League Logo
League Logo
League Logo
League Logo
League Logo
League Logo

    2021 NFL Draft: Fantasy football winners

    Which players saw the biggest boost in their Fantasy value during the 2021 NFL Draft?
    Hero Image

    The first six picks of the 2021 NFL Draft were all offensive skill position players, and in total, 13 quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends were selected in the first round on Thursday. As a result, the ever-changing Fantasy landscape has shifted once again.

    Days 2 and 3 of the NFL Draft brought us clarity on the Fantasy outlook for the rest of our favorite rookie prospects; but to me, the biggest Fantasy story of this draft is really found in the teams that did not use their draft picks to address needs at the RB or WR position. Most of the biggest Fantasy winners from the draft are players who were penciled in as tentative starters for their team and can breathe a sigh of relief now that the draft has come and gone and their position on the depth chart remains unchanged.

    2021 Draft Winners:

    A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans

    A.J. Brown took a big step forward in his ability to consistently command targets in his second pro season. He ended up being targeted at the eighth-highest per route rate among all qualified receivers:

    2019 TPRR -- 21.4 percent (27th)
    2020 TPRR -- 24.9 percent (8th)

    Targets per route run (TPRR) is among the most predictive Fantasy stats available, and I wrote about it in more detail to help you better understand how to use it if unfamiliar. TPRR helped me to identify Davante Adams as the clear WR1 heading into the 2020 season, and I truly believe it is one of the most important stats available for receivers.

    Who is going to be "this year's Davante Adams?" The most likely answer is "no one," considering Adams finished with the third-most single-season receiving touchdowns ever in just 14 games in 2020. But if I had to put my money on one player to make an Adams-like leap in 2021, my bet would be on A.J. Brown.

    The more I dig into Brown's statistical profile, the more it becomes clear that he is on the verge of something big. Since 2017, Brown's 24.9 percent TPRR rate is by far the highest mark of players under the age of 24. Not only did he increase his TPRR by 16.4 percent from Year 1 to Year 2, Brown did it while continuing to operate as a downfield weapon. Only he, Adams, and Calvin Ridley posted a TPRR above 24 percent while also averaging more than 2.75 air yards per route run.

    Brown didn't stop at making offseason improvements from Year 1 to Year 2, we actually saw him improve his TPRR on a week-by-week basis as the 2020 season rolled on. He returned from injury after Tennessee's bye in Week 4 and was targeted on 25.6 percent of his routes from that point on. In the second half of the season, Brown's TPRR was up to 26.9 percent. In the final five games of the regular season, Brown had an elite 28.2 percent TPRR rate. In Tennessee's one playoff game, Brown was targeted on 29.6 percent of his routes.

    Perhaps the most ridiculous part of all of this is the fact that Brown reportedly played through injuries to both knees in 2020. While playing banged-up and competing for targets with an emergent Corey Davis, Brown was still able to command his QB's attention at one of the highest rates ever recorded by a 23-year-old.

    I expressed optimism that he might be on the precipice of taking over as a true target hog when Tennessee lost both Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith in free agency. But with Tennessee possessing four top-100 picks heading into the draft, I assumed a talented rookie receiver would be on the roster to at least present one player other than Brown who poses a threat of demanding even just a 20 percent target share. Instead, the Titans waited until Round 4 to select receiver Dez Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick profiles as the type of big-bodied downfield threat that Tennessee likes, but it is unlikely that he'll even play ahead of Josh Reynolds as a rookie.

    So, barring an unforeseen trade (A.J. Brown himself has made it clear that he would love for Tennessee to trade for Julio Jones), it appears as if Tennessee plans to let Brown operate as a true alpha in 2021. The top candidates to finish second on the team in targets are Reynolds, Fitzpatrick, and Anthony Firkser. The only thing standing in the way of a 150-plus target season for Brown is an extremely run-heavy game plan. Finishing as the WR1 in Fantasy is well within his range of outcomes, and the only receiver I would take over him at this point is Davante Adams.

    D'Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions

    Detroit didn't select a running back until the seventh round, meaning Jamaal Williams is D'Andre Swift's top competition for snaps heading into 2021. The Lions acquired Williams for cheap -- nothing about his two-year deal worth a max of $7.5 million suggests that they view him as anything other than a quality backup option.

    So, Swift exits his first offseason with a capable backup, but not one who poses a reasonable threat to his workload. Perfect. The Lions also used the seventh overall pick on stud offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who should help Swift and this offense as a whole tremendously. And Detroit's only replacement plan for Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones appears to be Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams, and fourth-round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown. Things really are shaping up ideally for Swift heading into 2021.

    Swift's involvement as a pass-catcher was perhaps the most exciting facet of his encouraging rookie campaign, and he should have an even more sizable workload as a receiver in Year 2.

    T.J. Hockenson, TE, Detroit Lions

    For all the same reasons we should be excited about D'Andre Swift, we should be excited about T.J. Hockenson as he enters his third season. I project Hockenson to lead this team in targets with their current depth chart, and his TPRR data from last year suggests that he's ready to step up as a target hog in year three.

    Hockenson ranked fifth among qualified tight ends in targets per route run (TPRR) in just his second year in the league, and he became the third tight end under the age of 24 to finish with a TPRR above 20 percent in the four years we have that data available. It has gone a bit under the radar because of the team he plays on, but Hockenson's first two pro seasons have been quite impressive for a tight end who was drafted at the age of 21.

    For reference, here's how Hockenson's TPRR stacks up compared to George Kittle and Travis Kelce at the beginning of their respective careers (I don't have route run data available prior to 2017, so Kelce's numbers are manually calculated using PFF's route data. I assume it is accurate, but it isn't the source I typically use.):

    George Kittle:

    Rookie season (age 24) -- 16.8 percent TPRR
    Second season (25) -- 26.2 percent TPRR
    Third season (26) -- 31.4 percent TPRR

    Hockenson demanded targets at a higher rate as a 22-year-old rookie than Kittle did as a 24-year-old rook, but Kittle's ability to demand targets skyrocketed after that.

    Kittle stands out as a true outlier in terms of per-route stats, because he simply doesn't run nearly as many routes as someone like Travis Kelce. San Francisco runs the ball far more often than most, and Kittle is used as a blocker slightly more often than Kelce. He also has very little competition for targets and is often the first read on passing plays; when the playbook calls for him to run a route, it is usually with intentionality.

    Given the current state of Detroit's receiving corps, Hockenson could be looking at similar types of intentionality on his routes as Detroit's logical top receiving threat for 2021. I still wouldn't expect his TPRR to scale in the same way Kittle's did, though. The more routes a player runs, the harder it is for him to maintain such insanely high TPRR rates.

    Tight end route run data is an important topic on its own. Without a good understanding of how often a tight end's team allows him to run routes, TPRR can be quite misleading. Route run data is significantly more important than snap rates when evaluating Fantasy tight ends. I plan to have an article published on this subject in June. If you want an easy way to keep up with all of the information that will be published this spring, this Advanced Fantasy Football Stat Guide will be updated with links to each article as they go live. 

    So, Kittle might not be the best comparison. The fact that Hockenson was targeted far more frequently as a rookie who was two years younger is noteworthy, and the parallel in terms of coming into his own as his team's top target is there, but it isn't likely that Hockenson's TPRR progression follows the same parabolic ascent that Kittle's has.

    Hockenson's TPRR progression could mirror that of an early-career Travis Kelce, though.

    Travis Kelce:

    Rookie season (age 25) -- 21.4 percent TPRR
    Second season (26) -- 20.7 percent TPRR
    Third season (27) -- 22.6 percent TPRR

    Outside of the slight dip in Year 2, Kelce's year-over-year TPRR rate has just monotonically increased since his rookie season. So far, Hockenson's rates have fallen in the same range as early-career Kelce's.

    If Hockenson's TPRR follows the same type of modest year-over-year improvement that Kelce's career has modeled, a TPRR above 22 percent is within the cards for 2021. That might not sound like much, but Darren Waller, Kelce, and Mark Andrews were the only qualified tight ends to reach that level in 2020. And what if Hockenson's TPRR progression ends up more similar to Kittle's? His age certainly adds volatility (most likely, to the upside) to the equation -- Kittle and Kelce were already in their mid-to-late 20s when at the career stage Hockenson is entering. With the amount of vacated targets in Detroit after the departure of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, there's really no telling what the ceiling is for Hockenson's TPRR rate in his third season.

    On top of the vacated targets, Hockenson also could stand to benefit from playing with a quarterback who has loved throwing to the tight end position. 24.5 percent of Jared Goff's pass attempts have gone to tight ends over the past two seasons, which is up from Detroit's 21.5 percent mark. And that rate has come while playing in an offense that doesn't allow tight ends to run routes as often as the Lions do. When the Rams' tight ends ran routes, Goff targeted them frequently. Both Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett have a TPRR rate above 21 percent during that time, while Hockenson (20.3 percent) is the only Lions tight end who has been targeted at a rate above even 17 percent since he joined the team.

    Part of the reason Goff has thrown to his tight ends so much is his natural preference for short passing. Going from Matthew Stafford to Goff will be a big change for this offense -- Stafford had the fifth-highest average depth of target (aDOT) in 2020, while Goff's was the third-lowest.

    Even while playing with the man responsible for the league's fifth-highest aDOT, Hockenson ranked just 14th in average route depth and 12th in aDOT in 2020 among 19 qualified tight ends. He has all the makings of Jared Goff's new security blanket.

    This offseason couldn't have shaped up much better for T.J. Hockenson as he enters his third season. He is poised for a breakout into the elite Fantasy TE tier in 2021.

    Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions

    Matt Harmon is the guy to listen to when it comes to wide receiver evaluation for Fantasy purposes, and his comparison of St. Brown's potential role to that of Cooper Kupp's seems like a logical fit.

    I expect Hockenson and Swift to be the first options in the underneath passing game, while Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams stretch the field. But St. Brown certainly could force his way into that equation if he is able to secure the starting slot role and consistently win on intermediate routes. I wouldn't expect him to put up Kupp-type numbers right away as a fourth-round rookie, but the potential is there for a Fantasy friendly role if St. Brown is ready to fill it.

    Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

    The Steelers made Harris the first RB selected in the 2021 draft with the 24th pick, and he will have a shot at playing a three-down role right away. Harris caught 70 passes and found the end zone 11 times as a receiver in his final two seasons at Alabama, so there's a real possibility of him finding the field on passing downs as a rookie.

    The 'Pittsburgh RB' position hasn't been as fruitful for Fantasy in the past couple of seasons as we grew accustomed to in the years prior. Pittsburgh led the NFL with a 68 percent pass rate on situation-neutral (score within six points) plays, and no other team had a rate above 65 percent. The Steelers remained super pass-heavy in the red zone too -- their pass rate dropped from 68 percent to 67 percent, while the league average dropped from 57 percent on all situation-neutral plays to 49 percent when in the red zone.

    So, I wouldn't just assume Harris is going to come in and play the "Le'Veon Bell role" -- there is a real possibility that the offense will again resemble the pass-heavy scheme we saw in 2020.

    Still though, being drafted to a team where Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland represent the top competition for touches is plenty to make Harris stand out as one of the clear winners from Day 1. He has the upside to put up top-15 Fantasy RB type numbers as a back who can play on all three downs in one of the league's better offenses.

    Mike Davis, RB, Atlanta Falcons

    Mike Davis might be the biggest Fantasy winner of the 2021 NFL Draft. The Falcons could have easily sent Davis into Fantasy no man's land by using one of their eight picks in the first five rounds on a running back, but instead, Davis appears poised to play a three-down role in what should be a Fantasy-friendly Atlanta offense. As things currently stand, there are not 20 running backs I would draft ahead of Davis in Fantasy.

    Davis was far better than most people realize in 2020. He led the NFL in broken tackles per attempt and was third in PFF's elusiveness rating. He also ranked 10th in yards after contact per attempt.

    Those stats all just point towards Davis being a competent rusher; what we really should be excited about in regards to his new landing spot is Davis' ability as a pass-catcher.

    Atlanta's offense could look a bit different in its first season without Dan Quinn directing the show, but this still projects to be one of the most pass-heavy attacks in the NFL. Matt Ryan has made a habit of throwing to the RB position, and Davis will be the best receiving back that Matty Ice has played with in some time.

    In the four years for which I have TPRR data available, Davis' 22.1 percent rate ranks 10th among 37 qualified RBs. That's not inflated by playing the "CMC role" either, as his 22 percent TPRR rate in 2020 was right in line with his rate while playing in Seattle and Chicago. Davis has consistently shown an ability to get open and draw targets while playing in a variety of different offenses with different quarterbacks.

    The same can not be said for the man Davis is replacing. Statistically, Todd Gurley has been the NFL's least efficient pass-catching RB over the past two seasons. He has the highest drop rate and the lowest yards per route run of any qualified RB during that time. Despite Gurley's presence, Atlanta's RB group still accounted for 106 targets in 2020. Ryan has fed his RB group 110 targets per year since 2015, and a good portion of the 110-ish targets Atlanta RBs should have this year should be expected to go to Davis.

    Davis is currently being selected outside of the top-30 at his position in Fantasy drafts, but I'd expect his ADP to push up significantly as we get deeper into the summer. He has all the makings of a top-15 RB in PPR formats.

    Myles Gaskin, RB, Miami Dolphins

    Just as with Davis, Myles Gaskin's path to a Fantasy-relevant role seemed quite treacherous at the beginning of the offseason, but early drafters who believed in the light they saw at the end of the tunnel have been rewarded for their faith. Miami's coaching staff really seems to love Gaskin -- they had only the nicest things to say about him during the 2020 season, and they appear prepared to give him the opportunity to shine in a three-down role in 2021. Any of Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Kenyan Drake, James Conner, or Leonard Fournette landing in Miami would have put a real dent in Gaskin's Fantasy outlook, but the only back the Dolphins brought in during free agency was Malcolm Brown.

    Brown isn't any more of an established presence than Jordan Howard or Matt Breida were, and Gaskin concisely made both 2020 offseason acquisitions irrelevant when given the opportunity. The Dolphins seemed quite comfortable letting Gaskin play 70-plus percent of the snaps in 2020, and nothing about their roster suggests that his usage will change in 2021. Miami owned five of the first 81 picks in the NFL Draft and didn't use any of them on a running back.

    They're telling us that Gaskin is their guy, and I believe them. I wouldn't take him over a back with legitimate upside for 70-plus targets like Swift or Davis; I do think you could make a case for selecting Gaskin over David Montgomery, Kareem Hunt, Raheem Mostert, and Ronald Jones, all of whom are being selected well ahead of him.

    Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

    Not only does Chase get reunited with the man who fed him 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2020, he gets to do it in a Cincinnati offense perfectly suited for his skillset. With Tyler Boyd presenting an underneath threat to opposing defenses and ascending talent Tee Higgins demanding attention on the outside, Chase should thrive in a role that presented A.J. Green with plenty of volume in 2020.

    You might not believe me, but A.J. Green ranked 11th in the NFL in air yards in 2020 -- ahead of DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, and A.J. Brown. Boyd (108) and Higgins (105) slightly out-targeted him, but Green still finished with 101 targets. He also led the team and ranked 10th among wide receivers in end zone targets.

    Green struggled to convert on his opportunity and regularly failed to come down with contested catches, but it is realistic that Chase will find more success in a similar role. Of course, he has familiarity with Burrow from their time at LSU. And if that isn't enough, Chase profiles as one of the best point-of-catch receivers to be drafted in quite some time. He could provide a significant upgrade on contested catches from the league-worst efficiency Green and Burrow combined for.

    I was quite encouraged from what we saw from Tee Higgins as a rookie, but neither he nor Boyd profile as 'WR1' types. We saw Burrow show a propensity to lock onto his WR1 at LSU and in his first year as a pro, and it is entirely possible that Chase fills that role as a rookie. I view him as the clear WR1 for Fantasy purposes among the 2021 rookie class, and a Justin Jefferson-like rookie campaign is in the cards if Cincinnati remains anywhere near as pass-heavy as they were with Burrow under center in 2020.

    Parris Campbell, WR, Indianapolis Colts

    The Colts really have no 'WR1' on their team. T.Y. Hilton is entering his age-32 season and has struggled with health and productivity in the past two seasons. 2020's 34th-overall selection Michael Pittman had some encouraging moments as a rookie, but he largely struggled to get separation and was only able to draw targets at a discouragingly low rate of 15.6 percent.

    For reference, here are the other qualified receivers who have finished with a TPRR below 16 percent in their rookie season in the four years I have the data available:

    Josh Doctson (15.8 percent), Anthony Miller (15 percent), John Ross (14.9 percent), Cortland Sutton (14.8 percent), Zay Jones (14.1 percent), DaeSean Hamilton (12.8 percent)

    That's not an encouraging list to be a part of. Courtland Sutton made great strides in year two, but every other receiver on that list just continued to struggle to get open and draw targets. Maybe Pittman is the exception, like Sutton, or maybe he's never going to be someone who is targeted heavily.

    It would seem that Indianapolis was in need of a receiver who can consistently get open, but they waited until the seventh round to select a receiver in the 2021 NFL Draft. Could this signal that they believe there already is a receiver on their roster who can consistently get open? Maybe they think Pittman is the guy, but I contend that it is just as likely that they still think highly of 2019 second-round pick, Parris Campbell.

    We only were treated to one game of Parris Campbell in 2020 before he suffered a gruesome MCL injury, but what we saw backed up all of the offseason hype Indianapolis built up surrounding Campbell's role. He led Indy's receivers in snap rate (82 percent), targets (nine), and receiving yards (71) in Week 1 and was consistently open while operating out of the slot. In the second game of the season, Indy opened up with a designed screen to Jonathan Taylor and then a designed end around to Parris Campbell.

    Unfortunately, that was all she wrote for his season, but Campbell was at least the star of his short story. The Colts were committed to him as a big part of the offensive game plan to open the 2020 season, and their offseason moves have done nothing to suggest that their belief has wavered. I think it is entirely possible that he will lead the team in targets in 2021, and he is likely going to be free at the end of Fantasy drafts.

    Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

    Everyone seems ready to give up on Mecole Hardman after two seasons -- well, everyone on Fantasy Twitter that is. The people who actually call the shots for the NFL Franchise for which Hardman plays have given no such indication.

    I can't say for sure which entity is more qualified to speak to the situation; the former seems exceedingly confident in their knowledge on the subject, so maybe you'll feel inclined to join them in the echo chamber and laugh about the handful of mistakes you've seen the 21-year-old make over the course of his first two years at his job.

    I'm more inclined to believe the organization that used a second-round pick on him and has never wavered in their support of him to this point. The Chiefs have continued to publicly state their belief in Hardman and Byron Pringle as the two enter their third season with the team, and their actions in the NFL Draft backed up what they have been saying.

    I do believe Kansas City found a talented receiver who might be ready to play as a rookie in Cornell Powell, but it speaks volumes that they waited until Round 5 to address the position after letting Sammy Watkins walk in free agency. It really appears as if Hardman and Pringle will get a shot at playing an elevated role in the NFL's best offense in 2021.

    Of the two, Hardman's efficiency metrics have been significantly stronger to this point in their careers. He also carries the higher draft capital, and I'm inclined to believe that he'll get the first shot at a playmaking role.

    (I made a mistake in this tweet, his aDOT was 60th percentile, not 40th percentile. The point remains the same either way, I just wanted to clarify that he does not have a below-league average aDOT -- that would be insane with his speed and the way Kansas City's offense attacks.)

    Marquez Callaway, WR, New Orleans Saints

    The real winners are Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, who should be expected to continue occupying two of the highest-volume roles available to any player in the NFL. I'm not convinced that any pass-catcher in this offense beyond those two will be Fantasy-relevant, but if I had to take a shot in the dark on one of them, Marquez Callaway is who I would lean toward.

    With Emmanuel Sanders gone and simply not replaced in free agency or the draft, someone is going to have a chance to play a larger role in 2021. Tre'Quan Smith has Callaway trumped when it comes to draft capital and spot on the depth chart in 2020, but he has simply done nothing with his opportunities. Among 92 qualified players, Smith's minuscule 12 percent TPRR rate ranked 89th in 2020. Smith has now played in 40 games for the Saints and started 23 of them, and he was able to compile more than 60 receiving yards in a grand total of three of those games.

    And I don't think you can blame it all on the poor stylistic fit of late-career Drew Brees with Smith as a downfield route runner, either. In fact, Smith's 8.7-yard average route depth was significantly lower than Callaway's team-high 9.9-yard mark in 2020. And still, Callaway was targeted on over 15 percent (not great, but not bad for an undrafted rookie) of his routes.

    Callaway saw a snap rate above 60 percent just three times last year, and he averaged 6.7 targets and 53.3 yards in those games. Again, not bad for an undrafted rookie! In the one game Callaway played without Emmanuel Sanders, he drew 10 targets and finished with 75 yards. Just extrapolate that over a 16-game sample, and we've got a 1,200-yard season!

    There is some snark mixed in there, but the point stands -- Callaway did play well in his very limited opportunities as an undrafted rookie. Meanwhile, Tre'Quan Smith has consistently struggled to perform at even a league-average level of efficiency with multiple opportunities. I'd place my bet on Callaway to take advantage of the ample opportunity available in New Orleans in 2021. You should be free to wait until the final picks of your drafts to take a chance on him hitting the top range of his outcomes.

    Looking for the best picks against the spread, sharp action on the total and props you can take to the window? Join Jonathan Coachman on the Early Edge as he speaks with SportsLine's top handicappers to preview every day's biggest games. We promise to keep it short, sweet and to put some green in your pocket. Early Edge is under 10 minutes and in your feed every single day by 11 AM ET. Download right here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

    Jacob GibbsDFS Guru

    Share This Story