The Gut Check No.531: 2021's Career-Year Candidates

Matt Waldman shares his eight early candidates with the talent and supporting cast to deliver career years in 2021.

Making mistakes and not doing as well as you'd hoped is painful, but so is denying yourself joy and the life you want. So is shrinking and playing small due to fear. If both will hurt, what do you have to lose by moving towards the option that maybe, just maybe could bring you somewhere new? You can always go back to the old way. You can always decide to stop or pull back. But you'll never know what will happen if you don't try.

-Daniel Koepke

If this quote encapsulates your approach to life, or at least your desired approach to your fantasy football life, it's time to go big or go home. Forget the streaming app looping in your brain that tells you what you "should" do. "Should" is on a shortlist of words I can't stand and the odds are high that you created that looping "should voice" from outside influences that never understood you, accepted you, or believed in you.

That voice only cares about you conforming. Accept the easy answers. Take the spoon-feeding of whatever we give you.

Spoonfeeding information from the right source is convenient. Of course, if you're reading fantasy football articles in early June, then you're not the type.

You're my favorite readers. Even if it's an indication that one of the following fits who you are: older, perpetually single, living in your mom's basement, you desperately need a haircut, and/or you wear t-shirts that belie the maturity commonly associated with your age.

Enough about describing the three of us here, let's look at eight players who fit the "go big or go home" approach to 2021 fantasy drafts. These are players I've given much higher value in my initial season projections than my peers. And because it's June, I ranked several of these players higher than my peers.

I will change the ranking of some of these players as I get a better feel for ADP and new developments this summer. Others will remain in iconoclastic contrast to the herd because I believe they can be earth-shifting difference-makers in your quest to build a 2021 champion.

Here are eight of these players I think have the greatest shot of having a career year and elevating your fantasy squads. And yes, there are two rookies on this roster, which speaks both to their talent and the fragility of a professional football career.

Tom Brady

He's ancient. He won a Super Bowl in his first year with Tampa and there's nowhere to go but down. He's coming off knee surgery (with a few months of rehab this offseason) that will limit him early this summer and the six quarterbacks that were ranked ahead of Brady in 2020 had far greater mobility.

Why is Brady poised for a career year or at least, one of the best years of one of the best quarterback careers in the history of the NFL?

Despite winning the Super Bowl last year, 2020 was an acclimation season for Brady and the offense. This was Bruce Arian's offense and not the North Florida Patriots as many believed it would be during the summer. It meant that Brady had to learn different progression reads and option routes.

The option routes are the most difficult because these are quick adjustments based on late reads of the coverage shortly before and after the snap and it requires the receiver and the quarterback to see the same information and make the same route decision. After spending 20 years with a team where the majority of it was in the same system and dealing with gradual changes, Brady—and Rob Gronkowski—had to unlearn much of what they knew at the rate of instinct and learn a new way that also had to be executed at the same rate.

This led to mistakes that many labeled age-related accuracy and decision-making issues when they were simply errors rooted in lack of familiarity.

These errors and/or slower-than-normal decisions impacted Brady's rapport with every receiver even if Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Scott Miller all had one more year of familiarity with Arians' scheme. Antonio Brown had some familiarity with the Buccaneers' system if there were enough similarities between Arians' current scheme and the one he used in 2010-11 in Pittsburgh during Brown's first 25 games as a pro.

Considering there was a nine-year gap between Brown's work in that scheme, it's understandable if that familiarity wasn't very strong.

Rapport matters. It's often a term that fantasy analysts and football reporters use that glosses over the meaningful detail behind it. Option routes are a brief example of it.

Although Brady sustained top-12 quarterback production throughout the season, the offense increased its rapport after Week 10. From that point to the end of the season, Brady delivered the third-highest passing totals of any quarterback in the league and his yards per attempt (8.47) were second only to Deshaun Watson during this span.

Keep in mind that Brown didn't join the team until this span, so his football conditioning, familiarity with the offense, and rapport with the team remained a work in progress just as the rest of the team was beginning to click at a higher level. To quote the Cowboys of recent years, "there was still meat on the bone," for Brown, Brady, and the rest of this offense.

Peyton Manning can relate.

In 2012, Manning delivered a 434-point fantasy season with 37 scores, 11 interceptions, 4,667 yards, and averaged 8 yards per attempt during his first season with the Denver Broncos after more than a decade as a Colt. Manning essentially brought his offense to Denver and spent a lot of the first season coaching the receivers and backs on the details of option routes, route depths, and situational ball placement. Manning was fantasy QB5 in that 14th year of his career after rehabbing from neck surgery.

In 2013, Manning delivered a 587-point fantasy season for the ages with 56 (total) scores, 10 interceptions, 5,477 yards, and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt to a crew of receivers that included Demaryius Thomas (WR2), Eric Decker (WR8), Wes Welker (WR20), and Julius Thomas (TE3). Manning supported two top-10 fantasy receivers, a third receiver in the top 20, and a top-3 tight end.

There might not have been enough mouths to feed.

These are all outlier performances, but Tom Brady's entire career is an outlier—from his draft capital and physical skills to his longevity of production and Super Bowl championships. Brady's offensive line remains intact and the unit is also outfitted with five skill talents capable of meeting or exceeding the production of Denver's 2013 crew. Brady's 2020 season of acclimation—40 scores, 13 interceptions, and 4,633 yards—was statistically similar to Manning's 2012 season of acclimation.

Could history repeat itself? There are enough parallels to indicate it will.

If I'm feeling like going big or going home, taking Brady as your first quarterback—and not getting so cute with maximizing the potential value that you miss out on him—is my primary plan.

Jaylen Waddle

My No.2 receiver in the 2021 Rookie Scouting Portfolio pre-draft publication, Waddle would have easily been the No.1 option on my board if not for Ja'Marr Chase and that shouldn't diminish just how good Waddle can be in the NFL. Immediately.

Here's an excerpt of Waddle's scouting report from the RSP.

RSP Ranking: WR2

Height: 5-10 Weight: 182 School: Alabama

Comparison Spectrum: Tyreek Hill/Isaac Bruce-X

Depth of Talent Score: 91.6 = Franchise: Challenging for the lead role and leadership anchor.

The Elevator Pitch for Waddle: The most explosive weapon in this class, Waddle could earn elite production if matched with a scheme that has the surrounding talent to force no-win decisions the way Kansas City essentially does with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Easier said than done because Kelce and Patrick Mahomes II aren’t players who are available in every draft—despite the abundance of comparisons that suggest as much.

Still, Waddle has that kind of upside for a team to mine if it can supply the scheme and surrounding talent. If he lands on a team with an elite weapon at tight end or wide receiver, Waddle has a fighting chance to help create the no-win situations that defenses face with Kansas City.

What makes Waddle so compelling is his toughness and awareness at the catch-point and his ability to deliver with excellent technique while playing at a high rate of speed. Rarely do you see receivers anywhere near his speed exhibit the footwork, awareness, hand-eye coordination, and overall physical control of their frames. Waddle turns chain-moving play designs into breakaway scores if defenders make a mistake that would normally open the field for other receivers to earn another 10-15 yards.

Although there’s often a built-in disappointment factor that accompanies smaller speedsters when they aren’t in a perfect scheme, Waddle has a more complete game than people might think when they see highlights of him running through open passing lanes thanks to the pick-your-poison dynamic of Alabama’s offensive personnel. Waddle’s technique, toughness, and versatility wrapped in his physical dimensions are also reminiscent of Isaac Bruce, a great receiver who played his career during a more physical era at 188 pounds.

Waddle is a top wide receiver prospect whose speed gives him potential to be an epic weapon initially tied to scheme gadgetry early his career like Hill, who developed into a legitimate primary weapon years ago, but not wholly dependent on it. That’s different than being a one-dimensional speed athlete whose best chance of relevancy is gadgetry—Tavon Austin and Mecole Hardman come to mind...

Route Setups: Waddle will widen the stem of a curl route before he reaches the top of his stem to set up the possibility of a fade. With double moves, Waddle drops his weight and can deliver a quick-two into the break inside before pivoting and driving deep to the back of the covering defender.

Waddle also sells his routes with his eyes up to the defender over top. He has a compelling head fake outside to break that work inside the defender and downfield.

His double moves, such as the slant-and-go and out-and-up demonstrate a good awareness of the coverage triangle in a zone as well as demonstrate his patient-but-sudden movements as a route runner. He does an excellent job of turning his head and frame to sell the out on out-and-ups.

Waddle will deliver a pace change during his stems against off-man coverage if the defender has good leverage and depth against the route. This includes stutters, pony kicks, and hip shifts.

Route Breaks: Waddle has a quick drop-and-three break and works back to the quarterback. He’ll keep his arms pumping through the break and look for the ball with a quick turn of the head. When the first break doesn’t come open, Waddle will work to the next open area to create for his quarterback.

Zone Routes: Against intermediate zone defenders, Waddle stair-steps his routes that break inside. He’ll dive inside, a flattening-out to the vertical, and then breaking back inside. He also throttles down into the open area and settles between defenders.

Route Boundary: Waddle has excellent boundary awareness and technique. He’ll not only drag the back toe, but he’ll alter the angle of his front toe to make sure it stays in bounds as he drags the back foot.

Pass Tracking: Waddle looks the ball into his outstretched hands on targets over his shoulder. He has a habit of leaving his feet to catch targets at shoulder height or above. Waddle can also track the ball over his head with his back to the passer. Waddle times his jump-backs well on underthrown vertical routes.

Hands/Catch Radius: Waddle can catch the beltline target away from his frame with underhand framing. He’ll also use overhand framing with the same height of target with an early attack.

He’s skilled at high-pointing over a defender tight to him and winning the ball over the opponent. He extends well for the football whether it’s over his head or away from his chest.

He has the coordination to catch the ball away from his frame behind the momentum of his break with good extension of the arms and a defender tight to his downfield hip.

His ability to execute pull-downs during leaping receptions is an asset of his game. He can turn just enough while sandwiched high-low between defenders to protect the ball from contact while in midair. He did exactly this in the 2018 SEC Championship game with 1:18 in left with the game tied, taking hits from both defenders. This set up the game-winning run by Jalen Hurts on the next play.

Position: When he has to extend for the ball or drag the boundary and make a controlled fall, he’ll torque his frame away from the side he has used to secure the ball so he’s not falling on the football. He’s also skilled at jumping back for the ball with excellent timing against tight coverage.

Focus: Contested catches while airborne in tight coverage is not a problem for the speedy Waddle. He’ll also leap for the ball heading into a zone with a defender shooting for his torso and legs while tracking the ball over his shoulder on a vertical route. He can also hold onto the ball even when rebounding off one hit into another.

Transitions: He obeys the ball and pierces downhill with the quickness and acceleration to beat angles of multiple defensive backs. If opponents allow Waddle to earn a runway by working across and down the field, he’ll outrun the entire defense.

Elusiveness: Waddle has elite short-area quickness and change-of-direction speed. He can stop-start, spin, swivel his hips to bend away from opponents with curvilinear movement, and reduce his shoulders to avoid reaches and wraps.

Waddle runs with a wiggle and he can set up oncoming defenders with 2-3 moves in succession that include a stutter and head or shoulder fake before cutting or dipping away from the opponent.

He also has the curvilinear movement to bend and weave his way around traffic that’s closing on him. He can also transition from sideline to sideline to downhill.

Vision: Waddle has the patience to press the blocks getting set up on a kick return within 2-3 steps of the blockers (which is close considering the speed of defenders coming downhill) to cut back through an open crease. Waddle reads the zone defender where his break will cross and when that defender reacts to a route breaking from the opposite direction, Waddle knows to accelerate into the open area and throttle down there.

