News & Analysis

Hartitz: 2021 Fantasy Football Quarterback Tiers

Bills quarterback Josh Allen celebrates with the crowd after beating the Ravens 17-3 in the AFC divisional playoff game. Jg 011621 Bills 2

Fantasy football rankings are cool, but sometimes they aren’t necessarily the most helpful tool for doing a little something the cool kids like to call winning. Median projections become the main tool for lining up each individual player, which can lead to -EV scenarios where those not willing to stray from their faithful ranks fail to capitalize on a better choice available because of how their specific draft played out.

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Additionally, it’s simply wishful thinking to expect to rank hundreds of footballers with pinpoint accuracy: Coaches will hold back promising rookies, injuries will take away some of our favorite talents and even people paid to write about the game like myself will inevitably miss on more than a few players ahead of any season.

It’s with this in mind that I present to you my 2021 fantasy football tiers based on redraft leagues. The general scoring I had in mind was half-point PPR in typical one-QB, non-TE premium formats. Players in the tiers are listed in order of who I would prefer first; just realize their standing in the same group reflects the reality that I’m not overly confident in picking one over the other.

Tier 1: We have recent proof of overall QB1 ability

Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson

Mahomes is responsible for two of the NFL’s seven highest-scoring seasons in terms of fantasy points per game. Don’t let a Super Bowl loss distract from the fact that we still saw plenty of greatness from the game’s best QB at the moment.

Allen is the reigning overall QB1 in fantasy land. It’s tough to lay out a real argument for why he’ll regress other than because his overall performance was that good last year (and thus hard to repeat); the Bills again boast a loaded receiving core after replacing John Brown with (still good) Emmanuel Sanders. I have my doubts that Allen will score at least eight times on the ground per season forever, but for meow he remains one of the league’s most high-volume passers and rushers alike. 

Murray was the QB1 and owner of the highest fantasy points per game mark *ever* in Weeks 1-11 before suffering a shoulder injury that limited his game-changing rushing volume moving forward. I wish A.J. Green wasn’t going to be starting for this offense and also have my doubts that fake sharp Kliff Kingsbury properly deploys Rondale Moore. With that said: Rushing upside is a cheat code in fantasy land, and Murray was on pace to function as the most productive rusher the position has ever seen in a single season before getting banged up.

Small sample size be damned: Prescott’s average of 26.9 fantasy points per game in 2020 trails only 2019 Jackson (27.7) on the all-time single-season leaderboard at the position. The same weapons are back, as is the team’s likely porous defense. Better health for both Prescott and across the offensive line could result in an even scarier offense in 2021 that should once again find itself in comeback mode plenty.

Credit to the Ravens for drafting Jackson a pair of receivers, although excuse me for wishing the free agency splash would have consisted of more than Sammy Watkins. Alas, Jackson should be locked in as a top-five fantasy option after his “disappointing” QB10 finish from last season. No QB averaged more fantasy points per game than Jackson during the 2019-2020 seasons, and we should expect the passing to at least somewhat improve with better O-line health and the team’s aforementioned upgrades at receiver.

Tier 2: True top-10 fantasy QBs

Russell Wilson, Justin Herbert, Aaron Rodgers, Jalen Hurts

Remember the timeline I laid out in Weeks 1-11 last season when Kyler was averaging the most fantasy points per game among all QBs in NFL history? Well, Wilson was good for second in that same span. The Seahawks can talk all they want about wanting to run the ball more; one look at their defense should lead to the conclusion that Russ will have to cook plenty again in 2021. All in all, Wilson has finished as fantasy QB6, QB3, QB9, QB1, QB10, QB3, QB3, QB8 and QB9 since entering the league in 2012.

The Chargers’ stud rising second-year QB joins Russ, Kyler, Dak, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin as the only rookie QB1s since 2010. The Chargers seemingly dominated the draft — there are playmakers everywhere in this offense. Don’t discount the 2021 version of Herbert being even better than what we saw last year.

