By John Paulsen, 4for4
Special to Yahoo Sports
Dallas Cowboys: Expect a bounceback season from Ezekiel Elliott
Elliott had a down year by his standards, finishing No. 11 in half-PPR with the 16th per-game average. Since he did struggle with soft-tissue injuries, some are wondering if he’s starting to decline. He turns 26 years old this summer, so I wouldn’t worry too much about a potential decline, especially since he was the No. 4 running back through the first four weeks while Dak Prescott was still healthy. In fact, in the 21 games over the past two seasons with a healthy Prescott, Elliott has generated 18.3 fantasy points per game (half-PPR). That would have been the fifth-highest production at his position last season.
Philadelphia Eagles: DeVonta Smith should immediately see real-world WR1-type targets
Since 2010, the seven receivers drafted inside the top 10 who have played at least 13 games as rookies have averaged 61-915-6.9 on 113 targets; high-end WR3-type numbers. When Tavon Austin’s disappointing season (40-418-4 on 69 targets) is removed from the sample, the averages jump to 65-997-7.3 on 120 targets — low-end fantasy WR2 numbers.
If DeVonta Smith stays healthy, he should push for 1,000+ yards in a 17-game season. Here's what Yahoo Fantasy's very own Matt Harmon said of Smith on Reception Perception: “When it comes to his route-running, there’s no need to mince words. DeVonta Smith is without a doubt the best separator in the 2021 NFL Draft.”
Washington Football Team: Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel should benefit from Ryan Fitzpatrick’s deep ball accuracy
Fitzpatrick posted the fourth-highest adjusted completion percentages on his deep ball (20+ yard) attempts, per PFF. He was 22nd out of 35 qualified quarterbacks in 2019 and eighth (out of 35) the year before.
Washington’s quarterbacks last year were Alex Smith (17th in deep-ball accuracy) and Dwayne Haskins (38th), so Fitzpatrick’s deep ball accuracy should show up in the box scores for both McLaurin and Samuel, who both possess sub-4.40 speed.
New York Giants: Question marks surround Saquon Barkley in 2021
Barkley played one full game last season before tearing his ACL in Week 2. In Week 1, he carried the ball 15 times for six yards and caught six passes for 60 yards against the Steelers. He was the No. 10 fantasy back (half-PPR) in 2019, though he played just 13 games and owned the No. 6 per-game average. He was famously the No. 1 running back as a rookie back in 2018.
There are two concerns: 1) his offensive line stinks, and 2) it’s no sure thing that Barkley will be ready by Week 1. There are already rumors swirling that the Giants may limit his workload to keep him healthy early in the season.
Green Bay Packers: A.J. Dillon should have weekly flex value
Dillon should fill the Jamaal Williams role in the Packers’ offense. Williams averaged 9.6 touches for 48 yards and 0.31 touchdowns in the 26 games over the last two seasons that Aaron Jones was also active. The resulting 7.8 points per game (half-PPR) would have been good enough for a No. 33 finish last season. It’s nothing special, but it’s serviceable in a pinch.
In the nine games that Williams saw at least 10 carries, he averaged 16.6 touches for 84 yards and 0.33 touchdowns. If anything happens to Jones, Dillon has top-10 upside.
Chicago Bears: Justin Fields should provide high-end QB2 numbers, once he wins the starting job
Fields is going off the board ahead of obvious Week 1 starters like Tua Tagovailoa, Kirk Cousins, and Baker Mayfield, yet the Bears continue to insist that Andy Dalton is the starter. My research shows that highly drafted rookies typically start by Week 3 or Week 4. So, unless things change, that’s the expectation here. According to my rookie quarterback model, Fields should rush for 22 to 27 yards per game, so he has the rushing floor that is so valuable in today’s fantasy landscape.
