A Fantasy Manager's Guide to the 2021 NFL Draft

A few key things fantasy managers can watch for during the 2021 NFL Draft.

The NFL Draft is a long-awaited event for all football fans. It is a weekend of highs and lows (Looking at you, 2020 Green Bay Packers) and, for the kids being drafted, it is the culmination of a life-long dream. For fantasy managers, the draft is like Christmas Day. NFL teams get shiny new toys, and we can’t wait to play with them. There is a lot of talent entering the league in 2021 and in dynasty leagues, almost all of these guys will end up being drafted. However, in redraft leagues, there are situations managers must pay attention to on draft day, either to cash in or avoid altogether.

The New Quarterbacks

At this point, it is just about a guarantee that the first three picks of the draft will be quarterbacks. The Jacksonville Jaguars are most likely taking Trevor Lawrence with the 1st pick and he will inherit an offense that has some playmakers, specifically D.J. Chark Jr and Marvin Jones Jr. Jacksonville’s head coach, Urban Meyer, is also new to the league, so it may be a bit of a wait to see this team’s identity, but Lawrence could have QB1 upside on a team that should be throwing a lot in 2021.

The New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers pick second and third, and while there is some debate over who should go when, these picks will be some combo of Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, and Trey Lance. The Jets pick, likely Zach Wilson, will almost certainly start Day 1, but this is another rebuilding team with a new coach. The upside is there for fantasy purposes, but with more risk than Lawrence. The 49ers pick ends up on the best team of the bunch, but may not be the starter right away, as Jimmy Garoppolo is currently still on the roster.

Later in the draft, the New England Patriots, Washington Football Team, and Chicago Bears could all be looking to add a quarterback. There is no guarantee of a rookie taking these jobs early, or even at all, in 2021. However, whichever two quarterbacks fall from the list above will have the best chance to unseat the current starter on one of these squads.

Need a Running Back?

Teams in the NFL typically fall into three camps when it comes to the marriage between drafting a running back and them having fantasy value. There are teams like the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and Pittsburgh Steelers. It would be great for a top-tier running back to end up in one of these spots because they could almost certainly steal the job right away and could be very productive in Year 1. If players like Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, or Javonte Williams end up on these teams, fantasy managers should rejoice.

Next are teams that could use a running back, but if they add one of the top guys, we could be in for a Running-Back-By-Committee, and that hurts the fantasy value of all involved. Teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Los Angeles Chargers come to mind in this category. They could use a good backup, just not too good. Joe Mixon, James Robinson, and Austin Ekeler all looked solid when they played last year, but if their team spends high draft capital on a "backup”, we could be looking at a 1a/1b situation instead of seeing one high-volume guy. That doesn’t mean the right rookie won’t work here though. If these teams added a more complementary piece, like Trey Sermon, Chuba Hubbard, or Michael Carter later in the draft, the situation could work out well for all parties involved.

Finally, there a plethora of teams that you hope just avoid the running back situation altogether. One such landing spot, often linked to running backs in this draft, is the Buffalo Bills. They’ve added running backs in each of the last two drafts, Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, but neither has performed particularly well for fantasy managers. Josh Allen remains Buffalo’s best weapon in the running game and adding one of the top backs could end up repeating the shortcomings of Singletary and Moss.

Playmaking Wide Receivers

There is no more stacked position in the draft than wide receiver. Players like Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, and Rashod Bateman have a chance to step onto the field and be a fantasy asset right away, regardless of the landing spot. Further down the board, you have Jaylen Waddle, Tylan Wallace, Terrace Marshall, and Rondale Moore that could be tremendous draft values, but the right landing spot would certainly help their fantasy careers flourish.

There are two major factors to take into considerations when it comes to rookie wide receivers. First of all, they take longer to develop. We rarely see a draft class like 2014, where Odell Beckham Jr, Mike Evans, and Kelvin Benjamin all finished as top-20 wide receivers in their rookie year. Usually, it’s one guy, like Justin Jefferson last year, and even that took a couple of games before the breakout happened. The second thing to consider is draft capital. When did a team take a wide receiver last year and when do they add one in this draft? When it comes to wide receivers, the higher they’re drafted, the more likely they are to see the field. Jordan McNamara and Chad Parsons do a great job breaking this down on a recent episode of the Footballguys Dynasty Show.

A few teams desperately need a WR1 and the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots jump off this list. The Lions lost both Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr, and they haven’t made any big moves in free agency to replace them. If Chase, Smith, or Bateman end up here, it could give them the best chance to see the majority of their team’s targets as a rookie. The Patriots had wide receiver problems throughout 2020, recently lost Julian Edelman, and have only added role players like Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Say what you will about Cam Newton’s arm, it could be exciting if one of the top guys end up here, especially if they add a quarterback as well.

Some others lost players with major target shares this offseason. The Cincinnati Bengals let A.J. Green walk, the Houston Texans lost Will Fuller V, and the Tennessee Titans parted ways with Corey Davis. All of these teams have a pretty stable WR1 on their depth chart, but there is plenty of vacated work for a rookie to pick up if he can climb the ranks quickly enough.

Finally, there are teams with glaring holes at the WR2 spot and it might not be hard for the right rookie to step right on the field immediately. Two of these are the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. While a new wide receiver would clearly land behind Tyreek Hill or Davante Adams in the pecking order, playing with one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL could be better for fantasy prospects than being another team’s WR1. A slight step down from those two would be the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football Team. Their quarterbacks might not set the world on fire, but there is room enough for a rookie wide receiver to get on the field early.

A Tight End Wasteland

To start, there is just one rookie tight end really worth mentioning, so get familiar with Kyle Pitts quickly. He is probably going to be a top-10 pick in this draft and seems likely to have a fantasy impact wherever he ends up. Tight Ends rarely break out in Year 1, but he seems to fit the profile to make it happen. Both the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals have been linked to Pitts in the Top 5 of the draft, and both could make him fantasy relevant very quickly.

While many teams in the NFL have deficiencies at the tight end position, they may not even address them. It is a classic chicken vs egg argument: Do teams not use the tight end because they are bad, or are the tight ends bad for fantasy because their teams refuse to use them? Regardless, the best situation might be with the Tennessee Titans, who lost Jonnu Smith and have not replaced him yet. They are unlikely to land Pitts but might be worth watching for players like Brevin Jordan or Pat Freiermuth. Other teams, like the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, and New York Jets seem like they have the right scheme and need for a tight end, but there is no certainty that they will use the position, even if they do add one in the draft.

So that’s that. While you are enjoying the draft, pay attention to these teams and if they fill these holes. There is no guarantee any rookie will hit in fantasy football, but the right landing spot should give them a leg up on the competition.

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