Fantasy Football 2021: Red Flags You Need to Avoid
Drafting in season-long fantasy leagues is a game of speculation. Managers are betting on how they think a player will perform throughout a season.
Some gambles are bigger than others, and betting on risk-reward players is best left to the later rounds. Having a 10th-round sleeper not pan out is less disastrous than seeing a second-round centerpiece bust.
Busts do happen in the early rounds, however. Consistently productive or reliably "safe" players can be hampered by lingering injuries, age, changes to supporting cast/scheme or incoming competition. These situations can create red flags for players viewed as can't-miss fantasy prospects.
We'll examine some red flags to avoid among the top 12 quarterbacks and tight ends, along with the top 20 running backs and receivers, based on average draft position (ADP) for point-per-reception (PPR) scoring formats.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
ADP: 9.04 (QB12)
Of the top 12 quarterbacks in ADP, Jalen Hurts is easily the least proven. The Philadelphia Eagles signal-caller has started four NFL games, finishing three of them. While he showed promise in limited action last year—1,061 passing yards, 354 rushing yards, nine combined touchdowns and four interceptions—he is an inexperienced quarterback with a lackluster receiving corps.
Philadelphia has a terrific tight end tandem in Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz, but its leading wideout in 2020, Travis Fulgham, had a mere 539 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
While the Eagles drafted reigning Heisman winner DeVonta Smith in April, he too is unproven, and he is dealing with a sprained MCL.
Then there's the offensive line that surrendered 65 sacks last season. The return of offensive tackles Andre Dillard and Lane Johnson should help, but pass protection could still be an issue for the second-year quarterback.
Hurts' running ability gives him upside, but he's better targeted as a streaming option than as a weekly starter and top-12 QB.
Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington Football Team
ADP: 2.04 (RB12)
I like Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson a lot. He was fantastic as a rookie last season, finishing with 795 rushing yards, 247 receiving yards, 36 receptions and 11 touchdowns in 14 games.
Yet it's hard to envision he delivers on his fantasy draft status in PPR formats.
The biggest issue is that Gibson too often was Washington's only source of offense last year, and that's not likely to be the case in 2021. The team added a gunslinging quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick and has an improved receiving corps.
Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas are back, and Washington added Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and rookie Dyami Brown. Washington ranked ninth in passing attempts but 25th in rushing attempts last season. With a more potent passing attack, that imbalance should carry into this season.
Gibson's PPR upside is also limited by the presence of receiving back J.D. McKissic. He had a whopping 80 receptions last season to go with 954 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns. Gibson, while a great player, is a run-focused member of a committee backfield.
D'Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions
ADP: 3.06 (RB18)
Like Gibson, Detroit Lions running back D'Andre Swift had a promising rookie campaign in 2020. The Georgia product appeared in 13 games with four starts and finished with 878 scrimmage yards, 46 receptions and 10 combined touchdowns.
The issue for Swift is that the Lions have swapped out longtime starting quarterback Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff. They also have an underwhelming wide receiver corps headlined by Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman.
With Stafford and former No. 1 receiver Kenny Golladay both gone, opponents could spend all of 2021 daring the Lions to throw. That's likely to lead to loaded boxes for Swift. It won't help that he is heading into the preseason with an injury that could linger.
"D'Andre Swift also has missed significant practice time while nursing a sore groin," Kyle Meinke of MLive.com wrote Monday. "He's suited up almost every day, but rarely participated in seven-on-seven or 11-on-11 work."
Swift may be Detroit's starter, but he's also likely part of a committee backfield. Detroit added Jamaal Williams—who had 31 receptions, 741 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns last season—in free agency and drafted Jermar Jefferson in the seventh round.
A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans
ADP: 3.01 (WR8)
Tennessee Titans wideout A.J. Brown is a budding star. The Mississippi product made his first Pro Bowl in 2020 after catching 70 passes for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns. However, it's hard to buy the idea that he'll be a top-eight fantasy receiver in 2021.
For starters, Tennessee has a run-centric offense built around Derrick Henry. The Titans ranked second in rushing attempts last season but 30th in pass attempts.
While Brown led Tennessee in targets last year (106), that may not be the case this season. The Titans added Julio Jones via trade, and Jones dominated the target share during his time with the Atlanta Falcons.
Even with 11 games missed in 2013 and seven missed last season, Jones has averaged 132 targets per season.