Minnesota Vikings: Irv Smith is primed for breakout, no matter what Mike Zimmer says
Smith enters his third season after posting 36-311-2 on 47 targets as a rookie and 30-365-5 on 43 targets in his second year. It doesn’t look like it at first glance, but his role did increase a bit since he played three fewer games as a sophomore. He’s a breakout candidate since Kyle Rudolph is no longer around. In the 11 career games where Smith saw at least four targets, he averaged 3.7 receptions for 39 yards and 0.45 touchdowns (on 5.2 targets per game), which works out to 8.7 PPG. That’s about what Dallas Goedert averaged as last year’s No. 10 tight end.
Vikings head coach and noted party-pooper Mike Zimmer indicated in June that Smith would not be seeing a bigger role “whatsoever” and that honor went to new No. 2 tight end Tyler Conklin. However, OC Klint Kubiak confirmed in July that Smith is “going to have more opportunities” this season.
Detroit Lions: D’Andre Swift still has RB1 upside
Even with the arrival of Jamaal Williams, Swift could still turn in an RB1-type season. Swift started to see more playing time after the Lions’ Week 5 bye. From that point on, he averaged 15.0 touches for 79 yards and 0.89 touchdowns, which equate to low-end RB1 numbers.
The arrival of Jamaal Williams is worrisome, though the Lions’ backfield had 399 touches last season, and they can probably find 220-230 for Swift, especially given his ability to catch the ball.
New Orleans Saints: Alvin Kamara should be a usage monster while Michael Thomas is out
Thomas’s injury is probably good news for Kamara, who has insane splits in games that Thomas has missed. Over the past two seasons, Kamara has averaged 20.5 touches for 148 total yards and 1.51 touchdowns per game in eight games without Thomas. That works out to 27.3 PPG (half-PPR), or No. 1 RB-type numbers. Even if his touchdowns regress to with-Thomas levels, he still would have scored 23.0 PPG. Kamara's fantasy managers should probably be rooting for Jameis Winston to win the job since Kamara’s numbers dipped when Drew Brees was sidelined over the last two seasons.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin impacted differently by Antonio Brown
Godwin’s production took a dip when Brown joined the Bucs. In the 11 games (including the playoffs) with Brown in the lineup, Godwin averaged 11.8 PPG (half-PPR), which equates to midrange WR2 numbers. He posted 13.2 PPG (low-end WR1 numbers) in the five games without Brown.
Unlike Godwin, Evans’ production actually increased in the games that Brown was active. Including the playoffs, Evans averaged 13.1 PPG (half-PPR) in 11 games with Brown and just 11.9 PPG in the nine games without an active Brown. That’s the difference between low-end WR1 numbers and midrange WR2 production.
Brown first played for the Bucs in Week 9, and over the remainder of the season, he was the No. 21 receiver in half-PPR formats. Evans and Godwin are both great receivers, but they’re being drafted several rounds ahead of Brown, and the numbers just don’t bear that out. In the 11 games in which they all played (including the postseason), Brown had a 20.0% share of the receptions, a 17.4% share of the yards, and a 20.0% share of the touchdowns. When those shares are applied to Tampa’s 2020 passing totals, the resulting 85-831-8.4 equates to low-end WR2-type numbers.
Carolina Panthers: There is reason for optimism surrounding Sam Darnold
In three seasons, Darnold has never ranked higher than 24th in total fantasy points or per game production. He posted reasonable numbers as a rookie (220 yards and 1.31 touchdowns per game, 6.9 yards per attempt) under HC Todd Bowles/OC Jeremy Bates and even improved in his first season under Adam Gase (233 yards and 1.46 touchdowns per game, 6.9 yards per attempt) before a dreadful third season.
Carolina HC Matt Rhule and OC Joe Brady decided to trade for Darnold this offseason, giving up a future second-rounder in the process, as opposed to finding a quarterback in the draft. They ultimately passed on Justin Fields and Mac Jones, so they must feel pretty good about Darnold.
Teddy Bridgewater had a career 7.15 yards per attempt when he arrived in Carolina, and he posted 7.59 YPA last season, a 6.1% increase. If Darnold sees a similar increase in his YPA from his first two seasons (6.89), he would post a solid 7.30+ YPA in 2021.
