 targets. But he's also averaged 10.2 yards per reception, which is a fair sight short of the 15 he'd need to match the prediction. He'd also need to double his touchdown total from a year ago.
None of that is especially likely. But Smith is an athletic, 6'2", 242-pound target who should be set to improve considerably on his 2020 numbers.
If you punt on tight ends early, the 22-year-old should absolutely be on the late-round radar.
ADPs accurate as of Wednesday, July 21.