2021 Fantasy Football Rookie Rankings

Matthew Durgin
Apr 29, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Kyle Pitts (Florida) poses with a jersey after being selected by Atlanta Falcons as the number four overall pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft at First Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Some people like playing fantasy football more than actually watching the games. I’m not one of those people, but I do enjoy beating my friends anytime I can. So, after spending the last year studying these players, and more recently analyzing out how they fit on their respective teams, I have come up with my top ten fantasy football rookies for 2020. No, this isn’t a list of the ten best players. This is my opinion of guys who will come in and have some sort of fantasy production in their rookie year, and could potentially help you win your league. Sit back and enjoy (or complain about) my rankings:

1. Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons

Anyone who has seen Pitts play knows that he is destined for greatness in the NFL. I already think he’s one of the five best tight ends in the league and he hasn’t even played a snap yet. He’s obviously a freakish talent, but he’s also on a team that’s a perfect fit for him. New head coach Arthur Smith wants to utilize tight ends in the passing game as he did in Tennessee. Also, Matt Ryan is a quarterback who likes to throw to tight ends. Over the past three seasons, the Falcons’ top tight end, whether it was Austin Hooper or Hayden Hurst, saw at least 88 targets a season. While Pitts is an underrated blocker, you can expect him to be used in the slot or out wide where he played about 45% of his snaps in college. In addition, he had the second-highest TD % rate EVER at 27.6% for a college tight end in a season. It’s true that Calvin Ridley has done an excellent job in the red zone (10 touchdowns inside the 20 since 2019), but Pitts has the size and ball skills to be the top option for the Falcons as the field gets smaller. Don’t be scared off by the lack of production from first-round tight ends of past years, Pitts is a unicorn who should blossom into one of the best receiving options sooner rather than later.

2. Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals

While I wanted the Bengals to draft an offensive tackle, I fully expect Ja’Marr Chase to be a great player. Despite the Bengals having Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, who both might see a decent number of targets, we should expect Chase to be Burrow’s favorite target due to the chemistry they already have established from their time together at LSU. While he didn’t play in 2020, Chase dominated against high-level college defensive backs in the SEC. He continued this stellar play during the postseason, playing well against AJ Terrell in the National Championship game. According to PFF, his 21.2 yards per catch was the fourth-best in the nation in 2020, and Chase had 24 receptions that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, the most ever recorded in a season. On top of that pre-existing chemistry, Chase has a body built to endure a long NFL season. On a team that will pass the ball a lot, especially at the end of games (sorry Bengals fans), and as a guy who can get open down the field, Chase will be a hot commodity come draft time. Historically, young receivers have trouble adjusting to the NFL game. However, there have been five rookie receivers (Brown, Metcalf, Jefferson, Lamb, Higgins) over the past two years who have had over 900 yards receiving, showing a trend of young receivers coming to the NFL as pro-ready prospects. Chase has the talent and the relationship with Burrow to play like, or better than, those aforementioned players and has the potential to be a WR1. Buy all the stock (particularly if you’re in a dynasty league) you can in Chase.

3. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

The first running back selected in the draft should be an early-round fantasy selection. There are very few true three-down running backs in the NFL and Harris should be one of them. Even with injuries and limitations as a player, Conner played 65% of the snaps for the Steelers last year. We should use that benchmark as the minimum amount of snaps Harris should play as he really could see 75% if he stays healthy. The rest of the Steelers’ running backs don’t inspire much confidence and aren’t an upgrade over Harris as a runner or receiver. A huge part of Harris’s value is his work around the goal line. His 50 touchdowns over the last two years in college are due in part to him being a part of elite offenses, but he will be a workhorse near the goal line in the NFL as well. He forced 69 missed tackles and had 962 yards after contact in 2020, it’s almost impossible to bring down on first contact. Don’t be shocked if he ends up with a double-digit touchdown total in 2020. An underrated part of Harris’s game is his ability as a receiver. His 60 catches and only one drop the last two years will make him a viable option for Big Ben, who is changing the way he plays. Ben’s air yards per attempt in 2020 were down 1.5 yards compared to the rest of his career. The offense is predicated on quicker passes due to his lack of arm strength and offensive line help. Expect plenty of dump-offs thrown to Harris.

4. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

There are about eight or so high-level fantasy quarterbacks and then it’s a crapshoot after that. While Lawrence is not in that elite group yet, he is an intriguing option to pick up in the late rounds. You cannot expect him to step in and light the league on fire like Justin Herbert did a season ago, but based on his skill set, his ability to run, and the ample throwing opportunities, he can have some high-scoring weeks. Lawrence isn’t a runner like Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray, but he did have 18 rushing touchdowns in three seasons. When the pocket collapses around him, he knows when to scramble and has the speed to pick up yards. Lastly, the Jacksonville defense is young and talented, but they were the second-worst last year in points given up. Expect plenty of throwing opportunities and garbage time points. Don’t rely on Lawrence as your QB1, but do depend on him being a valuable QB2 with high upside.

5. Devonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles

Despite being on the skinny side, there’s no doubt Devonta Smith is a pro-ready wide receiver. On an Eagles team that lacks a true WR1, we can expect Smith to have the most targets. We may not know how the Eagles offense will look under new coach Nick Sirianni, but we know there’s a relationship between Jalen Hurts and Smith from their days at Alabama. A great contested catch guy like Smith will also help any deficiencies in Hurts’s game. His 80% catch rate and under 4% drop rate in 2020 exemplifies the consistency needed for a future star receiver. He’s as polished of a rookie receiver as you’ll see. Since he doesn’t have the athletic profile or gunslinging quarterback like Ja’Marr Chase, we shouldn’t anticipate him outperforming the fifth overall pick right away. Do expect a lot of quick passes and screens, which will boost Smith’s stock in PPR leagues. We can rely on Smith as a solid bench WR who has the upside to be a top receiver on his team sooner rather than later.