Atlanta Falcons: Mike Davis may be better than his numbers indicate
The Falcons led the league in vacated touches per game (21.6) and all they did to address the running back position is sign Davis and 183-pound undrafted free agent Javian Hawkins. Davis’ career YPC (3.7) is pretty ugly, but digging deeper into his 2020 season, there are reasons to like his upside. He was tied for 12th in yards after contact per attempt and led the league in broken tackles per rush attempt. He was also fourth among running backs in catches (59) and was fifth among backs in broken tackles per reception. (Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.)
Seattle Seahawks: Tyler Lockett is being drafted near his fantasy floor
Lockett turned in the No. 9 fantasy season in 2020. But around Week 11, about the time the Seahawks stopped letting Russell Wilson cook, Lockett’s production took a nosedive from 6.4-76-0.78 (8.8 targets per game) to 6.0-53-0.43 (7.6 targets per game), which is the difference between top-five production and low-end WR2 numbers. Making matters worse, Lockett’s best game in the second half of the season came in Week 17 (12-90-2), which didn’t help many fantasy managers.
Still one of the best route-runners in the league, Lockett’s production largely depends on the Seahawks’ willingness to throw the ball at a consistent rate. It does sound like new OC Shane Waldron intends to make that happen.
Los Angeles Rams: Darrell Henderson has played at an RB1 level before. He can do so again
Henderson served as the Rams’ lead back from Week 2 to Week 7, racking up 86 total yards (4.84 YPC) and 0.67 touchdowns on 15.5 touches per game. Those are low-end RB1 numbers, which are possible now that Cam Akers is done for the year with an Achilles injury.
The team moved away from Henderson once before — by drafting Akers and then giving Akers a bellcow workload down the stretch — so the Rams could sign a veteran like Le’Veon Bell or Adrian Peterson to avoid pressing Henderson into 15- to 20-touch service. That said, Henderson had the overall No. 3 pass-blocking grade (per PFF) and is a good receiver, so he’s fully capable of playing on all three downs.
Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray was on pace to finish as THE QB1 before shoulder injury
Murray injured his shoulder in Week 9 after the Cardinals’ Week 8 bye. Through the first seven weeks, he was the No. 1 fantasy quarterback and had the second-highest per game average behind Russell Wilson, who was still being allowed to cook at that point in the season.
Murray posted 283/3 in his injury game against the Dolphins (adding 106/1 as a runner) and didn’t miss a snap. He posted good fantasy numbers in the next two games but struggled against the Patriots and the Rams in Week 12 and Week 13. He was knocked out of Week 17, and when that game is removed, he posted the second-most fantasy points through Week 16.
San Francisco 49ers: Raheem Mostert is too productive to bench
Take a look at what Mostert has done over the last couple of seasons: In his last 16 games, including the playoffs, he has 221 carries for 1,236 yards (5.59 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns and has added 25-233-2 as a receiver. The resulting 15.6 PPG (half-PPR) is about what Jonathan Taylor scored as last year’s No. 9 running back.
Some fantasy analysts label Mostert as a system back, and maybe that’s true to a certain extent, but system backs don’t register the two fastest speeds for a ballcarrier in a given season, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Kyle Shanahan may be able to turn any running back into a star, but he’s also smart enough not to shelve this sort of production just to force-feed his third-round rookie, Trey Sermon.
Buffalo Bills: Zack Moss and Devin Singletary cancel each other out
As a rookie, Moss finished No. 45 at his position while playing 13 games. Devin Singletary played a full season and finished No. 34. They averaged 7.3 and 7.8 PPG (half-PPR), respectively. As a team, the Bills backfield averaged the third-fewest points per game (16.1), so it’s hard to get too excited about either player. Josh Allen is basically the team’s goal-line back, and with Moss and Singletary splitting the work, it cancels out the value of both players.
Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic broke the season’s numbers down further, arguing that Moss’s injuries impacted the backfield landscape. In eight “all things equal” games — i.e. Moss wasn’t injured or in the dog house due to a fumble; I think he’s talking about Weeks 7-10, Week 12, and Weeks 14-16 — Moss out-snapped Singletary 294 to 262 and averaged 11.6 touches for 58 yards and 0.50 touchdowns. Conversely, Singletary averaged 10.0 touches for 57 yards and 0.13 touchdowns.
