Must-Have Wide Receivers (2021 Fantasy Football)
Even with the 2020 NFL playoffs still in progress, looking towards the 2021 NFL season from a fantasy perspective not only gives us a reason to proverbially “wipe the slate clean” but gives us a glimpse into the future, knowing what we know in the season that just concluded. This new set of data points helps us immensely in looking for what we want in fantasy players and strategies for the upcoming season. Whether you foresee an increase in usage on the teams they play for, discrepancies of perceived value amongst fantasy players, a new quarterback, a new head coach, or whatever criteria you value most when evaluating players, these wide receivers should be some of your must-haves as we get into 2021!
Courtland Sutton (DEN)
We harken back to a much simpler time, like September 12th of this past year, when Broncos head coach Vic Fangio proclaimed that to be activated for the Broncos’ Week 1 contest against Tennessee, Courtland Sutton would have to perform 10 jumping jacks. Wild. Unfortunately, that was probably the thing we remember most about Sutton’s 2020 campaign, as he went down with an ACL injury that ended his season prematurely.
An early-season ACL injury does bode well for his timetable heading into his immediate availability for the 2021 season, so unless we see reports to the contrary, Sutton should be back for Week 1. For 2020, we saw Jerry Jeudy (113 targets) and Tim Patrick (79 targets) handle most of the heavy lifting for the wide receiver group, but the Broncos were doomed from the start with injuries at every level of the offense. Let’s make no mistake here: Denver didn’t have their burgeoning stud wide receiver who was ready for a famed “third-year WR breakout” after a five-game stretch to end 2019 where Sutton was on the receiving end of 25.6% of the team’s targets from Drew Lock.
Whether the 2021 quarterback in Denver is Lock, a rookie, or a veteran signal-caller, Sutton should be the top target on a team as an alpha ready to try the breakout again after a lost season. Luckily, people may forget about Sutton in drafts so that you could get him and his low-to-mid 20% target share at a discount come draft time.
Brandon Aiyuk (SF)
Brandon Aiyuk was overshadowed by many rookie wide receivers heading into last April’s draft and then even more so afterward when Aiyuk landed in San Francisco. With all of the talk about rookie wide receivers centering on names like CeeDee Lamb, Jalen Reagor, Justin Jefferson, and even some athletic profiles like Chase Claypool and Laviska Shenault Jr., Aiyuk was seemingly forgotten about in many circles heading into the draft season and the 2020 NFL regular season.
It’s clear after 2020 that people will not forget about Aiyuk any longer after he led the 49ers in every significant receiving category, including target share (24%) across three different quarterbacks. Aiyuk also posted a 17th-best Weighted Opportunity Rating (WOPR), which uses a receiver’s target share and air yards share to create a metric that gauges involvement in their offense. It’s fair to say this opportunity was afforded to Aiyuk because of injuries to two players ahead of him in the receiving pecking order, namely George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. Still, the talent of Aiyuk and the seizing of that opportunity in what could be described as a lost year for a San Francisco team that was poised to make another run at the Super Bowl bodes very well for Aiyuk’s future prospects.
What does this mean for fantasy? Well, I’d say Aiyuk has at worst caught up to Deebo Samuel in terms of target share within the offense when both are healthy. It’s very fair to say that the higher leverage targets. If the 49ers do as they are rumored to do and upgrade their quarterback room via trade or by whatever means, then that can only help. Add in the bit of a rushing floor Aiyuk provided in 2020, and we could have a star on our hands at a very palatable draft cost. That is a definite “must-have” for me.
D.J. Chark Jr. (JAX)
After a pedestrian 2018 rookie season in Jacksonville, D.J. Chark was a league-winner in 2019 for those fantasy managers sharp enough to hit on Chark at the end of drafts or stash him away after Week 1. The PPR WR19 in fantasy points-per-game over the full season, Chark came on as “Minshew Mania” hit its fever pitch, with the LSU product reaching as high as WR9 in PPR in Minshew’s first eight starts, and more of the same was expected in 2020.
That was not to be, as the 1-15 Jaguars cycled through questionable at best quarterback play in 2020, and at worst, abhorrent. Chark was obviously affected in the 13 games he did play, scraping together 53 catches on a team-leading 93 targets and 706 receiving yards. In short, D.J. Chark was a “sunk cost fallacy” for fantasy managers (like myself) who spent a mid-round pick on his services last fall.
With fortunes looking brighter for the Jaguars after their recent hiring of former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and the quarterback of their choosing to reboot the franchise, the fantasy prospects of Chark could be looking much higher in short order. There’s plenty of talent around Chark so that he does not have to do all of the heavy lifting, like Laviska Shenualt Jr. and James Robinson. Chark is a major bounce-back candidate in what could be a very fruitful fantasy environment for 2021.
Robert Woods (LAR)
Is Robert Woods arguably the most under-appreciated asset in fantasy football? He just might be, with WR11, WR14, and WR14 finishes in PPR over the last three seasons. Despite those fringe-WR1 placements, Woods is still drafted well below some of his contemporaries at the position. While still a mid-range WR2 according to FantasyPros’ ECR, Woods tends to fall back a bit while sexier names at the position are placed over him, like Diontae Johnson, D.J. Moore, and even his own teammate Cooper Kupp.
In 2020, Woods was still 15th amongst wide receivers in target share at 21.9%, tied a career-high in touchdowns with 6, saw an increased red-zone usage from 2019, and finished with a second-straight 90 catch season. While Woods’ receiving yards have come down in two consecutive years, his rushing floor balances that out with a third consecutive season reaching over 100 rushing yards.
2021 sets up for yet another solid season for the ever-consistent Woods, who will turn 29 by the start of the season. He will likely be passed over in drafts by some looking for flashier options, but Woods is a rock-solid WR2 you can get at a discount price in drafts.
Curtis Samuel (CAR)
In the 2019 offseason, Curtis Samuel was one of the hottest sleeper picks at wide receiver for that season, garnering praise for his success against multiple coverages, including a 94th percentile man coverage success rate per Matt Harmon’s “Reception Perception.” With all of the fanfare (and 105 targets), Samuel did not fully live up to fantasy expectations for 2019, as the quarterback situation for the Carolina Panthers was a quagmire once Cam Newton went down.
Fast forward to 2020, where Samuel was lying in the weeds, being drafted as WR63 on average heading into the season. After a slow start to the season, Samuel was a WR1 in fantasy from Week 7 through the rest of the season. Samuel outpaced his more accomplished teammates D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson in fantasy points-per-game en route to a WR24 finish this season. In addition to the 77 receptions and 851 yards receiving, Samuel chipped in exactly 200 rushing yards, further buoying his floor for fantasy.
Samuel is set to hit free agency in just over two months, so his landing spot will dictate his draft position, but right now, FantasyPros’ Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) has him at WR46 in PPR. That’s an absolute steal for a wide receiver who could be hitting his statistical peak in the next season or two. If he lands in a spot like Green Bay, where they run a lot of jet motion and have an obvious need for a receiver, then he could shoot back up draft boards into the spring and summer.
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy football, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Football Tools as you navigate your season. From our Start/Sit Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup, based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – that allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy football season.