6. Michael Carter, New York Jets

Carter is a perfect fit for the wide zone offense the Jets are expected to run this season. Carter is also lucky enough to join a team that has no clear-cut starter. Meaning, there’s a real chance Carter takes over the starting role at some point. Of all the running backs on the roster, Carter has the most home run play potential. His 29 runs over 20 yards were the most in college football in 2020, and he split carries with Javonte Williams. Carter also provides some versatility as a pass-catcher. With 82 catches in his college career, we can assume that Carter will handle third-down duties in the NFL, which makes him more valuable in PPR leagues. Over the past three years, he brought in over 88% of his targets and was constantly beating linebackers in one on one coverage. The NFL does have better athletes at linebacker, but Carter’s game should translate well even as a rookie. Now, he won’t run too much in between the tackles which limits him as a player and fantasy option. Since he isn’t expected to get many touches on short-yardage situations, don’t expect a high touchdown total. He’s worth a mid to late-round flier, but he’s a guy you want to focus on during the preseason to monitor how often he plays with the first-team.

7. Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos

Because Melvin Gordon is the incumbent starting running back for the Broncos, Williams might have a slow start. However, Gordon is past his prime, giving Williams a chance to take over the bulk of the carries by midseason. The bruiser from North Carolina has the size and durability needed to get through a long season. His 7.3 yards per carry average was amongst the best in college football in 2020. He also led college football in broken tackles with 75. His physical brand of football will make him valuable on the goal line, and that’s probably going to give him a clear role on a talented Broncos offense as a rookie. I do worry about his pass-catching value as a rookie as he only had limited opportunities in college yet had several inexcusable drops. Should you draft him, anticipate him having a similar rookie season to Jonathan Taylor or J.K Dobbins. He’ll frustrate you earlier, but be a starter for the playoff run.

8. Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins

The outlook for Waddle’s career is promising, but it might take him a year or two to really get going. As it stands, he’s the third receiver on a team that wants a balanced offensive attack with an unproven quarterback. He does provide big-play ability with his breath-taking speed and quickness. His speed translates on the field, evident by his 18.9 yards per catch in college on 106 catches. This doesn’t even tell the full story though, as he averaged 32.5 yards per catch on passes that went past five yards in the air. That’s absolutely unheard of. Of course, fantasy owners should worry about his durability and his possible lack of targets, but based on talent alone he’s a draftable player. Plus, the two receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, Devante Parker and Will Fuller, have serious durability concerns meaning there’s an opportunity for Waddle to get meaningful playing time.

9. Elijah Moore, New York Jets

At the moment Moore might be the fourth receiver on the depth chart but expect him to be a key contributor by season’s end. Due to his size, he might be limited to working from the slot, but he fits the profile of a receiver the Jets want. New offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is a disciple of Kyle Shanahan and will run a similar offense to what San Francisco does. In this offense, you want receivers who can gain yards after the catch. Moore forced 18 missed tackles in 2020 despite being 5’9″ and 180 pounds. Because of this, you’ll see a lot of screens and quick slants dialed up for Moore. I’d also expect the Jets to move on from Jamison Crowder, leaving the slot open for Moore. He might not be a guy you draft but focus on the possible rookie connection between Moore and Zach Wilson. Don’t be afraid to snatch him early in the season off of the waiver wire, even if the production isn’t there immediately.

10. Rashod Bateman, Baltimore Ravens

Rashod Bateman makes the Ravens so much better on offense. Unfortunately for Bateman, being on the Ravens will stunt his statistical production potential. Only two players, Mark Andrews and Hollywood Brown, have had over 49 targets the last two seasons for the Ravens. The Baltimore offense isn’t set up for receivers to have big seasons. If there’s any receiver who has the talent to buck this trend it’s Bateman. He’s a blend of Andrews and Brown, in the sense he has great size, but also great speed. The Ravens should take advantage of Bateman’s ability to break tackles by throwing more slants and screens, he had 36 broken tackles on 147 catches in college. Keep an eye on him early in the season, if not drafted he could be a fantastic waiver wire pickup.

Honorable Mentions:

Dez Fitzpatrick, Tennessee Titans – Legitimate chance he becomes WR2 for the Titans by the end of the season. Sleeper pick for deep leagues

Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars – Has the talent but won’t get the touches in a crowded Jacksonville backfield

D’Wayne Eskridge, Seattle Seahawks – Russ wants to cook and Eskridge should see a lot of time on the field. Will he be able to stay healthy for a full season is the question.

Kadarius Toney, New York Giants – Fun player that will be buried on the depth chart as a rookie. Will be utilized as a gadget player at first

Amari Rodgers, Green Bay Packers – Should see some designed plays for him in the short passing game, specifically with screens. However, don’t expect a high touchdown total or a ton of targets.

Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers – IF he starts there’s a chance he can be a fantasy breakout star. One would imagine he would have a lot of designed runs (QB power, QB counter) which boosts his value. Until he becomes the starter, there’s obviously no fantasy value for him.

Zach Wilson, New York Jets – Will throw the ball a lot, but will throw a lot of interceptions. Don’t expect much from Wilson from a fantasy perspective at this point.