Buscaglia suggested that these splits indicate that Moss is ahead of Singletary in the team’s eyes and argued that the team’s decision to trade up to draft Moss in 2020 potentially signaled how they felt about Singletary all along. The bottom line — if Moss can earn a 65% share of this backfield, he would likely finish as a solid fantasy RB2, but that’s far from a sure thing.
Miami Dolphins: Jaylen Waddle might lead the Dolphins in receiving
The Dolphins drafted Waddle with the No. 6 overall pick in the draft. Since 2010, the seven receivers drafted inside the top 10 who have played at least 13 games as rookies have averaged 61-915-6.9 on 113 targets or high-end WR3-type numbers. When Tavon Austin (40-418-4 on 69 targets) is removed from the sample, the averages jump to 65-997-7.3 on 120 targets or low-end WR2 numbers.
Two other factors are working in Waddle’s favor: 1) he played with Tua Tagovailoa for two seasons at Alabama, and 2) Matt Harmon found that Waddle was the best receiver in his class at beating man coverage. He wrote on Reception Perception: “It’s difficult to remember a recent prospect who can so easily flip the field, control their speed and devastate with a stop/start-move all while doing the little things like Waddle does so effortlessly.”
New England Patriots: Damien Harris needs passing-game role if he’s going to produce as a fantasy starter
From Week 4 to Week 14, when Harris was relatively healthy and serving as the Patriots’ lead ball-carrier, he was the No. 27 fantasy back with 5.04 yards per carry and a minuscule role (0.5 receptions per game) as a receiver.
Beat writer Mike Reiss says that Harris is the “surefire No. 1” option in the Patriots backfield, but without 2-3 catches per game though, his upside will be severely capped.
New York Jets: Michael Carter is more than just a third-down back
Carter is being pigeonholed as a pass-catching back despite the 94 rush yards per game he posted in his final two seasons at North Carolina, and that was with Javonte Williams in the same backfield! Carter’s weight (~200 lbs) seems to be the major hangup, but his primary competition for touches, Tevin Coleman, is only listed 5-10 lbs higher. Who cares?
After The Athletic’s Connor Hughes said that Carter would be the “eventual 1A” in the Jets’ backfield, he started training camp with the first-team offense.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The team is likely to feed Najee Harris — and feed him a lot
For a rookie running back, Harris landed in arguably the best spot possible. With James Conner gone, the Steelers have 12.8 vacated touches per game, and Harris figures to get all of that work and more. The last 10 first-round rookie running backs who drew at least 10 starts averaged 284 touches for 1,424 total yards and 9.4 touchdowns. The resulting 15.1 PPG (half-PPR) would have landed between Jonathan Taylor and Joe Mixon as last season’s No. 10 RB.
The only real concern with the rookie is the Steelers’ subpar offensive line.
Baltimore Ravens: Gus Edwards is more than just a thorn in J.K. Dobbins’ side
Edwards has some appeal as the RB2 in Baltimore. He’s not going to set the world on fire as J.K. Dobbins’ backup, but he has serious upside in the event of a Dobbins injury, and he did score at least 7.0 fantasy points (half-PPR) in 10 of his final 11 games last season after the Ravens put Mark Ingram out to pasture. Edwards scored 10+ points in four of those 11 games. He also has the fourth-highest yards per carry (5.18) among running backs with at least 150 carries over the past two seasons.
Cleveland Browns: Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are both fantasy starters
Chubb finished as the No. 9 running back in half-PPR despite playing only 12 games. (He had the No. 6 per game average.) In 2019, he was the No. 7 fantasy back. He consistently ranks among the top at his position in PFF rushing grade (fourth), yards after contact per attempt (sixth), and broken tackles per attempt (sixth). There are only two concerns with Chubb: 1) he doesn’t catch many passes (just 16 in 12 games last season, though he had 36 catches the year before, so he’s capable), and 2) the presence of Hunt caps his upside.
