Early 2021 Bold Predictions (Fantasy Football)
What would you have said if someone told you that a rookie quarterback (Justin Herbert) with no preseason who was a backup when the season started would finish as a top-10 fantasy option? Or that James Robinson, an undrafted rookie who played on one of the league’s worst teams would finish as a top-five running back? David Montgomery finishing as a top-six running back? How about rookie Justin Jefferson finishing with 399 more yards than Adam Thielen? These things happen every year and 2021 will be no different.
It’s not often I get to spread my wings and say something that will draw a lot of “wow” responses. Why is that? I’m simply too analytical and level-headed to have what would best be described as “hot takes.” While there are plenty of things that I disagree with in the industry, most wouldn’t describe them as bold… until they actually happen.
What if I would’ve told you before the season that Calvin Ridley is a better receiver than Chris Godwin? Well, I did, and actually had a few conversations about it on Twitter. In fact, here in this article last year, I said that Ridley would overtake Julio Jones as the top receiver on the Falcons. I also said D.K. Metcalf would be the best receiver on the Seahawks and finish as a top-15 options, while Corey Davis would be a top-30 wide receiver. Please disregard when I said Odell Beckham would be a top-five wide receiver.
Let me be clear when I say that these are by no means concrete predictions, but things that have a much stronger chance than some will think, or draft position suggests. When I hear the term ‘bold predictions’, I like to think of it as something the public believes has a less than 20 percent chance of happening. Here are some things I believe have a better chance than most expect in 2021.
1. Clyde Edwards-Helaire finishes as a top-five running back.
The classic post-hype sleeper. Don’t let someone tell you the process was wrong to draft Edwards-Helaire. He plays for the No. 1 offense in the league, was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, and was the clear-cut workhorse to this backfield. From Weeks 1 through 6, Edwards-Helaire averaged 23.0 opportunities per game, which is more than enough to finish as a top-five running back. The downside is that he was on the wrong side of touchdown luck, scoring just once on 128 touches. If you add just two touchdowns to that number, he would’ve been the No. 6 running back in fantasy. No one could’ve predicted the Chiefs would sign Le’Veon Bell and then completely ruin Edwards-Helaire’s workhorse role. Don’t sleep on him in 2021 drafts.
2. Tee Higgins is a top-10 wide receiver. Tyler Boyd is also top-20.
This one hinges on Joe Burrow‘s availability, but his surgeon has said he should be ready for the start of the 2021 season. Higgins wasn’t a starter in the offense until Week 3, which gave him seven full games to play with Burrow, nearly half an NFL season. In those games, Higgins saw 55 targets, hauling in 37 of them for 568 yards and four touchdowns, good enough to be the No. 11 wide receiver during that stretch. From Weeks 1-10 with Burrow, Boyd was the No. 18 wide receiver in fantasy. Keep in mind that Higgins and Boyd did this while A.J. Green saw the 10th-most air yards among wide receivers in 2020.
3. DK Metcalf finishes as the WR1 while Tyler Lockett finishes outside of the top-30 wide receivers.
We continue to see Metcalf grow into one of the best wide receivers in the league. Since Week 9 of the 2019 season, the combination of Metcalf and Lockett have played 26 games. Here are the results of them:
While it may not seem like Lockett is far behind, 32.8 percent of his points came from just three big performances. He finished with more than 12 PPR points in just 9-of-26 games during that stretch. With Metcalf only getting better, Lockett will continue to take a back seat and might fall out of the WR2 conversation altogether.
4. Cole Kmet finishes as a top-12 tight end.
This might come off as too bold considering we don’t know who the Bears quarterback will be in 2021, but how many times do we have to tell you to follow the targets at tight end? Over the last 10 years, there have been 143 tight ends who’ve seen more than 80 targets. Just 20 of them finished outside the top-15 tight ends. Over the final five weeks of the season, the Bears started transitioning to Kmet as the full-time option and that led to him seeing 30 targets over that span, which is a 96-target pace over a full 16-game season. With Jimmy Graham almost certainly gone, Kmet is going to be a target hog in the Bears offense, especially if they can’t find a way to re-sign Allen Robinson.