While Tennessee lost Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith in free agency, it added Jones and fellow wideout Josh Reynolds. Brown may not get enough targets to replicate his 2020 production.
He may not be at 100 percent to start the season either after having cleanup surgery on both knees in January. While he has been participating in camp, any sort of knee procedure is risky for a receiver.
Amari Cooper, WR, Dallas Cowboys
ADP: 4.08 (WR16)
Dallas Cowboys wideout Amari Cooper topped 1,100 receiving yards for the second straight season in 2020 despite missing starting quarterback Dak Prescott for 11 games. The pending return of Prescott should be a boon for Cooper managers, though they have other red flags to consider.
The biggest is that Dallas has a deep and talented receiving corps. With CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, Dalton Schultz and Ezekiel Elliott all set to vie for targets, Cooper may not see a lot of action in some games.
Consider that Cooper failed to top 51 receiving yards in five games in 2020.
Lamb may also be ready to supplant him as Prescott's go-to target.
"This offense has a lot of confidence in Lamb and no disrespect to Amari Cooper, who started camp on the PUP list after having ankle surgery, but the young playmaker will be the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver before too long," former NFL wideout and NFL Media Analyst Nate Burleson wrote.
Cooper's ankle surgery is another issue for managers to consider, though it doesn't appear he'll miss time heading into the regular season.
Diontae Johnson, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
ADP: 5.04 (WR20)
Wideout Diontae Johnson led the Pittsburgh Steelers with 144 targets in 2020, though he also had 13 drops. If he can fix his drop issues, he could produce starting fantasy WR numbers—he finished with 923 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
However, that would hinge on whether Johnson remains Ben Roethlisberger's top target. Second-year wideout Chase Claypool performed like a No. 1 receiver in the Hall of Fame Game, and he could be heading that way.
"He's very capable of putting up high numbers week in and week out, with the potential to become one of the game's best red-zone targets," Burleson wrote.
The other issue is that Pittsburgh's offense shouldn't be as pass-heavy as it was a year ago (first in pass attempts, 28th in rushing attempts). Roethlisberger struggled down the stretch last season, the Steelers are working with a revamped offensive line and they used a first-round pick on running back Najee Harris in April.
Johnson may cede the No. 1 receiver role to Claypool, and he'll have to compete with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eric Ebron, James Washington and rookie Pat Freiermuth for targets. If the Steelers field a more balanced offense this season, it could hurt Johnson's fantasy production significantly.
Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens
ADP: 5.05 (TE5)
Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews has been a high-second-tier tight end for a couple of years. While a step below elite options like Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Darren Waller, Andrews has been a reliable starter.
He has only missed three games over the last two seasons and has produced at least 701 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in each of those campaigns.
However, Andrews has also served as Baltimore's de facto No. 1 receiver, and that may not be his role this season.
The Ravens finally got Lamar Jackson some wide receiver help, which could hurt Andrews' fantasy production. Andrews and wideout Marquise Brown were the only Ravens to top 500 receiving yards in 2020, but Baltimore added Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace this offseason.
While Bateman is dealing with a leg injury, head coach John Harbaugh told reporters he's "hopeful" he'll be ready for Week 1.
Andrews plays in a run-heavy offense (first in attempts last season). If Watkins and Bateman perform as Baltimore hopes, he may drop into a tier of serviceable fantasy tight ends, interchangeable with options likely to be available long after Round 5.
Hunter Henry, TE, New England Patriots
ADP: 9.07 (TE11)
Tight end Hunter Henry had a solid 613 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2020. However, managers may not want to target him as their TE1 for a few reasons. For one thing, he isn't guaranteed to be the top tight end for the New England Patriots this season.
New England added both Henry and fellow tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency—along with wideouts Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Henry may not see the target share needed to be a starting fantasy tight end.
In addition, the Patriots don't know yet know who will be starting at quarterback. They have 2020 starter Cam Newton but also drafted Alabama's Mac Jones 15th overall in April.
"Will he beat out Cam by Week 1? I don't know," VSiN analyst Michael Lombardi said (h/t the New York Post).
If Newton retains the starting job, it could be problematic for Henry managers. New England ranked 30th in passing yards last season and had only 12 passing touchdowns.
Henry has dependability issues too, having missed 25 games in five seasons. Not only could he see a dip in production, but he may also not be available for the full 17-game schedule.