A-aron’s future remains a bit up in the air at the moment, but for now we’ll assume that he’ll be playing professional football in 2021. I’d honestly probably not change his tier ranking regardless of where he lands; it’s not like the Packers have surrounded him with more than one true high-end receiver over the past three or so seasons. Rodgers was literally the best version of himself that we’ve ever seen in 2020. Pay attention to the ongoing reports about his future, but don’t expect father time to come knocking for at least another few years.

We saw four starts from Hurts in 2020:

  1. Fantasy QB11: 167 pass yards, 1 TD with an 18-106-0 rushing line against the Saints.
  2. Fantasy QB1: 338 pass yards, 3 TD with an 11-63-1 rushing line against the Cardinals.
  3. Fantasy QB12: 342 pass yards 1 TD, 2 INT with a 9-69-0 rushing line against the Cowboys.
  4. Fantasy QB20: 72 pass yards, 0 TD, 1 INT with an 8-34-2 rushing line against Washington.

His 16-game rushing pace of 184 rush attempts would be good for the highest mark from a QB in NFL history. I won’t argue with anyone who points out he’s not the most-polished passer just yet, although 1) he’ll benefit from a healthier offensive line, 2) DeVonta Smith is now in town, and 3) the rising second-year QB has at least proven capable of putting up large passing totals already.

Tier 3: Mix of upside with a demonstrated floor

Joe Burrow, Tom Brady, Ryan Tannehill, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Baker Mayfield

Burrow led the NFL in dropbacks prior to getting hurt and was the fantasy QB14 for his troubles. The addition of Ja’Marr Chase and (hopeful) progression across the offensive line makes the 2019 Heisman winner worthy of the Year 2 hype, particularly from a pure volume perspective since the Bengals defense figures to again be meh.

TB12’s arm looked great throughout 2020; the midseason deep-ball issues were always more of a timing problem than noodle-arm experience. A drop-off has to come eventually (right?), but I wouldn’t bet on it happening in a major way this season with the entire offense back together. There isn’t a better WR room in the league, while getting a healthier O.J. Howard plus true scat back in Giovani Bernard could further make life a living hell for opposing defenses.

The artist known as TanneThrill was the QB7 last season thanks in large part to continued high-end efficiency. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith took his talents to Atlanta, although the expectation is that TE coach Todd Downing will run a similar offense. It’s unfortunate that the team didn’t do more to replace Corey Davis and Adam Humphries; then again, more condensed targets for A.J. Brown should be good for the fantasy business of everyone involved. Much like Russ and the Seahawks: Don’t expect the Titans to be able to run the ball as much as they’d like due to the likelihood that their defense isn’t very good.

Stafford averaged the fourth-most fantasy points per game among QBs in 2019 before getting injured. Last season’s overall QB15 finish wasn’t exactly what most investors were hoping for, but it’s hard to be too tough on Stafford considering he only got five games from No. 1 WR Kenny Golladay. The Rams offer upwards of six more-than-solid talents at WR and TE to go along with Sean McVay’s pristine play-calling; I’m buying a career resurgence from one of the NFL’s most gifted pure throwers of the football.

More play-action for Ryan under new head coach Arthur Smith is expected and will be welcomed. The team’s decision to invest in Kyle Pitts instead of a young QB calms concerns over Ryan’s immediate future; the 36-year-old should have every opportunity in the world to improve upon last season’s QB15 finish in fantasy points per game. With that said: I’ll likely be out of the Ryan business in fantasy land if the Falcons do the unthinkable and trade Julio Jones.

