Last season we saw five rookie wide receivers — Justin Jefferson, Chase Claypool, Brandon Aiyuk, CeeDee Lamb and Tee Higgins — provide fantasy juice and finish inside the top 40. More than a handful of rookie RBs — Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, James Robinson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Cam Akers — operated as fantasy RB1s at some point during the season.
Let's take a look at the NFL rookies who could push fantasy teams over the top in 2021.
TOP-TIER WIDE RECEIVERS
The idea of reuniting Joe Burrow with his former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase was too good to pass up. When the two last played together in 2019, Chase was the best vertical receiver in the nation. Chase earned a near-perfect PFF receiving grade (99.0) on targets of 20-plus yards and totaled 24 receptions, 860 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns on deep targets alone.
Chase has a special ability to win at the catch point and pluck the ball out of thin air. On 26 catchable deep targets (tied for third-most), he had just one drop.
Chase's downfield prowess will be a major boost for Burrow, who said on the The Cris Collinsworth Podcast that the one thing lacking in the offense was the long ball. The Bengals QB finished with the second-worst on-target rate on 20-plus yard throws (21%), which resulted in a 58.0 passer rating.
But the blame doesn't solely rest on Burrow’s shoulders, as veteran A.J. Green was abysmal downfield. Green generated a 59.8 rating when targeted — a far cry from Tyler Boyd (103.2) and Tee Higgins (116.3). Green was considered open or wide open on just one of his 24 deep-ball targets
With Green out of the picture, replaced with a more capable field-stretcher in Chase, Burrow’s deep-ball efficiency will skyrocket in Year 2.
Let’s not forget that in 2019 Burrow was PFF’s highest-graded deep-ball passer (99.3). No player saw a higher percentage of catchable deep targets than Chase (68%).
Ja’Marr Chase: Certified deep threat
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 14, 2020
Chase can effortlessly slide into the starting lineup opposite Higgins on the outside and vacuum up a plethora of vacated air yards and end-zone targets. Green led the team in air yards share (31%) and team end-zone share (30%) in 2020 but did next to nothing with his high-value opportunities.
Although Chase, Boyd and Higgins will potentially see anywhere between an 18-21% target share across the board — based on similar splits from the Bengals top three wideouts last season — Chase should be the favorite to see the vast majority of high-value looks that translate to the most fantasy points.
Chase is currently my WR25 in best ball followed by Boyd (WR29) and Higgins (WR31). The Bengals offense has the chance to be one of the best for fantasy football because we can project their total passing volume to rank at the top of the league. The team passed at the second-highest rate (68%) under neutral game script conditions when Burrow was under center from Weeks 1-11.
We could easily see 2019’s LSU offense all over again in Cincinnati with Chase leading the charge. The guy is just that good. He faced the third-most targets against press looks the last time he played football and posted the No. 1 PFF receiving grade (92.2) against it.
Waddle is the best slot receiver in the class and fits perfectly into the Miami Dolphins offense. The team was forced to play running back convert Lynn Bowden Jr. in the slot last season — Waddle presents a massive upgrade with his speed and explosiveness.
Tua Tagovailoa’s PFF passing grade when targeting the slot (66.9) ranked 28th and his passer rating (87.8) 27th among QBs with at least 90 dropbacks. He also boasted the fourth-worst big-time throw rate (3.2%) and ranked second-to-last in aDOT (7.3).
Since the start of 2018, Waddle ranks first in PFF receiving grade (93.1) and first in passer rating generated from the slot (150.6).
Jaylen Waddle when lined up in the slot since 2018:
93.1 PFF grade (first)
20.4 yards per reception (first)
11.0 yards after the catch per reception (first)
4.19 yards per route run (first)
150.6 rating generated when targeted (first) https://t.co/BSWyCAv42l
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) April 9, 2021
Tua relied heavily on his inside receivers at Alabama in 2019. He led the NCAA in passer rating (140.2) and ranked sixth in PFF passing grade (90.3) when targeting the slot.
There's a chance we see Tua and the Dolphins hyper-target their first-round WR. The team reportedly would have drafted the speedster from Alabama even if Kyle Pitts and/or Chase were still available — that's why they were fine with dropping back to No. 6.
The dynamic playmaker knows how to get open, something Tagovailoa‘s WRs didn't do much of last season. Tua's receivers created at least one step of separation on just 58% of his pass attempts — fourth-worst in the league.
Waddle is the exact spark plug the Dolphins offense needs to take the next step. He'll be able to make do in fantasy because of his big-play upside. As for competition for targets, I’d argue he’s never had an easier path. He shared a field with three other first-round picks for the vast majority of his career at Alabama.
The Dolphins’ receiver room consists of free-agent signee Will Fuller (suspended Week 1), DeVante Parker (one year of solid fantasy production over a six-year career), Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant and Bowden.
It won’t take long for Waddle to rise up the ranks to become the team’s alpha. During the four games in 2020 when he played alongside “only” DeVonta Smith, Waddle compiled 557 receiving yards — nearly topping his yardage total from the previous year in eight fewer games.
No college player since 2018 has more receiving yards than DeVonta Smith with at least one step of separation.
With the ability to play outside and inside, he can be an immediate contributor to an NFL offense. Separation at the college level translates well at the next level.
The Philadelphia Eagles entered the draft with one of the league’s weakest WR corps, so Smith has a legitimate shot to become the No. 1 target in the passing game. Jalen Hurts’ receivers got open at the lowest rate in the league (54%) in 2020.
I’d bet that Smith ultimately leads the Eagles in targets in 2021, with Dallas Goedert and Jalen Reagor his top two competitors for looks. I fully expect Smith to provide Hurts a reliable underneath target that can create yards after the catch.
Smith led all of college football last season in yards after the catch and screen yards. New Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni is coming from an offense in Indianapolis that finished second in YAC/reception and sixth in screen-pass play rate.
Elijah Moore is one of my favorite wide receivers in the class because of his explosiveness, speed and impressive college production profile. In 2020, he finished second in receptions per game (10.8) and first in receiving yards per game (149.1) among WRs in his draft class.
He offers the entire package and should be Gang Green’s next PPR slot machine. He should take over the starting role in the slot, as the team has an “out” in Jamison Crowder’s contract and can save over $10 million by releasing him.
Unlike Crowder, Moore is a downfield home-run threat — a skill set that will transition well with new rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. The BYU gunslinger ranked first in PFF passing grade on 20-plus-yard throws and compiled the fourth-most yards on those deep pass attempts. No quarterback threw an accurate ball at a higher rate on 20-plus-yard passes in 2020 (73%).
Moore’s aDOT from the slot (10.8) is the third-highest among draft prospects dating back to 2019. Wilson’s most targeted receiver in college was Dax Milne, a player who attacked defenses on deep and intermediate routes.
Under the new coaching regime in New York, Moore gets the nod as the team’s No. 2 fantasy receiver behind Corey Davis and in front of Denzel Mims. But it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see the former Ole Miss Rebel operate right alongside or even overtake his new teammate.
After all, it wouldn’t be the first time an Ole Miss receiver established alpha status over Davis.
Elijah Moore is going to do what A.J. Brown did to Corey Davis
establish dominance as the team's true alpha
just the Ole Miss way ????
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) April 30, 2021
The Jets figure to be a team facing a negative game script more often than not due to their horrendous defense, which bodes well for hefty passing volume. New York didn’t draft a defensive player until the fifth round this year, and they still have major question marks at the cornerback position.
SNEAKY WIDE RECEIVERS
PFF’s Jarad Evans has been preaching Collins’ potential throughout the predraft process, and the Houston Texans should provide every opportunity for him to put up fantasy points. The Texans traded up 20 spots in the 2021 NFL Draft to select Collins with the No. 89th overall pick.
He joins the league's worst pass-catching corps outside of Brandin Cooks. The QB play might be horrendous with either Tyrod Taylor or rookie Davis Mills under center, but that’s nothing new for a contested-catch fiend like Collins. From 2018-2019, he finished second in contested-catch rate (63.2%).
The Texans have the fifth-highest percentage of vacated air yards and the fourth-highest percentage of vacated targets from last season, meaning Collins has a golden opportunity to contribute from Day 1.
Who you got?
2002 Texans WRs vs 2021 Texans WRs
the answer is none pic.twitter.com/HlVZs7myWP
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) April 13, 2021
Amon-Ra St. Brown could not have asked for a better landing spot when it comes to immediate opportunity. The Lions have a glaring hole at their slot WR position that ASB can immediately fill. St. Brown was most productive in college during the 2018-19 seasons when he operated as USC’s inside receiver.
The Lions have the most vacated targets and air yards available in their offense from 2020, meaning St. Brown can step in and command a significant target share.
Some might be concerned with investing in a passing offense led by Jared Goff, but the Lions’ porous defense ensures they will have to throw early and often. Goff also has a strong track record of supporting fantasy-relevant WRs — namely those featured in the slot like Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods.
I wasn’t the highest on St. Brown during the pre-draft process, but I can’t ignore a rookie a situation this favorable. PFF’s Kevin Cole labeled the Lions as the strongest opportunity for a rookie WR.
Don't let Josh Palmer‘s poor college production fool you. He’s vastly underrated because of terrible QB play. Only 31% of his deep targets were deemed catchable dating back to 2019 — third-worst in the class.
The Chargers were in desperate need of a legitimate WR3 option, and I believe Josh Palmer can deliver in that department. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, it’s not surprising to learn that Palmer commanded a significant share of his team’s end-zone targets. He was also featured heavily downfield with a very high aDOT (17.1, 12th in 2020), which bodes well attached to reigning rookie of the year Justin Herbert.
Herbert finished fourth in end-zone pass attempts (46) and ninth in 20-plus yard attempts.
Palmer’s dramatic rise in the draft followed his impressive performance at the Senior Bowl. His combined grade (8.0) and win rate (81%) in one-on-ones versus defensive backs was easily the best at the event.
The Chargers' new offensive coordinator has no ties to guys like Jalen Guyton, Tyron Johnson, K.J. Hill and Joe Reed. As the team’s No. 3 last season, Guyton finished 13th overall in routes run. It’s hard to believe Guyton found so little fantasy success on so many routes. I don’t think we see that play out with Palmer as the new No. 3.
— Jarad Evans (@PFF_Jarad) May 1, 2021
Amari Rodgers was a surprising selection in the third round — a strong Senior Bowl showing clearly did wonders for his draft stock.
Rodgers primarily played the slot at Clemson and was famous for his tackle-breaking ability. He finished first in yards after the catch per reception (9.6) from the slot. I can’t help but think Matt LeFleur sees Rodgers as a “Deebo Samuel” type player in his offense.
Trey Sermon’s draft capital has vaulted him to the clear-cut RB4 among the rookie class, giving him a decent chance of becoming a fantasy factor in the 49ers’ offense. Sermon averaged 7.7 yards per carry and earned the fourth-best PFF rushing grade (88.9) on outside-zone concepts during his final season at Ohio State.
I doubt we see Sermon open the season as the starter in front of Raheem Mostert, but the speedy 29-year old can only hope to hold him off. Once Sermon gets churning, I think he will force the 49ers’ hand.
As the featured back during Ohio State’s final three games, Sermon rushed for 640 yards (9.0 yards per carry) and flashed elusiveness with 28 forced missed tackles (30% missed tackle rate).
One of Sermon’s biggest knocks coming out of school was work in the passing game, but that might not matter considering the team's QB of the future Trey Lance won’t be checking down too often due to his mobility.
Other than Najee Harris landing with the Pittsburgh Steelers, I can’t think of another rookie RB finding spot better for opportunity than Michael Carter with the New York Jets. The UNC back joins the likes of Ty Johnson, Tevin Coleman and La’Mical Perine on the team's depth chart, easily one of the weakest RB rooms in the league.
I fully expect Carter to become the team’s No. 1 runner because he fits the outside-zone run scheme so perfectly. Carter finished second last season in PFF rushing grade (87.2) when rushing from outside zone concepts.
We also saw him out-rush teammate Javonte Williams in 2020, and some regard Williams as the class’ best running back.
With Carter’s explosive upside — he led the nation in carries of 15 yards or more — and pass-catching chops, he gets the nod as the favorite to be Gang Green’s RB1 in 2021.
I was absolutely flabbergasted when Louisville’s Javian Hawkins went undrafted after an extremely productive college career. He posted a solid 25% dominator rating over his career and a 30% rating in his second season as a starter. He’s a home-run hitter, but apparently NFL teams were more concerned about his smaller stature (5-foot-8 and 183 pounds).
Hawkins ended up signing with the Falcons as a UDFA — a great landing spot given the circumstances. Mike Davis is the entrenched RB1 in the backfield, but there isn’t much behind him. Hawkins also offers the one ability that Davis does not possess: explosiveness.
The former Panther posted the league’s third-lowest breakaway run percentage (15%) in 2020 (min. 150 carries).
Arthur Smith’s offenses relied heavily on zone concepts in Tennessee, and that plays into Hawkins’ strengths. He rushed for nearly 800 yards (fourth-best in the class) from strictly zone concepts last season.
Many other rookie RBs are buried on depth charts, but Hawkins looks to be just one injury away from busting out. Look for him to impress big time in the preseason.
You knew it was coming. After hyping up Kyle Pitts all offseason as a generational tight end prospect, it should come as no surprise to see him make the rookie breakout list.
Initially, Pitts' landing spot with the Atlanta Falcons might seem less than ideal with so many other pass-catching weapons on the team. But this offense has the chance to be a top-five overall unit under the new QB/HC pairing of Matt Ryan/Arthur Smith. The overall efficiency of the offense could make up for a lack of massive target share.
Smith also ran an offense in Tennessee that ranked second in the NFL in 12 personnel usage (34.3%), so we shouldn’t feel concerned about incumbent tight end Hayden Hurst cannibalizing targets from Pitts. That same offense also heavily relied on play-action, which of course boosted Pitts’ numbers at Florida. He was PFF’s second-highest-graded player on play-action throws last season.
Robert Tonyan stumbled into TE1 production without a large target share last season because he was attached to an uber-efficient quarterback. We could easily see the same story play out in Atlanta’s high-powered offense.
Julio Jones could also still be traded, which would open the target floodgates for Pitts to see an unholy amount of action in the Falcons’ passing attack.