In the open field, Waddle can weave through tight quarters to split downhill and backside pursuit close to him as he’s working up the boundary and this can open up a longer run.

When working from the backfield, he will find the downhill crease and work tight to the lead blocker’s hip as he passes through it. He’s patient and has a good feel for finding open space as well as navigating through tight traffic.

Power: Waddle’s suddenness and acceleration enhance his ability to pull through reaches and wraps in the open field. He’ll use a forearm shiver to push off an oncoming safety or cornerback.

As he works towards traffic, he’ll drop his pads to split defenders or work a small crease, which also helps him pull through reaches.

Waddle's skill to run sharp routes at a top speed is already drawing raves in Dolphins minicamp. Paired once again with Tua Tagovailoa, who should be better acclimated to the pro game and be more prepared to start for Miami in Year Two now that he's completely healthy, Waddle will make an instant impact in this offense.

When Will Fuller V returns from the remaining two games of last year's suspension, Waddle will earn even better mismatches because opposing defenses will be concerned with Fuller and DeVante Parker.

Two years ago, I touted A.J. Brown as the best rookie receiver to acquire in re-draft formats. Last year, I touted Justin Jefferson as an excellent fit in Minnesota. Neither player was seen as a good scheme fit and both turned in terrific production.

In addition to Ja'Marr Chase, I'm most excited about Waddle and Rondale Moore's fits with their new offenses. This may not be Waddle's career year, but given the mismatches that he should generate with his speed, the initial vanilla approach that opposing defenses will use against him, and the surrounding receiver talent to take pressure off Waddle, we should expect a strong fantasy campaign for the rookie that exceeds expectations.

Rondale Moore

It's difficult to find someone who doesn't love Moore's potential. The variances with opinions regarding Moore's ability to translate it to the NFL come down to size, scheme fit, and durability.

I've seen the Steve Smith comparisons for Moore, but the factor that separated Smith from other short and explosive receivers was catch-point acrobatics and toughness. Moore did not display much of this on tape at Purdue. It's not that he can't do it, it's just that I haven't seen samples of it to indicate it's a part of his game that he'll bring to the league.

Moore doesn't have to be the next Steve Smith to deliver fantasy starter production in the NFL. The Cardinals' offense is an excellent fit for Moore because he doesn't have to be an outside threat like Smith.

DeAndre Hopkins will draw the best cornerback the majority of the snaps and often force some safety help when he doesn't. Christian Kirk and A.J. Green are, at least, competent options at this point of their careers who can play inside and outside and also force zone defenders to collapse towards them, leaving bigger holes for Moore early in the season.

When matched one-on-one, Moore has electric short-area precision and quickness with his release footwork. He'll be difficult to jam in the rare instances he'll face tight man coverage from the slot and even more difficult to handle with man-to-man coverage that doesn't get physical.

Spread the field with four receivers and use Moore as one of the inside options and Arizona will enough mismatches in Moore's favor in the short and intermediate ranges of the field, that it will result in a high volume of easier pitches and catches that one could consider glorified run plays.

Speaking of running plays, the Cardinal's intent to use him all over the field, and with Kyler Murray's ability to run, expect successful misdirection plays where Moore earns fly sweeps, the end-around, reverses, shovel passes, and other creative run plays to the perimeter.

If Moore stays healthy, he should at least 80 targets, 50 catches, and 600-700 yards. With his big-play ability as a runner after the catch against a spread-out defense, Moore should earn 6-8 touchdowns as a receiver and runner. If Moore displays that Smith-like physicality to his game at the catch point, he could earn between 800-1,000 yards.

Staying healthy is the big deal. Moore is a freakish athlete from the standpoint of his body shape. When he was banged up at Purdue, he didn't look the same on the field as he did early in his career. This could easily be the nature of his injury and not how he'll perform with future injuries or he could be one of those players like Donte Stallworth whose game can't function when injury diminishes a part of his athletic ability short-term.

Because Moore is a big-bodied athlete with massive muscle content from the waist down, I wonder how durable he'll be as his career progresses. Until we know, I'd rather take my chances on Moore early on when he's at his athletic peak and suffered the least amount of punishment. Combine this with Kyler Murray's ascension, DeAndre Hopkins still in his prime, and two other receivers with skills to open the field for Moore, and I'm shooting my shot this year for Moore to be at or near his best.

If he's even better for years to come, that's a bonus.

Robert Woods

Woods' career year was his 2018 season with the Rams when he earned 131 targets, 86 catches, 1,219 yards, and 6 receiving scores. The No.10 fantasy receiver that year, Woods was a half-yard off his career-best yards-per-reception average (14.7).

Since then, his targets and catches have hovered steadily between 130-140 looks and 90 catches. However, his average per catch has dropped two yards per year since his 2018 peak. The obvious reasons were the Rams' offensive line, Sean McVay's scheme predictability, and Jared Goff's difficulty with handling pressure.

McVay's scheme is intended to make every play look the same and use variations of plays from a similar conceptual theme to confuse defenses. After a while, opponents figure out how to disrupt the main concept and that disrupts the variations as well. McVay has shown since 2018 that he has been stubborn about adjusting his scheme and game plans despite defenses clearly figuring them out.

Perhaps McVay was concerned that his offensive lines—filled with an influx of new players—couldn't handle the changes. More likely, it was a combination of the line play and how it would create more pressure for Jared Goff, who has shown difficulty making quick mental sight adjustments against pressure.

Whatever the exact reasons, the defensive adjustments that the Rams couldn't throw the ball downfield with the same efficiency as they had when they first unveiled its offense upon the league.

Enter Matthew Stafford, a quarterback whose yards-per-attempt average for the past 24 games has been 8.09 yards per attempt. While his career average is 7.25 yards per attempt, he hasn't had strong offensive lines until recently.

Stafford is also willing to fit the ball into tight windows that many quarterbacks can't and he's proven at handling pressure. Stafford is more adept at making opposing defenses pay for aggressive behavior.

Woods is the most versatile receiver on the Rams. With DeSean Jackson and, possibly, Tutu Atwell stretching the field to its deepest quadrants, there will be more room in the intermediate range of the field for Woods and Cooper Kupp to roam. Expect Woods to return to a higher average per catch and approach career highs in attempts, receptions, and yardage.

Because he's also adept at working himself open in off-script situations, expect more big plays with Stafford at the helm, too. Add it up and Woods is the player I'm targeting for a top-10 receiver season for fantasy leagues.

Tyler Higbee

Higbee disappointed last year after the promise he showed down the stretch of 2019. Still, he earned a career-high five scores and averaged a respectable 11.8 yards per catch. Higbee dealt with hand and elbow injuries that certainly limited the best work he could do in the passing game.

With the exception of 2018 and 2014, when Stafford didn't have a quality receiving tight end in Detroit, Stafford has supported tight ends for 600-700 yards or a combination of 2-3 tight ends for that production every year of his career, including a pair of years with a depth chart that passed 1,000 yards receiving while Calvin Johnson was ruling the receiving landscape.

Higbee disappointed but he earned nearly 30 fewer targets in 15 games with his injuries than he did in 14 games the year before. I'm willing to see 2020 as an injury-delayed season that will lead to a 2021 breakout.

Jared Cook

While a potential acquisition of Zach Ertz could derail the possibility for Jared Cook to reach career heights, let's operate from the assumption that Ertz goes elsewhere. Cook is an aging player that's playing like a fine wine.

He has averaged 75 targets, 49 catches, 702 yards, and 7 touchdowns during the past three years as a clear-cut TE1 each of those seasons. This includes last year's debacle with an injured Drew Brees.

We must remember that elite athletes at the tight end position often play into their mid-to-late thirties and sustain production. Tony Gonzalez was a top tight end until he retired at 37. Antonio Gates delivered at this level until he was 36 and played a supporting role for another two seasons. Jason Witten was still a fantasy starter at 35 before he retired for a year to be a Monday Night Football analyst.

