Fantasy News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: 2021 NFL Draft rookie wide receiver and running back leaders in high-end targets and touches

Oct 10, 2020; Columbia, Missouri, USA; LSU Tigers wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. (6) catches a touchdown pass against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past year, I’ve published several articles highlighting the importance of money opportunities — the most high-value touches and targets players can receive, including end-zone targets, deep targets (20 yards or more), air yards, carries inside the 10-yard line and carries inside the 5-yard line.

While working on a recent piece on vacated targets and touches post-NFL free agency, I stumbled upon an interesting correlation: players who earn high-value opportunities in the NFL often did so at the college level.

Bills wide receiver Gabriel Davis was a prime example. In his final season at UCF in 2019, Davis led the nation with 30 end-zone targets. As an NFL rookie in 2020, Davis tied Stefon Diggs for the most end-zone targets on the team (17). That was seventh-most in the NFL and highest among all 2020 rookies.

In this article, I'll take a closer look at the 2021 NFL draft class, examining under-the-radar wide receivers and running backs who commanded a large share of their team’s high-value opportunities at the collegiate level. These stats will cover both 2020 and 2019 in order to include opt-outs. 

END-ZONE TARGETS

Most end-zone targets in 2020 | 2021 NFL Draft class
Player School End-zone targets
Jonathan Adams Jr. Arkansas State 25
DeVonta Smith Alabama 19
Marlon Williams UCF 17
Seth Williams Auburn 15
Dyami Brown North Carolina 13
Kyle Pitts Florida 13
Jaelon Darden North Texas 12
Percent of team end-zone targets | 2021 NFL Draft class
Player School Team end-zone target percentage
DeVonta Smith Alabama 66%
Isaiah McKoy Kent State 60%
Seth Williams Auburn 54%
Shi Smith South Carolina 53%
Branden Mack Temple 50%
Josh Palmer Tennessee 48%

No wide receiver saw more end-zone targets last season than Jonathan Adams Jr. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound playmaker from Arkansas State hauled in nine touchdowns off his end-zone targets — seven of which required him to go and “Moss” a defender. 

Adams' 12 touchdowns on contested targets are the most among all college WRs since 2019. Nobody else has more than seven. 

His lack of separation skills and underwhelming athleticism will make him a Day 3 selection — Grindingthemocks.com has him listed outside the top 35 WRs — but the sleeper appeal is apparent. 

Tennessee's Josh Palmer has not been on my radar throughout the pre-draft process. He was snubbed from my initial top-50 rookie rankings, but the NFL seems to be higher on him than his college stats would suggest.

The 2021 PFF Draft Guide projects him as a potential third-round pick, and Grindingthemocks.com has him pegged as the WR26 in their aggregate composition of all mock drafts. Jim Nagy tweeted from the Senior Bowl that he doesn’t expect Palmer to remain on the board past Day 2. 

At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, it’s not surprising to see 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), but that’s the conclusion of his statistical accolades. 

Palmer's rise in draft stock is directly related to his performance at this year’s 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. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Palmer showed out at the Senior Bowl considering it was probably the first time he had the luxury of catching passes from legitimate NFL talent. 

Tennessee's mess at QB played a big role in his lackluster statistics. We also can’t overlook that before Palmer’s official breakout in 2020, he was competing for targets in an offense that featured future NFL talent in Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings

Palmer is currently PFF’s 72nd-ranked player and 10th-ranked WR on the 2021 Big Board

Most end-zone targets in 2019 | 2021 NFL Draft class
Player Team End-zone targets
Ja'Marr Chase LSU 21
T.J. Vasher Texas Tech 20
Marquez Stevenson Houston 18
Warren Jackson Colorado State 18
Nico Collins Michigan 17
Terrace Marshall Jr. LSU 17
Percent of team end-zone targets in 2019 | 2021 NFL Draft class
Player School Team end-zone target percentage
Warren Jackson Colorado State 53%
Tylan Wallace Oklahoma State 50%
Marquez Stevenson Houston 45%
Tamorrion Terry Florida State 45%

Tylan Wallace is one of my favorite wide receiver prospects in the 2021 draft class, so I'm thrilled to see that he was an end-zone target hog in 2019.

Wallace earned 13 end-zone targets that season, but he was only able to catch two of them for touchdowns. The box score doesn’t tell the full story — only seven of his targets were deemed catchable. Four were negated by penalties and several forced him out of bounds. 

Wallace’s ability to turn 50/50 balls into 60/40 balls — second-most contested catches made since 2019 — ensures that he will remain a quarterback’s favorite target in the end zone.

Terrace Marshall Jr. has a chance to be a touchdown monster in the NFL. He ranks 12th in end-zone targets over the past two seasons, and his PFF receiving grade on those targets ranks fourth-best (93.5). He graded higher than both Ja’Marr Chase (84.1) and Justin Jefferson (82.6) during their final collegiate seasons. 

CARRIES NEAR THE GOAL LINE (INCLUDING PLAYS NEGATED BY PENALTIES)

Carries inside the 5-yard line in 2020 season | 2021 NFL Draft class
Player School Carries inside the 5-yard line
Najee Harris Alabama 24
Javonte Williams North Carolina 19
Travis Etienne Clemson 16
Stevie Scott III Indiana 15
Trey Ragas Louisiana 10
Larry Rountree III Missouri 10
Spencer Brown UAB 10
Jaret Patterson Buffalo 10

Part of being a productive running back in fantasy football is having the role at the goal-line. Touchdowns are so crucial to an RBs’ success. Last season, Todd Gurley was the RB6 through the first nine weeks of the season because his inefficient play was masked by a whopping nine touchdowns.

Gurley’s touchdown rate was unsustainable to start, and he finished the season as the RB69. 

That’s why it should come as no surprise that the consensus top three rookie running backs in this class for fantasy — Najee Harris, Javonte Williams and Travis Etienne — rank at the top of college football in carries inside the 5-yard line. 

We need our top-tier RBs to earn every goal-line opportunity if they are to pay off in fantasy. The “Big Three” have shown they can handle the rock near the end zone. 

Of the top eight running backs listed above, Jaret Patterson earned the best PFF grade inside the 5-yard line (76.9). He scored or earned a first down on 80% of touches at the goal line.

Percent of carries inside the 5-yard line in 2020 | 2021 NFL Draft class
Player School Carries inside the 5-yard line
Spencer Brown UAB 91%
Alonzo Booth E. Kentucky 78%
Stevie Scott III Indiana 71%
Javonte Williams North Carolina 68%
Najee Harris Alabama 63%
Larry Rountree III Missouri 63%

I don’t expect Stevie Scott III, Spencer Brown and Larry Rountree III to ascend to RB1 status, but they could all easily carve out a niche as goal-line backs, creating future headaches for fantasy managers. Pay attention if any of the three land on a team with a shaky RB depth chart. Scott is my favorite — the bruising back scored 32 touchdowns over three college seasons.

It’s also worth noting that Elijah Mitchell — one of my favorite sleeper running backs in this class — was not the primary goal-line back on his team in college this past season. Teammate Trey Ragas actually had the slight edge in terms of percent of the team carries inside the 5-yard line (48% vs 38%).

Ragas also graded higher (71.7 versus 59.3), which might have been why the team shied away from using Mitchell in that capacity. But that wasn't the case in 2019 when Mitchell was the dominant runner at the goal line. 

A potential role at the goal line would provide a hefty boost to Mitchell’s NFL fantasy outlook.

If Mitchell isn’t destined to become a fully entrenched bell cow at the next level, he has other merits to fall back on. He cut weight and flashed his explosiveness at Louisiana-Lafayette’s pro day.

The former Ragin Cagin’ blazed an unofficial 4.38 40-yard dash time (96th percentile) and a 128-inch broad jump (93rd percentile). That speed and explosiveness are worth taking a flier on in the late rounds of best-ball and dynasty rookie drafts.

Carries inside the 5-yard line in 2019 season | 2021 NFL Draft class
Player School Attempts
Elijah Mitchell Louisiana 23
LaBron Morris South Carolina State 20
Percy Agyei-Obese James Madison 19
Chuba Hubbard Oklahoma State 19
Jaret Patterson Buffalo 19
Travis Etienne Clemson 17
Caleb Huntley Ball State 15
Jaylon Bester Miami (OH) 15
Najee Harris Alabama 14
Kylin Hill Mississippi State 14
Stevie Scott III Indiana 14
Collin Eaddy Princeton 13
Trey Ragas Louisiana 12
Percent of carries inside the 5-yard line in 2019 | 2021 NFL Draft class
Player School %
Chuba Hubbard Oklahoma State 73%
Elijah Mitchell Louisiana 55%
Najee Harris Alabama 54%
Jaret Patterson Buffalo 53%
Larry Rountree III Missouri 52%
Travis Etienne Clemson 50%
Kylin Hill Mississippi State 50%
Stevie Scott III Indiana 40%

AIR YARDS

Air yards | 2020 
Name Team Air yards
Jonathan Adams Jr. Arkansas State 2108
DeVonta Smith Alabama 1765
Dyami Brown North Carolina 1680
Tylan Wallace Oklahoma State 1552
Seth Williams Auburn 1467
Jaelon Darden North Texas 1459
Dax Milne BYU 1371
Marlon Williams UCF 1228
Elijah Moore Mississippi 1182

Elijah Moore has to be one of the strongest slot wide receivers in the class, but make no mistake: His role as a “slot receiver” didn’t hinder him from making big plays downfield.

Of the 2021 draft class receivers, Moore finished ninth in air yards (1,182), fifth in catches of 20-plus yards (11) and fourth in deep-ball yards (490). On deep targets from the slot, he ranked second in yards and catches.

Percentage of team’s air yards | 2020
Player Team Team air yards share
Seth Williams Auburn 47%
DeVonta Smith Alabama 44%
Antonio Nunn Buffalo 44%
Dyami Brown North Carolina 41%
Simi Fehoko Stanford 41%
Tylan Wallace Oklahoma State 40%

I was shocked to realize how often Seth Williams was used downfield in Auburn’s offense. Despite sharing the field with speed demon Anthony Schwartz, Williams commanded a 47% air yards share — a mark that ranked fifth-best in the nation in 2020 and No. 1 among the 2021 NFL Draft class.

Williams was Auburn's most productive wide receiver over the past three years, producing a 30% dominator rating over that span. He broke out at an early age (19) in 2018 while playing alongside future New York Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton

His sheer volume of air yards and end-zone targets is eye-opening; I can’t help but draw comparisons between his usage and that of Gabriel Davis. Davis was a better separator coming out of UCF, but the two have extremely similar builds and athletic testing numbers.

Seth Williams vs. Gabriel Davis
Height Weight Vertical Broad Bench 40-yard
Seth Williams 6-foot-3 211 37 124 12 reps 4.50
Gabriel Davis 6-foot-2 216 35 124 14 reps 4.54

PFF’s Kevin Cole outlined potential comps for Williams, and his high-end comparison was Alshon Jeffery. Cole also found the same statistical comparison between Davis and Williams.

I don’t like to bet on the big-bodied WRs hitting in the NFL as the league moves away from that type of receiver, but one of these guys probably has a chance to make an impact. I lean Williams.

Per Grindingthemocks.com, Williams is being mocked as the WR14, nearly 10 spots ahead of his teammate Schwartz.

Air yards | 2019
Player Team Air yards
Gabriel Davis UCF 2307
Antonio Gandy-Golden Liberty 2221
Austin Watkins UAB 2062
Denzel Mims Baylor 1871
James Proche SMU 1849
Ja'Marr Chase LSU 1818
Damonte Coxie Memphis 1788
Rashod Bateman Minnesota 1681
John Hightower Boise State 1652
Chase Claypool Notre Dame 1649
Tee Higgins Clemson 1613
Michael Pittman Jr. USC 1599
Jonathan Adams Jr. Arkansas State 1590
Quez Watkins Southern Mississippi 1549
Dyami Brown North Carolina 1548
Tamorrion Terry Florida State 1538
Warren Jackson Colorado State 1528
Seth Williams Auburn 1519
Antonio Nunn Buffalo 1469
Sage Surratt Wake Forest 1455
Jalen Reagor TCU 1430
Tyler Vaughns USC 1429
Tyler Johnson Minnesota 1383
K.J. Hamler Penn State 1369
Jerry Jeudy Alabama 1346
Justin Jefferson LSU 1339

WRs from the 2020 class added for perspective.

UAB’s Austin Watkins was an air yards monster in 2019, finishing third in total air yards (2,062) and first in team air yards share (45%). 

His usage changed in 2020, as he was used closer to the line of scrimmage (15.7 aDOT versus 19.6), and his production dipped as a result. Still, NFL coaches will love his attention to detail in route running and his surefire hands.

Per PFF’s NFL Draft Guide, Watkins had one drop on 100 catchable passes in his career.

His biggest knock is underwhelming athleticism, so an impressive pro-day performance would do wonders for his draft stock.  

Percentage of team’s air yards | 2019
Player Team Team air yards share
Austin Watkins UAB 45%
Antonio Nunn Buffalo 44%
Antonio Gandy-Golden Liberty 44%
Chase Claypool Notre Dame 42%
Quez Watkins Southern Mississippi 42%
Rashod Bateman Minnesota 41%
Denzel Mims Baylor 41%
Seth Williams Auburn 41%
Gabriel Davis UCF 39%
Tamorrion Terry Florida State 39%
Cade Johnson South Dakota State 38%
Damonte Coxie Memphis 38%
Jerry Jeudy Alabama 37%
K.J. Hamler Penn State 36%
Warren Jackson Colorado State 36%
Elijah Moore Mississippi 36%
Marquez Stevenson Houston 36%
Jalen Reagor TCU 35%
James Proche SMU 35%
John Hightower Boise State 35%
Darnell Mooney Tulane 34%
Michael Pittman Jr. USC 34%
Tyler Johnson Minnesota 34%

Rashod Bateman’s elite team air yards share in 2019 (41%) is a reminder of his upside despite the lackluster 2020 campaign. His sophomore season was special with a 38% dominator rating

Bateman appeared on PFF’s 2 for 1 Drafts podcast and said he lost nearly 10 pounds due to Covid-19. He weighed 190 pounds at Minnesota’s pro day — a bit of a shock considering his weight was listed at 210 when he played. 

With him back to full strength in 2021, I believe we will see the 2019-version of Bateman sooner than later. 

TARGETS

Targets | 2020
Player School Targets
DeVonta Smith Alabama 155
Jonathan Adams Jr. Arkansas State 133
Jaelon Darden North Texas 114
Marlon Williams UCF 112
Elijah Moore Mississippi 107
Seth Williams Auburn 107
Amari Rodgers Clemson 105
Tylan Wallace Oklahoma State 101
Dax Milne BYU 98
Whop Philyor Indiana 94
Percentage of team’s targets | 2020
Player School Target share
Antonio Nunn Buffalo 37%
DeVonta Smith Alabama 36%
Jaelon Darden North Texas 34%
D'Wayne Eskridge Western Michican 33%
Rashod Bateman Minnesota 32%
Shi Smith South Carolina 31%
Elijah Moore Mississippi 31%
Whop Philyor Indiana 31%
Tylan Wallace Oklahoma State 29%
Seth Williams Auburn 29%

Most NFL wide receivers that flashed as rookies posted high target shares in their final collegiate seasons. The following players earned at least a 26% target share in their final seasons: Tyler Johnson, Chase Claypool, Gabriel Davis, Michael Pittman Jr., Jerry Jeudy, Denzel Mims, Brandon Aiyuk and Darnell Mooney

There was a fair share of misfires — James Proche, Antonio Gandy-Golden, Devin Duvernay — but the good clearly outweighs the bad. 

Proche and Gandy-Golden were both Day 3 picks, and Duvernay went off the board at the end of the third round. If the 2021 WR prospects listed above come in with a high target share and solid Day 2 capital, it bodes well for their futures as pros. 

Targets | 2019-20
Player Team Targets
James Proche SMU 173
Antonio Gandy-Golden Liberty 146
Michael Pittman Jr. USC 146
Gabriel Davis UCF 138
Justin Jefferson LSU 138
Devin Duvernay Texas 136
Damonte Coxie Memphis 130
Warren Jackson Colorado State 125
Ja'Marr Chase LSU 125
Tyler Johnson Minnesota 124
Denzel Mims Baylor 124
Chase Claypool Notre Dame 119
Elijah Moore Mississippi 118
Jerry Jeudy Alabama 115
Tyler Vaughns USC 115
Seth Williams Auburn 113
Bryan Edwards South Carolina 113
Tamorrion Terry Florida State 112
Jaelon Darden North Texas 110
Jonathan Adams Jr. Arkansas State 108
Quez Watkins Southern Mississippi 107
Tutu Atwell Louisville 106

WRs from the 2020 class added for perspective.

Percentage of team’s targets | 2019
Name Team Team target share
Tyler Johnson Minnesota 38%
Tutu Atwell Louisville 36%
Elijah Moore Mississippi 36%
James Proche SMU 35%
Cade Johnson South Dakota State 34%
Antonio Nunn Buffalo 32%
Antonio Gandy-Golden Liberty 32%
Marquez Stevenson Houston 31%
Rashod Bateman Minnesota 30%
Austin Watkins UAB 30%
Chase Claypool Notre Dame 30%
Gabriel Davis UCF 29%
Seth Williams Auburn 29%
Damonte Coxie Memphis 29%
Devin Duvernay Texas 29%
Michael Pittman Jr. USC 29%
Warren Jackson Colorado State 29%
Jerry Jeudy Alabama 28%
Denzel Mims Baylor 28%
Brandon Aiyuk Arizona State 28%
K.J. Hamler Penn State 27%
Tylan Wallace Oklahoma State 27%
Darnell Mooney Tulane 26%
Jauan Jennings Tennessee 26%

 

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