Mayfield’s bounce-back 2020 campaign was better in real life than in fantasy; his 15.48 fantasy points per game just barely beat out the likes of Mitch Trubisky (15.37) and Philip Rivers (15). Of course, Mayfield dealt with three consecutive games in absolutely horrific weather conditions, finished the season hot with two more than solid playoff performances and will benefit from getting a true No. 1 WR in Odell Beckham back in the offense. Yes, people: The Browns are better with OBJ than without. Mayfield targeted his first read on just 58% of his dropbacks in 22 games with Beckham over the past two seasons compared to 63% without. Only Aaron Rodgers posted a better PFF passing grade than Mayfield when targeting the first read after Week 7. It’s tough to stop Mayfield when he identifies an open receiver in rhythm; just realize the best version of this Browns offense would consist of this mindset *with* a coverage-shifting talent like Beckham making things even easier for the passing game’s complementary other options. Throw in the potential for more volume in the second year in Kevin Stefanski’s offense, and I’m buying Baker’s career resurgence.

Tier 4: I could talk you into this man being a QB1

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Trevor Lawrence

The artist known as Fitzmagic has been nothing other than a stud fantasy QB over the past three seasons:

  • 2018: fantasy QB1 in Weeks 1-3 while Jameis Winston was suspended
  • 2019: QB2 in Weeks 7-17 upon taking over full-time from Josh Rosen
  • 2020: QB8 in Weeks 1-6 before “losing” his job to Tua

On the latter point: Fitz outplayed Tua for the entirety of the 2021 season. Credit to the Dolphins for attempting to see what they had with their first-round pick; just realize it wasn’t his own performance that kept the veteran gunslinger on the sideline. Coach Ron Rivera made some headlines by not naming Fitz the starter, but the Football Team’s decision to not add a QB in the draft makes him the heavy favorite over the likes of Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen and Steven Montez. Throw in the reality that this passing game is overflowing with talent from the likes of Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Dyami Brown as well as Logan Thomas, and it’s easy to crown Fitz as one of 2021’s prime late-round QB options.

I’ve already broken down my top-five rookie QBs at length. Ultimately, I’m confident enough in Fields and Lance offering premium rushing upside that I’ll take them over Trevor Lawrence or Zach Wilson and their more locked-in 17 starts. T-Law wins out over Wilson to me thanks to the reality that at this moment in time I believe the Jaguars have the vastly superior NFL QB.

Tier 5: Realistic path to success, but hardly a foolproof investment

Jameis Winston, Kirk Cousins, Tua Tagovailoa, Sam Darnold, Carson Wentz, Zach Wilson, Daniel Jones, Ben Roethlisberger, Derek Carr, Jared Goff

I’m terrified that Jameis loses all kinds of work in the red zone to Taysom Hill. The Saints also didn’t do a good job adding any sort of new talent at receiver throughout the offseason. I remember the good days of 2019, too; just realize we might not see the same sort of high-volume gunslinger in 2020.

The Vikings figure to have a slightly more improved defense than either the Titans or Seahawks can boast; for this reason I’m lower on Kirk Cousins overcoming his run-first offense compared to Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson. There’s an argument that we should like Cousins more in fantasy considering how high most are on Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook and Irv Smith; unfortunately, the utter lack of a rushing floor these days makes him a QB2 I’d rather not bet too heavily on.

Tua will actually get to play with something resembling a high-end WR room in 2021. This is exciting!

However, the rushing floor isn’t much (under 15 yards in six of nine starts) and we could see Tua used as more of a game-manager considering the Dolphins’ stout defense and very real playoff aspirations. Expect efficiency to boom with Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle now in town; just realize there might not be enough week-to-week volume for a big ceiling to appear.

There isn’t a stat that exists that will tell you Darnold has been anything other than a bad QB since entering the NFL in 2018. Of course, he’s now surrounded with (by far) the best weapons of his career and should benefit mightily from Joe Brady’s play-calling witchcraft. Here’s the thing: Teddy Bridgewater only worked as the QB23 in fantasy points per game despite having these same advantages in 2020, and he had a better previous track record. Maybe Darnold (24 in June) figures it out; I’m not willing to part with more than a late-round pick to find out.