Cook is a healthy 34 who is coming off the best three-year period of his career and joining an offense that needs a seam stretcher at the position. Donald Parham is not the answer and Tre' McKitty is potentially a year away from a substantial contribution in the passing game.

Paired once again with a strong-armed quarterback, Cook is in an ideal situation to challenge his career-bests in yards-per-catch average, receiving yards, and touchdowns. After all, Justin Herbert supported an 18.3 yards-per-catch average for Jalen Guyton, a receiver whose film profile is more fitting of a possession threat. Tyron Johnson, at least known at Oklahoma State as a field stretcher, was just shy of 20 yards per catch with 26 targets.

Cook is a field stretcher, even at 34. I don't see his move to the Chargers as a crossroads for Cook's career. I see it as a smart move to join a TE-needy team. Adam Trautman showed he was more than ready to assume the mantle in New Orleans. McKitty is at least a year away.

Cook may be taking it a year at a time, but his game affords him to do so and a team to pay enough to count on him for short-term production. I expect Cooks' baseline projection to look more like it did in 2019 than 2020 and that's TE5-7 material in positional rankings.

If you expect Justin Herbert to provide even better support in the vertical game than Derek Carr did for Cook in 2018, Cook could approach 800-900 yards again and a career-high in scoring.

Malcolm Brown

Myles Gaskin is getting love as an underrated running back after he unexpectedly led Miami's rushing attack in 2020. This is a new offensive scheme in 2021 and Gaskin will work alongside Brown, a free-agent acquisition from L.A. who has an equally underrated game.

Brown had one of the more compelling athletic profiles in his draft class with the exception of breakaway speed. Well-built, physical, quick, and fluid, Brown possesses above-average contact balance.

The fact he earned another deal while Todd Gurley was in his prime but injury was a concern and Darrell Henderson wasn't ready tells you that Brown earned his value within the organization. I expect Brown to earn 175-220 carries in this offense and lead the team in yards-per-carry and rushing touchdowns. If Gaskin gets hurt, Brown could be a 1,000-yard rusher with 7-10 scores if Tua Tagovailoa plays to his ability.

Ty'Son Williams

Let's end this is an unknown for most people. I write the High Upside blurbs for Footballguys. You'll see them during the summer on the player pages at the site as well as in the Draft Dominator. These players are lesser-known options who could hit big if they earn an opportunity due to injury on the depth chart. James Robinson was the ultimate upside player last year.

Williams could be that type of option this year if J.K. Dobbins gets hurt. Williams was a vaunted prospect at North Carolina who transferred to South Carolina as a sophomore. He flashed big-time skills but found himself mired on a depth chart carousel and left for BYU. Williams made a great impression at BYU and earned the starting gig as a senior before suffering an ACL tear.

This is a well-built back with the burst, efficient footwork, and contact balance to earn significant touches in the NFL. If he had put together the performances he had at BYU for a longer period of time, he would have been drafted.

Williams was an undrafted free agent who signed with the Ravens last year. He made a massive impression on the team during an intrasquad scrimmage in late August just 24 hours after he joined the team:

“I respect him tremendously,” veteran running back Mark Ingram II said of Williams after the scrimmage. “Just to come off the street in tremendous shape, to know the playbook, to be able to function and operate in the offensive series, and to make big plays, to make big runs, score a touchdown, that’s the testament of a true pro.”

This was less than a year after tearing his ACL. The Ravens obviously haven't decided to make Williams a big part of its plan, but it's notable that they parted with Mark Ingram II and didn't draft another back. Gus Edwards is the reliable backup and change-of-pace to Dobbins, but don't sleep on Williams. There's a real shot he makes the active roster this year and contributes if he builds on last year's scrimmage with a steady performance this summer.

If called upon, Williams has the tools to be a three-down back in the NFL if he can display the consistency. And if that opportunity comes in the Ravens offense, he could be the surprise 1,000-yard rusher or fantasy find of the 2021 season.


More articles from Matt Waldman

See all

More articles on: Analysis

See all