As for Hunt, he’s certainly intriguing given his top-five upside (in the event of a Nick Chubb injury) and his consistent scoring whether or not Chubb was active in 2020. He was actually slightly more productive with Chubb in the lineup (12.5 PPG in half-PPR vs. 12.4 PPG) than in the four games Chubb missed, though his touches fell from 18.8 without Chubb to 13.4 when Chubb was active. Oddly, he averaged 0.50 rushing touchdowns when Chubb was playing and failed to score a rushing touchdown in the four games that Chubb missed.
Cincinnati Bengals: Ja’Marr Chase is primed for a productive rookie season
The Bengals have 9.0 vacated targets per game, and Chase should absorb most of those after Cincinnati made him the fifth player off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft. Since 2000, receivers drafted inside the top 10 with at least 12 games played as rookies averaged a hefty 120.3 targets and 210 fantasy points (PPR) per season. Those are low-end fantasy WR2 numbers.
I think that’s a fair valuation for the talented Chase. Matt Harmon on Chase: "Finding a comparison for Chase has been difficult, especially with how high the expectations are for him coming into the league. However, I’m settling on early career Larry Fitzgerald. ... That version of Fitz looked like a surefire Hall of Famer because he was just so good at everything. Chase checks those same boxes, can line up anywhere, and still brings explosive potential.”
Tennessee Titans: Julio Jones may buck the trend of most receivers who change teams
Jones played at a 91-1371-5.3 pace in nine games last season. His 85.7 yards per game were the sixth-most at his position, so the 32-year-old can still play.
Receivers changing teams often disappoint compared to previous production, but Tennessee has 18.7 vacated targets per game that are up for grabs after losing Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, and Adam Humphries, so there is plenty of usage available in this offense. As the 16th receiver off the board in the early fourth round, this is as late as Jones has gone in fantasy drafts in years.
Indianapolis Colts: Jonathan Taylor’s workload is more important than snaps
Taylor finished No. 6 last season (half-PPR) but owned the No. 9 per game average. Excluding Week 1, he did have two games with fewer than 10 touches, so his weekly floor feels a little low for a consensus first-round pick. 26 running backs played a higher snap percentage, but Taylor was No. 11 in touches per game, so there’s enough usage there.
The Colts have a great offensive line, though the presence of pass-catching specialist Nyheim Hines does serve to cap his PPR upside a bit.
Houston Texans: It’s hard to get excited about David Johnson
Someone in my Scott Fish Bowl league called Johnson an “oatmeal pick,” which sums him up perfectly at this point in his career. Johnson was the No. 19 back (in half-PPR) while only playing 12 games last season. His 13.6 PPG was the No. 15 per game average, so he produced solid RB2 numbers when healthy. The Texans seem likely to be without Deshaun Watson, so the offense is expected to take a big step back. Houston added Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, and Rex Burkhead, but lost Duke Johnson (9.5 touches per game).
Johnson played at a 45-reception pace despite the team’s 4-12 record, so another season of negative game script may not result in increased catches. New HC David Culley comes from Baltimore, where he was the assistant head coach, passing game coordinator, and wide receivers coach. This is notable since the Ravens did not utilize their backs much in the passing game in recent years.
Tim Kelly stays on as the offensive coordinator so there is some continuity there. Kelly said that the team will run the ball more in 2021, and Johnson’s rushing efficiency (4.7 yards per carry) wasn’t bad, though that was with Watson in the fold. Johnson’s 12th-round ADP is incredibly cheap for an NFL starter, though he certainly lacks the sort of RB1-type upside that drafters are looking for when taking swings in later rounds.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Marvin Jones is once again a sneaky pick in the later rounds
Here are Jones’s finishes in the last few years, working backward: No. 17 (in 16 games), No. 27 (in 13 games), No. 61 (in nine games — with the No. 30 per game average), and No. 9 (in 16 games). Jones always seems to outperform his average draft position, which is in the 10th round this season as he joins a new team and rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
He was signed to replace the production of Keelan Cole and Chris Conley but will compete with DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault for targets in what may be a conservative, run-oriented offense meant to protect Lawrence as much as possible. At 31 years old, Jones is at the tail end of his prime.
