Fantasy Football 2021: Predicting This Year's Biggest Draft-Day Steals
Before fantasy managers think about late sleeper picks, they can snag a few steals in the middle rounds.
With the start of the regular season only two weeks away, managers should keep an eye on several players who could fall past the fourth round but provide top-notch fantasy value.
Most of these players have established resumes, though early drafters have slightly underestimated them.
We'll focus on eight players with average draft positions (ADPs via Fantasy Football Calculator) between the fifth and ninths rounds in 12-team point-per-reception leagues, justifying why managers should move them up their draft rankings.
QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
ADP: 5.04 (Round 5, Pick 4)
As a dual-threat quarterback, Lamar Jackson has tremendous upside. In 2019, he threw for a league-leading 36 touchdowns. The 24-year-old is the only quarterback to rush for 1,000-plus yards in multiple seasons. If he had accumulated more passing yards in recent years, his fantasy outlook would've shot through the roof.
Going into 2021, Jackson will have new offensive weapons. This offseason, the Baltimore Ravens selected wideouts Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace in the first and fourth rounds, respectively. They also signed Sammy Watkins, who played in offensive coordinator Greg Roman's system during his time with the Buffalo Bills (2015-16).
Though Bateman underwent core-muscle surgery a couple of weeks ago, he's done some light work on his road to recovery. The Ravens haven't ruled him out for Week 1. If the rookie doesn't suit up for the first few games, Watkins' veteran experience and familiarity within Roman's system could pay early dividends, which would bode well for Jackson's passing production.
Over the past two seasons, Mark Andrews has finished top-six in fantasy scoring among tight ends. His connection with Jackson should remain intact. Marquise Brown hasn't practiced since he suffered a hamstring injury, but the wideout "continues to run well," per ESPN's Jamison Hensley.
Bateman and Brown don't seem to have long-term injuries, so Jackson could have a full pass-catching group in the near future. With the added playmakers, he may surpass his career high in passing yards (3,127) to go along with his running-back-level rushing totals.
TE T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions
Who's Jared Goff's top pass-catcher?
Managers should ponder that question when they look for potential draft-day steals. Right now, Goff doesn't have a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver with the departure of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. this offseason.
Tyrell Williams has the potential to stretch the field with big plays, averaging 16.1 yards per catch for his career, but he hasn't recorded more than 43 receptions in a single campaign since 2016 and missed the entire 2020 season with a torn labrum. At training camp, sixth-year veteran Breshad Perriman took reps with the second unit behind Kalif Raymond, who's started in four outings through five seasons, and rookie fourth-rounder Amon-Ra St. Brown, per The Athletic's Chris Burke.
T.J. Hockenson projects as the primary pass-catcher in the Detroit Lions offense. Head coach Dan Campbell talked about the chemistry between the Pro Bowl tight end and Goff.
"Hock's got to be able to block, but I think Hockenson can be a real mismatch in the pass game," Campbell told reporters. "That's really where I think he can excel, and you can feel Jared wants to go to him now. He sees it. So, I do see that rapport."
Last season, Hockenson hauled in 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns. With an underwhelming wide receiver group, Goff will likely lean heavily on his pass-catching tight end through the air.
RB Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
Following the departure of Kenyan Drake, Chase Edmonds should creep into the first four rounds of drafts. Yet he could remain on the board for managers at the beginning of the sixth round.
Though ESPN's Josh Weinfuss projects a timeshare between Edmonds and James Conner with the majority of touches going to the "hot hand," the former has two years of experience in head coach Kliff Kingsbury's system, while the latter just signed with the team this offseason. For what it's worth, the Cardinals listed Edmonds as the starter on their most recent unofficial depth chart.
Furthermore, Conner had somewhat of a rough offseason. He underwent surgery on his toe following an ATV accident and spent time on the reserve/COVID-19 list as a high-risk close contact to someone who tested positive.
With disruptions in Conner's offseason routine, Edmonds should head into the 2021 campaign as the lead running back. On top of that, the former Pittsburgh Steeler saw a decline in his receiving workload after the 2018 term. In contrast, Edmonds became the Cardinals' primary pass-catcher out of the backfield last season, hauling in 53 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns.
QB Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Shortly after the season, on the I AM ATHLETE podcast with Brandon Marshall, wideout DK Metcalf said teams "started to figure us out" when discussing the Seattle Seahawks' offensive lapses down the stretch.
The Seahawks replaced offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer with former Los Angeles Rams passing game coordinator Shane Waldron, who will speed up the pace in a balanced attack.