Wentz finds himself back with Frank Reich on a great overall Colts roster, although the lack of proven options at WR and TE are concerning. There’s a scenario where Parris Campbell stays healthy, Michael Pittman takes a Year 2 leap and T.Y. Hilton proves to not be washed; even then we’d need to see Wentz not function as one of the league’s bottom-five QBs like he did in 2020.

Wilson has the tools and opportunity to be great. The real allure of targeting Wilson is in best ball, as it’s tough to find a cheaper overall stack than him, Corey Davis, Denzel Mims, and, hell, even Chris Herndon. In fantasy football we want to target players that are being priced closer to their floor than ceiling; that’s pretty much the state of the entire Jets offense at the moment. Look, I’m not thrilled about buying into this offense either, but again: It’s so cheap that a few darts are warranted.

Somehow Jones accounted for just 12 total TDs in 14 games last season. His rushing floor was largely the only thing that made him a viable streaming QB for the first half of the year. Improved passing efficiency should be expected with Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney now in town; the problem is that Jason Garrett remains the play-caller. Throw in the likelihood that this offense gets back to revolving around Saquon Barkley, and it’s really not a passing game worth targeting outside of contrarian best-ball situations.

Big Ben was the QB13 in fantasy points per game last season despite largely being written off as done ahead of 2020. His absurd 501 yard, 4 TD and 4 INT performance on 68 pass attempts in the Steelers’ Wild Card loss to the Browns demonstrates the potential reality that he’s still capable of putting up numbers, even if they aren’t accompanied by as many wins as we’re used to seeing. The offense figures to try and run the ball a bit more often with Najee Harris now in town, and obviously Ben isn’t offering a rushing floor these days. I wouldn’t call Roethlisberger dust just yet, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if 2020 was the beginning of the end, not something more.

Carr truly played some fantastic football for large portions of 2020, and the Raiders defense figures to once again be trash. We saw him make the most out of this good-not-great group of skill-position players last season; I’m less confident in an encore performance now that the Raiders don’t boast a top-five highest-paid offensive line for the first time since before 2015.

There’s potential for Goff to put up numbers on a bad Lions team simply by necessity. Of course, we have nowhere near the same sort of faith in play-calling and receiver talent that used to be in play in L.A. It’s usually a good idea to put the bottle down after you start talking yourself too much into Goff; find another late-round QB.

Honorable mention

Cam Newton has far more talented receivers at his disposal in 2021. Improved passing efficiency, combined with more of the same in the rushing department, could make Newton a borderline fantasy QB1 for however long he can hold on to the job. The problem: New England didn’t draft Mac Jones in the first round to sit on the bench. Jones doesn’t project as a fantasy-friendly signal-caller as a rookie; I’m inclined to fade this situation aside from potentially streaming Cam. … Everything went right for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2019; he was the QB23 in fantasy points per game. Statue QBs in run-first offenses don’t work in fantasy football, people. … I’m as big of a Drew Lock apologist that you’ll find, but his demonstrated lack of upside in fantasy land, combined with potential for Teddy Bridgewater to outright win the job, has me fading the Denver QB position. Of course, the Broncos do boast a talented crop of skill-position options that could be put to great use if a certain reigning MVP gets traded into town. … Taysom Hill would be in our QB2 tier if announced the starter; reports have indicated Jameis is the favorite throughout the offseason. Obviously Hill doesn’t resemble a competent NFL QB; just realize the man ripped off fantasy QB3, QB13, QB8 and QB10 finishes in his four starts last season. … It’s unclear how many starts Andy Dalton will see; you don’t want him on your fantasy squad anyway. Spare me his career Pro Bowl appearances; that award died to me the day Trevor Siemian *declined* an invitation. … Tyrod Taylor is in a QB competition with Davis Mills and Ryan Finley; none figure to offer anything resembling a fantasy floor in probably the league’s most talentless offense. Perhaps it’s a good time to buy low on Deshaun Watson in dynasty, but the situation remains incredibly murky. The likelihood that Watson misses a significant chunk of 2021 is enough for me to fade him at cost for the time being.

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