News & Analysis

Fantasy Football Best Ball Rankings: Biggest Risers and Fallers from NFL Free Agency

There’s no doubt that the first week of NFL free agency has done a huge number on my 2021 fantasy football rankings. So much player movement has forced me to shake things up quite a bit in response to players’ new surroundings. 

I’ve already hit on some of my early big winners and losers from free agency, but seeing each player’s new ranking will provide additional insight and perspective on how to evaluate them heading into 2021. Let's dive into the biggest risers and fallers in my 2021 best ball rankings.

RUNNING BACKS

CHRIS CARSON, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

After testing the waters of free agency, Chris Carson ultimately decided to return to the Seattle Seahawks. The former seventh-round pick re-signed with his old team on a three-year deal worth $24.6 million. RIP Rashaad Penny RB1 szn. 

Going back to Seattle was the best-case scenario for Carson to return to RB1 fantasy status. We know that the Seahawks have an affinity for establishing the run, and Carson has been the clear bell cow whenever he has been healthy.

Carson was a top-eight fantasy running back through the first six weeks of the 2020 season, averaging 20 fantasy points per game (seventh) and 16.5 expected fantasy points per game (13th) while playing a 56% snap share.

Production has never been in question for the bruising back, but the same can’t be said for his health. Last year was the fourth consecutive season he failed to stay healthy.

For the first time in his career, Carson didn’t finish the season on I.R., but he missed a month during the middle of the season and his production fell off upon his return to the lineup. He averaged just 13.1 fantasy points per game (25th) and 11.9 expected fantasy points per game (29th) while playing roughly the same snap share (53%).

Considering Carson is being drafted as the RB26 in current Underdog Best Ball Drafts, he’s a screaming value. I anticipate that his ADP will rise as the market re-adjusts his price relative to his return to Seattle, so scoop him up early and often in the meantime. 

Carson is easily my biggest riser at the running back position, with his ranking jumping 19 spots to RB18 overall. 

JOSH JACOBS, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

Josh Jacobs was by far the biggest-name running back to take a huge value hit. The Las Vegas Raiders signed Kenyan Drake, and that means Jacobs’ path to becoming an RB1 seems extremely unlikely. 

Drake’s hefty contract (he’s now the league’s 15th-highest-paid RB) guarantees he will see the field more than any other running back Jacobs has shared a backfield with. Drake’s pass-catching chops also ensure that Jacobs’ pass-game usage won’t be something fantasy gamers can rely on week-to-week.

Not to mention, the Raiders completely overhauled their starting offensive line. They moved on from three of last season's starters — Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson, Trent Brown — to save space against the salary cap. 

We can’t view Jacobs as anything more than a low-end RB2 heading into 2021. His new ranking is RB21 — five spots below his original ranking. At this point, I'm more than happy to take chances on rookies like Najee Harris, Javonte Williams and Travis Etienne over Jacobs. 

Other running backs on the rise: Aaron Jones, Austin Ekeler, Chase Edmonds, Melvin Gordon III

Other running backs on the fall: A.J. Dillon, David Johnson, Rashaad Penny, D’Andre Swift

WIDE RECEIVERS

JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER, PITTSBURGH STEELERS
DIONTAE JOHNSON, PITTSBURGH STEELERS
CHASE CLAYPOOL, PITTSBURGH STEELERS

JuJu Smith-Schuster reportedly turned down more money from both the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs to return to Pittsburgh on a one-year deal. The shocking news puts a damper on the potential breakouts of both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.

So much for debating between Johnson and Claypool all summer long — now we're back to navigating the three-headed monster in Pittsburgh. I'm making Johnson my highest-ranked Steelers wideout (WR20 overall), followed by Claypool (WR27) and then Smith-Schuster (WR38).

Claypool is hurt worse than Johnson by Smith-Schuster coming back for the vast majority of his 128 targets. When the trio of receivers played together last season — 12 games with a fully healthy Johnson — Johnson was the clear target leader (26%), followed by Smith-Schuster (21%) and then Claypool (17%). 

Here's how the usage and fantasy points shook out over those 12 games:

Target share Fantasy points per game Expected fantasy points per game
Diontae Johnson 26% 17.8 18.5
JuJu Smith-Schuster 21% 16.1 15.2
Chase Claypool 17% 12.4 12.1

Here's how those numbers looked without Johnson:

Target share Fantasy points per game Expected fantasy points per game
Chase Claypool 20% 17.1 12.0
James Washington 19% 10.7 10.7
JuJu Smith-Schuster 17% 10.3 8.7

Even after the team’s bye week, DJ still led with a 25% target share, followed by JuJu (21%) and then Claypool (19%).

Claypool just never pushed the team's top two WRs for target share, which makes it extremely difficult to project him to out-target both his veteran teammates in 2021. 

Last season, the offense only really leaned on Claypool during the four games Johnson wasn't healthy. The rookie led the team in target share (20%) and in fantasy points per game (17.1). 

Now entering his second season, Claypool could easily take a step forward and command a larger portion of the offense, but the potential spike is much smaller with Smith-Schuster’s return to the offense. 

Claypool was going to need an increased workload to mitigate any potential regression after finishing with the 10th-most fantasy points scored above expectation at the position in 2020.

Johnson looks locked-and-loaded to lead the team in targets, so I feel most comfortable ranking him as my No. 1 Steelers wide receiver. I’m not concerned about his league-leading 12 drops last season; that kind of statistic isn't super predictive year over year.

What’s more predictive is expected fantasy points, and Johnson finished second in that category (18.5) among all WRs in the 12 full games he played in 2020.

I still have Claypool ahead of Smith-Schuster because I do think he takes a step forward in Year 2 — and his targets are more valuable than either Johnson’s or JuJu's.

Claypool's aDOT (15.1) was by far the highest on the team. He also led the NFL in targets of 20-plus yards (42) when including plays negated by penalties. 

There’s baked-in upside with Claypool’s role as the team’s primary deep threat, but there’s also a great amount of associated risk.  

Ben Roethlisberger isn’t getting any younger, and his deep-ball looked shot last year. Per PFF’s 2021 QB Annual, Big Ben finished with the league’s fifth-lowest on-target rate on passing attempts of 20-plus yards (34%).

That's not good for Claypool, but even so I think the risk is well worth the reward compared to the high-floor/low-ceiling of Smith-Schuster. Last season, JuJu's aDOT (6.0) ranked 107th out of 112 qualifying WRs. I don’t see how that changes much with Roethlisberger still under center. 

At best, Smith-Schuster forces a 1A-1B situation with Johnson for overall targets in the offense, which makes him hard to get behind unless he comes at a massive discount in ADP. 

Prior to the Smith-Schuster news, Johnson and Claypool were being drafted right next to each other in the WR22-24 range. Smith-Schuster has been going about 10 rounds later (WR34) since, but I expect that gap to close as the market adjusts. 

WILL FULLER V, MIAMI DOLPHINS

I love Will Fuller as much as the next PFF fantasy football analyst, but there’s no denying that his landing spot in Miami isn't as exciting as some of the other potential options — or even staying in Houston with Deshaun Watson.

The duo in Houston had unparalleled chemistry. Per PFF’s Jarad Evans, Watson nearly averaged three additional fantasy points per game with Fuller in the lineup since 2017.

The Dolphins hope Fuller can create similar splits with Tua Tagovailoa, but the second-year quarterback is still too unproven. We can’t expect him to fuel Fuller to 2020 levels of fantasy success. 

Tua’s fantasy outlook gets a bump because of Fuller, but the same can’t necessarily be said for the 26-year-old receiver. Still, that doesn’t mean I'm out on Fuller entirely in 2021.

His new ranking as WR31 (previously at WR25) means he’s still a WR3, and his splash weeks are what best ball formats were made for. If Tagovailoa can channel his downfield throwing success from his days at Alabama, then Fuller will be well worth his dwindling ADP.

It’s also not outside the range of potential outcomes that Fuller could emerge as the No. 1 in Miami, as DeVante Parker and Preston Williams have hardly been consistent producers. Fuller has his own injury issues — he's never played 16 games in a season. But that’s already being factored into his ADP.  

Other wide receivers on the rise: Curtis Samuel, Terry McLaurin, Kenny Golladay, Robby Anderson

Other wide receivers on the fall: Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, D.J. Chark Jr.

QUARTERBACKS

RYAN FITZPATRICK, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

Ryan Fitzpatrick is back on the fantasy football radar after signing a one-year deal with the Washington Football Team

It's hard not to be excited about Fitzpatrick’s fantasy prospects in 2021 with Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel now at his disposal. Fitzpatrick has been a more than useable fantasy commodity over the past two seasons.

As noted by PFF’s Ian Hartitz, Fitzpatrick was fantasy’s overall QB2 in 2019 from Weeks 7-17 and followed that up with a QB8 showing in Weeks 1-6 in 2020 before “losing” the job to Tagovailoa.

Fitzmagic scored at least 23 fantasy points in over half of his seven starts in 2020. He has moved all up the way from QB37 to QB21, which puts him strongly in the late-round QB conversation. 

DESHAUN WATSON, HOUSTON TEXANS

Deshaun Watson is becoming extremely risky in best ball formats with so many questions around his 2021 outlook. The chances of him suiting up for the Houston Texans or any other team continue to look slim.

I understand the upside Watson brings, but with so much uncertainty surrounding whether he'll play and for which team — god forbid he returns to Houston with Brandin Cooks as his main weapon — his fantasy projection as a top-five quarterback seems like a distant memory. 

Watson has fallen from my QB4 to QB9 overall. 

Other quarterbacks on the rise: Tua Tagovailoa, Cam Newton, Daniel Jones

Other quarterbacks on the decline: Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, Jared Goff

TIGHT ENDS

GERALD EVERETT, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Aside from some of the more notable names at tight end like Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry and T.J. Hockenson — whom I covered in my biggest winners and losers pieces — there weren't many other tight end movers in the rankings.

The biggest riser was new Seattle Seahawks tight end Gerald Everett. I think he is firmly on the late-round tight-end radar because he’s attached to an uber-efficient passer in Russell Wilson.

There’s also a severe lack of depth in the Seahawks receiving corps behind DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, so we could easily see Everett emerge as the No. 3 pass-catching option.

Everett has flashed his athleticism and YAC-ability in spurts when given opportunities in the past, so I like his upside in his new offense. The former Los Angeles Ram leads all tight ends in forced missed tackle rate (25%) since the start of 2018. 

IAN THOMAS, CAROLINA PANTHERS

Ian Thomas finished the 2020 season ninth in routes run (468) among all tight ends but ranked 108th in yards per route run (0.31) and dead last in target rate (6.4%). He had just 20 receptions on over 400 routes run, which is completely absurd.

I still had my hopes up after Curtis Samuel left for Washington, assuming there would be even more work to go around. Alas, the Panthers brought in free agent Dan Arnold on a two-year deal. This means that Thomas will almost certainly not be fantasy-relevant. 

There's hope for the new guy, however. Arnold finished 2020 13th in fantasy points per snap (0.21) and 11th in fantasy points per touch among TEs. 

Arnold is now ranked as my TE28, which puts him firmly in the “oh crap, I still need a tight end” tier that can easily be accessed in the final rounds of best ball drafts. 

Other tight ends on the rise: Jared Cook, Anthony Firsker

Other tight ends on the decline: Dawson Knox, Donald Parham Jr.

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