If the Seahawks force their opponents to respect the run with an upgrade at right guard in road grader Gabe Jackson, whom the club acquired in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders, Metcalf and fellow wideout Tyler Lockett could take advantage of one-on-one matchups on the perimeter. Secondly, Wilson may have more scoring opportunities as Seattle moves between plays with more urgency.
Last season, Wilson ran for the fourth-most yards (513) among quarterbacks, threw for a career-high 40 touchdowns and ranked sixth at his position in fantasy scoring (372.6). Based on those numbers and the Seahawks' new offensive system, managers should have a more favorable fantasy outlook for Wilson's 2021 campaign.
WR Kenny Golladay, New York Giants
Early in training camp, Kenny Golladay had an injury scare, which may steer managers away from him in the first few rounds. Keep in mind, he missed 11 games with hamstring and hip injuries last year.
According to The Athletic's Dan Duggan, Golladay suffered a hamstring injury that didn't set off alarms.
Yet the New York Giants have erred on the side of caution in hopes of keeping their big-money receiver on track to play Week 1, per Duggan.
"Golladay did light work on the side of practices last week in Cleveland," Duggan wrote. "The Giants aren't going to risk a setback by pushing Golladay, who has a history of hamstring injuries. He likely won't return to practice until after next Sunday's preseason finale against the Patriots."
Managers may have to hold their breath on this one, but Golladay could post big numbers if he doesn't aggravate his hamstring. Big Blue signed him to a four-year, $72 million contract going into a crucial season for third-year quarterback Daniel Jones.
Expect Jones to target Golladay early and often throughout the 2021 term. The Pro Bowl wideout only missed one game between the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in both, leading the league in touchdowns (11) in the second campaign.
WR Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati Bengals
Though quarterback Joe Burrow and Chase played together as an elite tandem at LSU, the latter has to knock off a lot of rust after he opted out of the 2020 campaign. Meanwhile, as a rookie, Burrow built a rapport with Boyd through 10 games while connecting on three touchdown plays through the air.
Burrow still has to work through some psychological obstacles in his recovery from a torn ACL and MCL, but he should feel comfortable with one of his primary targets from the previous season. Appearing on The Fantasy Authority Podcast, ESPN's Ben Baby said Boyd will have "a ton of catches and a ton of yards" in 2021.
Second-year wideout Tee Higgins will likely see plenty of targets as well, but Boyd has a track record of consistency, hauling in at least 76 passes for three consecutive seasons with back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns in 2018 and 2019.
With Chase's early drop issues, managers should turn their sights to Boyd as the Bengals' top fantasy wideout.
RB Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders backfield could feature a pair of fantasy-relevant running backs both deserving of early-round consideration. Just think about how the Cleveland Browns duo of Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb finished 10th and 11th in scoring, respectively, in PPR leagues last season, per FantasyPros.
Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake could produce similar results, with the latter slightly edging the former in scoring settings that reward players a point (or even a half-point) for each catch.
Jacobs believes Drake's versatility and playing style will provide a significant offensive boost, per ESPN's Paul Gutierrez.
"Kenyan is a change-of-pace type back," Jacobs said. "He has what I call that X-factor type of explosiveness. So just to see him come in and give what he has to the team and see him line up in a wide receiver spot in the slot, it's definitely going to be huge for the team."
Drake's role as a pass-catcher puts him in the discussion among draft-day steals.
Second-year wideouts Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards are slated to start and have a lot to prove after both had underwhelming rookie campaigns.
As a sixth-year veteran, Drake has a proven track record in a receiving role with two 50-plus-catch seasons. His rushing duties coupled with opportunities in the passing game give him a chance to match the production of a second- or third-round running back.
WR Brandin Cooks, Houston Texans
Managers will likely overlook any player on the Houston Texans roster. They're rebuilding with Tyrod Taylor set to start under center. That's not an appealing fantasy situation, but Brandin Cooks deserves consideration in the early rounds.
Cooks has racked up 1,000-plus yards in five out of seven seasons. Though he posted those numbers with far more productive quarterbacks in Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson, the 27-year-old wideout should easily lead the Texans in targets this year.
Houston let William Fuller V walk in free agency and acquired wideout Anthony Miller, who dislocated his shoulder against the Green Bay Packers in Houston's first preseason game. Head coach David Culley is "hopeful" that the latter returns to play this season, per The Athletic's Aaron Reiss.
The Texans traded Randall Cobb to the Green Bay Packers. Rookie third-rounder Nico Collins has flashed at practice, but he's an unproven talent. Lastly, dual-threat running back David Johnson anticipates a lesser role in 2021, per Reiss.
If Cooks—who's only missed three games over the past six seasons—remains healthy, he'll have a busy year. Typically, talented veterans translate an abundance of opportunities into production.
Average draft positions (ADP) are current as of Thursday and courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator.