Fantasy Football 2021: Ranking Sleepers, Busts and Safest Players This Year

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2021

Fantasy Football 2021: Ranking Sleepers, Busts and Safest Players This Year

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    The start of the 2021 NFL regular season is less than two weeks away. It's an exciting time for football fans, but it's a potentially stressful period for fantasy football managers.

    While it's never a great idea to hold fantasy drafts early in the preseason—injuries are still a thing in exhibition games—managers are running out of time to prepare, draft and work the waiver wire.

    We're here to help in all three phases of pre-Week 1 preparation. We'll run down the top 10 safest picks, sleepers and potential busts for 2021 based on factors like past production, projected role and any relevant training camp buzz. We'll examine the average draft position (ADP) for each player (from FantasyPros) and take a deeper dive into some notable entries in each category.

    First, though, let's run down a three-round point-per-reception (PPR) mock draft.

Three-Round Mock Draft

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Round 1

    1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

    2. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

    3. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

    4. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans

    5. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

    6. Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

    7. Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers

    8. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs

    9. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

    10. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

    11. Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

    12. Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland Browns

    Round 2

    1. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

    2. Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

    3. Stefon Diggs, WR, Buffalo Bills

    4. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Arizona Cardinals

    5. Patrick Mahomes, QR, Kansas City Chiefs

    6. Calvin Ridley, WR, Atlanta Falcons

    7. A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans

    8. Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington Football Team

    9. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

    10. DK Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks

    11. Darren Waller, TE, Las Vegas Raiders

    12. Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

    Round 3

    1. Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers

    2. Allen Robinson II, WR, Chicago Bears

    3. George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers

    4. CeeDee Lamb, WR, Dallas Cowboys

    5. Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Football Team

    6. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    7. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

    8. Julio Jones, WR, Tennessee Titans

    9. D'Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions

    10. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens

    11. James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

    12. David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears

Safe Picks

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    1. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints (ADP: 4)

    2. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs (15)

    3. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans (3)

    4. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Arizona Cardinals (19)

    5. Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers (8)

    6. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs (12)

    7. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings (2)

    8. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers (1)

    9. Allen Robinson II, WR, Chicago Bears (39)

    10. DK Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks (18)

    When searching out safe or "can't miss" fantasy prospects. Two factors should be in play. The first is a player's past production and projected floor. New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, for example, has notched more than 80 receptions in each of his four seasons while averaging 1,541 scrimmage yards.

    Obviously, Kamara is more valuable in PPR leagues, but even in standard formats, his floor is extremely high.

    The same is true for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. While dual-threat signal-callers like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson may provide more upside, Mahomes simply isn't likely to disappoint on a week-to-week basis.

    In 2020, Mahomes never fell below 200 passing yards in a start. He threw at least one touchdown pass in every game and only had two games without multiple touchdowns.

    Health and durability also have to play roles. This is why Seattle Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf makes the list despite being perhaps a notch below the elite tier. Metcalf has not missed a game in two seasons and has started 31 of his 32 appearances.

    Of course, Metcalf also has a high floor, having averaged 70.5 receptions, 1,101 yards and 8.5 touchdowns per season.

    DeAndre Hopkins is another great example of a player who simply doesn't disappoint in fantasy. He's played with several different quarterbacks throughout his career but has only failed to top 1,150 receiving yards twice in eight seasons.

    Hopkins has  averaged 93 receptions, 1,251 yards and 7.5 touchdowns as a pro while only missing one game. The Arizona Cardinals' top option, Hopkins now has a steady quarterback in third-year man Kyler Murray.

    Carolina Panthers running back is a high-floor player—he topped 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards two years ago—but he is coming off of an injury-plagued 2020 campaign. A high-ankle sprain and a shoulder injury limited him to three games—though he did average 125 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns.

    We're including McCaffrey, however, because he appears to be at 100 percent heading into Week 1.

    "I feel like he's hungry and he's ready to go," linebacker Jermaine Carter said of McCaffrey, per Darin Gantt of the team's official website. "He's the same guy; he's explosive, he doesn't look like he's lost a step. I can't wait to see what he does this year."

    Injuries are always going to be a risk, and there's no such thing as a truly "safe" player. However, McCaffrey does again appear to be a player upon which managers can rely.

    Look to draft high-volume players early and focus on those who are healthy heading into the regular season. While this may sound like a simple enough strategy, it will help lower the risk of landing a draft bust early.

    With early picks making up the foundation of any championship fantasy squad, avoiding busts can be just as important as netting the biggest performers.


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    David Banks/Associated Press

    1. Darnell Mooney, WR, Chicago Bears (ADP: 135)

    2. Jamaal Williams, RB, Detroit Lions (119)

    3. AJ Dillon, RB, Green Bay Packers (93)

    4. Marquez Callaway, WR, New Orleans Saints (168)

    5. Rondale Moore, WR, Arizona Cardinals (183)

    6. Rhamondre Stevenson, RB, New England Patriots (194)

    7. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins (157)

    8. Marvin Jones Jr., WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (134)

    9. Jakobi Meyers, WR, New England Patriots (204)

    10. Jared Cook, Los Angeles  Chargers (158)


    Everybody loves a good fantasy sleeper—so much so that true sleepers don't really exist anymore. Fantasy coverage is so vast that even practice-squad players can generate a certain amount of buzz. This doesn't mean, however, that several players aren't being significantly undervalued.