Per Lawrence, “Marvin has been the leader in the wide receiver room with an offense that he already knows. … He’s done a great job with teaching everyone else.”
Kansas City Chiefs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire could see bellcow touches this season
Edwards-Helaire saw 21.3 touches per game in the first six games, before Le’Veon Bell’s arrival. He ran well (4.73 YPC) and was productive as a receiver (29.5 yards per game), though he didn’t score many touchdowns (0.17 per game).
In the 10 games where he played at least 40 snaps (roughly 56% snap share), he averaged 19.1 touches for 97 yards and 0.30 touchdowns per game. That equates to 13.0 fantasy points per game, which are solid RB2 numbers.
In his final four non-injury regular-season games, he averaged 15.8 touches per game. He struggled with an ankle injury heading into the playoffs and played behind Darrel Williams against the Bills, but the Chiefs went right back to him in the Super Bowl (11 touches, 87 yards).
Bell was enough of a headache to make Edwards-Helaire a shaky start on a weekly basis, but he’s since been released, so Edwards-Helaire’s snap share should rise in his second season. He’s a serious threat for RB1 numbers.
Las Vegas Raiders: Josh Jacobs’ short-term fantasy outlook is murky
Jacobs finished No. 8 last year (half-PPR) after a No. 18 finish the year before. He had the No. 13 per game average in 2019. Normally, if a 23-year-old back had this resume, he’d be ranked near or inside the top 10, but Jacobs has a couple of things working against him this year.
First, the Raiders gave $11 million guaranteed to Kenyan Drake on a two-year deal, making it clear that they envision him as more than a pure backup. Drake’s arrival is likely to affect Jacobs’ touches — certainly his catches, which increased from 1.5 per game as a rookie to 2.2 per game last year.
The other problem is that the Raiders overhauled their (already good) offensive line, and are a net $25.3 million worse, per my offensive line free agency study. Las Vegas now projects to have a bottom 10 unit. For Jacobs, this means he’s looking at fewer touches and less room to run, which is why he’s more of a low-end RB2 this summer.
Los Angeles Chargers: Expect a big season from Austin Ekeler
Ekeler finished as the No. 29 running back (half-PPR) in just 10 games last season. The previous year, he finished No. 6. More than just about everyone else at his position, Ekeler’s value will depend on the scoring format. He’s a top seven back in full PPR, but more of a high-end RB2 in standard formats.
In his eight healthy games with Justin Herbert at quarterback, Ekeler averaged 18.4 touches (including 6.5 receptions on 7.9 targets) for 104 total yards and 0.38 touchdowns. The resulting 15.9 PPG (half-PPR) is what David Montgomery scored as last year’s No. 4 running back.
The Chargers added Corey Linsley in free agency and tackle Rashawn Slater with the No. 13 pick in the draft, so the offensive line unit should be much improved in 2021. This all points to a bounce-back season for Ekeler.
Denver Broncos: Melvin Gordon or Javonte Williams? Drafters have chosen Williams
Early drafters have decided that Williams (No. 24 RB off the board) is going to take over from Melvin Gordon (No. 39) sooner rather than later. History shows that teams that trade up for a running back are more likely to use them as rookies, and the Broncos did trade up for Williams in the second round.
It may be premature to write off Gordon, who is only 28 years old and was solid last year (986 yards rushing, 4.59 yards per carry, nine touchdowns). However, Ryan O’Halloran of the Denver Post predicted that Williams will start Week 1 since Gordon was a “complete no-show during OTAs.” Time will tell.
John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 and 2014 seasons, and has finished in the Top 6 in nine of the last 11 years. Cumulatively, John has been the most accurate expert from 2010-20 while also winning various draft rankings accuracy competitions (2011, FSTA and 2019, Fantasy Nation).
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