5. Justin Jefferson finishes as a top-five wide receiver.
He’s a stud in the making. Many forget that Jefferson had to sit out for two weeks of the Vikings month-long training camp due to COVID, which put him behind everyone else, and it’s why he didn’t play a full complement of snaps the first two weeks of the season. From Week 3 forward, Jefferson was the No. 4 wide receiver in fantasy, behind only Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and Stefon Diggs, racking up a league-high 1,330 yards during that stretch. His 1,400 yards were the most ever by a rookie wide receiver, and keep in mind he did that while the Vikings passed the ball just 516 times. Adam Thielen is going to be 31 years old next year and the torch has already been passed. It’s amazing that his current ECR (Expert Consensus Ranking) is WR12 in early 2021 rankings.
6. Mecole Hardman actually gets playing time and is a breakout fantasy star.
People have talked about Hardman being a sleeper the last two years, but this is the one where he finally gets his shot. Sammy Watkins is going to be a free agent and knowing how little he’s contributed in this offense, they’ll move on from him which will allow Hardman to get a big bump in playing time. Some will wonder about Demarcus Robinson, but he’ll also be a free agent. Hardman has now seen 103 targets in his career, and they’ve netted 67 receptions, 1,098 yards, and 10 touchdowns. That amounts to 2.29 PPR points per target. As a reference, Tyreek Hill has averaged 2.34 PPR points per target over the course of his career.
7. Alvin Kamara finishes outside the top-five running backs.
This one hurts because Kamara is such a force to be reckoned with. However, we did see a bit of a change in the Saints offense while Drew Brees was out of the lineup. In the four weeks he was out, Kamara totaled 15.0 touches (averaged 19.1 with Brees) and 72.0 total yards (averaged 127.3 with Brees) while ranking as the No. 16 running back during that stretch. It’s a small sample size, sure, but Taysom Hill is going to remove a lot of that touchdown upside that Kamara’s had with Brees under center. That’s a huge deal when it comes to top-five potential. Do you know how many top-five running backs have finished with fewer than 240 touches over the last 10 years? One. It was Kamara in 2017 when he scored 13 touchdowns. He’s still never cracked 194 carries in a season, so losing a lot of volume through the air matters more than most realize.
8. Mike Williams scores double-digit touchdowns and finishes as a top-24 wide receiver.
It’s tough to make concrete predictions at this time of year, as we have no clue how the Chargers will handle free agency and the NFL Draft. However, as the roster currently sits, Williams is a great post-hype sleeper. Despite not starting the first game and then being thrust into a starter role with no preseason, Justin Herbert obliterated the rookie record for most passing touchdowns with 31 of them (previous high was 27). Williams missed a lot of time in training camp, limiting the connection with Herbert, which took some time in-season. From Week 5 through Week 17, Williams did flash at times, finishing with 72-plus yards in five different contests, and that was while Keenan Allen was being heavily peppered with targets. On the season, Williams saw 62 fewer targets than Allen, but finished with just 236 fewer yards. We also can’t forget Williams was playing through back injuries for much of the year. Give him a full offseason with Herbert and I’m guessing the gap between him and Allen shrinks a bit.
9. Aaron Jones goes to the Buccaneers.
It’s no secret that the Bucs are going to be in the market for a pass-catching running back. While Jones is much more than that, we’ve seen Bruce Arians flat-out give up on Ronald Jones at times. Has that changed? Maybe, but the Bucs have cap space and Aaron Jones has excelled in a timeshare before. The combination of Aaron Jones and Ronald Jones could be the Bucs answer to the Saints’ Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. Some will dream about the Falcons as a landing spot, but they don’t have the cap space to sign someone like Jones.
10. Both D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault finish as a top-36 wide receivers.
In this exact article last year, I predicted that the Bengals would have a top-10 scoring offense and multiple fantasy options in the passing game. Well, they scored 27-plus points in 5-of-9 games where Joe Burrow played, while both Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd were top-30 wide receivers. The Jaguars offense has the recipe for the same thing in 2021 with Trevor Lawrence coming to town. Not only is he the best quarterback prospect in years, but the Jaguars defense has a long way to go in their rebuild, which allows for plenty of pass attempts. Both will have value in 2021; the only question is just how much.