    There are a few ways to identify value picks before your draft. The first is to pay attention to changing roles and rosters around the league. Both factors are in play for Chicago Bears wideout Darnell Mooney.

    The Bears dumped quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in the offseason, replacing him with Andy Dalton and rookie Justin Fields. Dalton and/or Fields should upgrade the quarterback position to some degree. The trade of wideout Anthony Miller also makes Mooney the clear No. 2 receiving option next to Allen Robinson II.

    Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams is on a new team and could see a significant role early. He amassed 741 scrimmage yards, 31 receptions and three touchdowns while playing the backup role for the Green Bay Packers last year. With D'Andre Swift nursing a groin injury, Williams could be Detroit's Week 1 starter.

    And with Williams gone, AJ Dillon takes over the No. 2 role in Green Bay.

    Jared Cook, meanwhile, replaces Hunter Henry as the top tight end for the Los Angeles Chargers. With budding star Justin Herbert at quarterback, the 34-year-old Cook could return to Pro Bowl form in 2021.

    Paying attention to the preseason can also help uncover mid-to-late-round gems. New England Patriots running back Rhamondre Moore is a perfect example of a preseason star who could become a fantasy standout. He rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the opener and had 74 scrimmage yards and two more scores in Week 2.

    While Stevenson is still behind Damien Harris and James White on the depth chart, New England's trade of Sony Michel should open up a legitimate opportunity for him.

    Similarly, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marquez Callaway has shined on the exhibition field. He had 21 receptions for 213 yards as a rookie. However, he's been a breakout star this preseason. He had three receptions for 61 yards in the preseason opener and five for 104 and two touchdowns in Week 2.

    With Michael Thomas recovering from surgery (more on that shortly), Callaway could be one of New Orleans' top receiving options in the early season. The Saints also recently named Jameis Winston as the Week 1 starting quarterback. Having a more traditional passer in Winston under center instead of Taysom Hill should help the value of pass-catchers like Callaway.

    There's no guarantee that Callaway will be a constant performer after Thomas' return, but the upside is tremendous.

    Cardinals rookie Rondale Moore is another high-upside rookie who has shined in the preseason. Arizona has used him as both a runner and a receiver. He finished the preseason opener with three receptions, two rushes and 39 scrimmage yards. in Week 2, he caught three passes, rushed once and had 24 scrimmage yards.

    The floor for unproven players can be extremely low, but Moore's projected role makes him a solid option for fantasy managers.


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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    1. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints (ADP: 69)

    2. D'Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions (33)

    3. Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (91)

    4. Diontae Johnson, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (60)

    5. Kenny Golladay, WR, New York Giants (67)

    6. Will Fuller, WR, Miami Dolphins (105)

    7. Josh Jacobs, RB, Las Vegas Raiders (30)

    8. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals (66)

    9. Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons (48)

    10. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars (120)


    As is the case with sleepers, offseason moves can influence where busts reside. We already mentioned Williams and the Lions being an interesting pairing. With Williams in Detroit, though, Swift's value takes a significant hit.

    Further hurting Swift's value is the fact that he's been dealing with a groin injury that could keep him out of Week 1.

    "Swift's Week 1 status is up in the air due to a groin injury. That tells me that it is a more serious strain, as the first game is over two weeks away," The Athletic's Virginia Zakas wrote. "He has been dealing with this injury throughout the summer, and while he has been present at practice, he is still working his way back.

    Groin injuries can linger, meaning Swift may be underwhelming even when he's on the field.

    This leads us to the second big bust factor: injuries. Thomas—previously a perennial fantasy all-star—was hampered by injury all last season and finished with only 40 receptions and 438 receiving yards. He's expected to miss significant time this season after undergoing June ankle surgery.

    Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs is another example of a player hurt by an offseason acquisition. The Raiders inked dual-threat back Kenyan Drake to a two-year, $11 million deal this offseason and are likely to give him a fairly significant backfield role.

    While rookies can provide fantasy value, managers must be careful not to overvalue them. Unproven players carry inherent risks. For some, the risk can be compounded by their situations.

    Cincinnati Bengals wideout Ja'Marr Chase, for example, was the first wideout taken in the draft. However, he has struggled with drops in the preseason and is on a team that already has established receivers in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.

    Also, Chase hasn't played meaningful football in over a year and has a quarterback in Joe Burrow returning from a torn ACL and MCL.

    Tight end Kyle Pitts was drafted one spot ahead of Chase and is being valued highly in fantasy. However, the Atlanta Falcons have other receiving weapons, including Calvin Ridley and fellow tight end Hayden Hurst.

    While Pitts should be a viable fantasy starter, he shouldn't be targeted as an elite fantasy tight end.

    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence was the top pick in April's draft. While he could be a viable fantasy starter as a rookie—as Justin Herbert was in 2020—there's a lot working against him.

    The Jaguars offense has been atrocious in the preseason, and while Lawrence has been named the Week 1 starter, he doesn't quite appear ready.

    "Everything is moving too fast for him," ESPN's Harry Douglas said on First Take. " he's not getting the ball to places that he needs to get it to at the right time."

    Expecting Lawrence to be an instant fantasy star would be a mistake.