James Robinson was not drafted in 2020. But by the end of his rookie season, the Jaguars running back helped plenty of Fantasy managers win their leagues with his more than 1,400 total yards and 10 total touchdowns. Those managers may have had an early edge on Robinson's potential by looking beyond the big names everybody broke down and analyzed ad nauseum in the run up to the season.
The odds are against another relative no-name player having such a massive impact in 2021, but that doesn't mean there won't be any usable Fantasy options who are off the radar as we head into Week 1. Here are 10 names to keep an eye on and potentially pounce on in leagues with deeper benches as rookies who could play their way into a roster spot in many leagues this year:
Eagles RB Kenneth Gainwell
Gainwell is a player that managers in PPR leagues may want to scoop off the waiver wire before the season even begins. Likened to Nyheim Hines by new Eagles coach Nick Sirianni, the rookie is already the Eagles' best option at the position in the passing game, and he showed good vision as a runner during the preseason as well. Miles Sanders is no lock to retain lead back status the entire year or even for a large portion of it, and while Gainwell doesn't profile as a three-down back, he could still be Fantasy relevant in a James White-type role for Philadelphia.
- Get Week 1 Fantasy rankings from the proven model that has consistently outperformed experts.
Washington RB Jaret Patterson
Patterson had some absolutely dominant runs in college, including rushing for more than 400 yards and eight TDs in a single game and following it up with another 300-yard day. His size and ability to stay on his feet while taking shots is reminiscient of a mini-Maurice Jones-Drew, another former UDFA running back who went on to have an excellent career. Patterson made the Washington Football Team over other more experienced options, and he's just an Antonio Gibson injuy away from being a must-roster player in Fantasy, as J.D. McKissic doesn't profile as an early-down back.
Lions RB Jermar Jefferson
I was surprised Jefferson lasted until the end of the seventh round in the draft, as he looked to me like someone who could see touches early on the NFL level. He did enough during the preseason to make the roster despite his low draft status, and with D'Andre Swift already banged up heading into Week 1, I'm still holding out hope Jefferson will get to show what he can do at some point early in the year.
Texans WR Nico Collins
Considering the Texans' No. 2 receiver is Chris Conley, the opportunity should be there for Collins after Houston made him their second player drafted this year. His plus ball skills could make him an interesting red-zone weapon whenever the Texans can get in scoring range, and he could emerge as a target hog eventually without much competition for looks. If he can figure out a way to separate consistently from NFL-caliber defensive backs, the upside is there, especially if the Texans end up trading Brandin Cooks as expected and opening up even more targets in the passing game.
Chargers WR Josh Palmer
The Chargers don't have much depth at receiver, so it's possible the third-round rookie can capture a prominent role early in the year and ascend to starter status if an injury befalls one of the team's top two receivers. He wasn't that productive in college but profiles as someone who could be better on the NFL level, although probably not a must-start Fantasy option at any point. Keep him on your watch list and be ready to move in the right situation.
Chiefs WR Cornell Powell
Powell has been pretty much overlooked since joining Clemson, as he had to patiently wait his turn before delivering a solid season as a senior, his only year starting. While he doesn't profile as a player with immense upside, the situation is key here, as he joins the best passing offense in the league and one that saw its No. 2 receiver move on this offseason. While Powell isn't going to jump into that role anytime soon, the possibility he could get on the field as a third or fourth option for this high-powered offense makes him a name to remember for deeper leagues.
Colts WR Mike Strachan
Strachan has excellent size and turned enough heads during camp to make the team despite his status as a seventh-round pick. Having played at Charleston University, Strachan must overcome a huge leap in talent level of the guys defending him on each play, but the Colts aren't exactly stacked at the receiver position, so if he proves himself with limited early opportunity, he could work his way into more playing time as the season goes along.
Texans TE Brevin Jordan
Jordan was a catch-first tight end prospect coming out of Miami who needed to work on his blocking, but we obviously don't get points for the latter in Fantasy leagues. He could quickly become one of the Texans' best receiving options considering the talent on the rest of the roster, especially if Brandin Cooks is shipped away. A fifth-round pick, Jordan's Fantasy upside is linked more to opportunity than the expectation that he has the talent to be an elite option.
Texans QB Davis Mills
While Mills was solid in his final season at Stanford, he doesn't have a lot of game experience, so it's probably in his best interest not to see the field anytime soon. But the Texans are going nowhere fast this season, and they have nothing to lose from throwing him out there in the second half just to see how he responds and how high a priority finding a quarterback should be moving forward. Those in two-QB and Superflex leagues should file his name away, as odds are he'll see the field at some point this year, making him a rosterable player in those formats.
Colts QB Sam Ehlinger
Ehlinger was a dangerous dual-threat weapon at Texas but comes into the league with below-average traits as a passer that may be hard to overcome. Consider him a poor man's Jalen Hurts, which is not something Carson Wentz wants to hear after moving from Philadelphia to Indianapolis this offseason. If Wentz's injury issues hamper him throughout the season, Ehlinger could wind up seeing playing time as a rookie. However, he's dealing with his own injury issues and should miss the first month-plus of the season with a sprained knee, so he's nothing more than a name to file away at this point.