Second-Year Wide Receiver Rankings (2021 Fantasy Football)
Historic, deep, and proficient are three words you could use to describe the class of wide receivers from the 2020 NFL Draft. During the pre-draft process last offseason, most fans and media members alike had a hunch that the rookie wideouts in 2020 could be a special group, and they surely didn’t disappoint. Heading into the 2021 season, it is a tall task to rank the second-year wide receivers in fantasy football, but that is exactly what I’m going to attempt to do.
First and foremost, let me start by saying that the rankings you’re about to see are not in order of who I believe are the most talented wide receivers. On the contrary, I’ve ranked the wide receivers in order of who I presume to be in the best position to succeed in fantasy football. With that in mind, these are how I’d rank the second-year wide receivers entering the 2021 season.
1. Justin Jefferson (MIN)
Not much needs to be said about how special Justin Jefferson was in his rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings. Jefferson would conclude the 2020 season with 88 receptions, 1,400 receiving yards, and seven receiving touchdowns. His 1,400 receiving yards set a new rookie record for receiving yards, surpassing Anquan Boldin’s previous record of 1,377 yards.
Despite being WR49 in ADP across all major platforms, Jefferson would finish as WR6 in PPR leagues in 2020. His 453 yards after the catch was the eighth-most among wide receivers, putting him behind – ironically enough – Stefon Diggs, who had 464. Even though Jefferson plays in an offense that revolves around Dalvin Cook and the running game, he should continue being an uberly productive wideout in fantasy football.
2. CeeDee Lamb (DAL)
When it comes to athletic ability, I don’t think there is a wide receiver in the 2020 NFL Draft class that is more talented than CeeDee Lamb. Somehow, the Dallas Cowboys were able to snag Lamb with the No. 17 overall pick in last year’s draft, making him the third wide receiver off of the board. All Lamb would do in his rookie season is compile 217.7 fantasy points en route to cementing his status as WR22 in PPR leagues.
What makes his performance in 2020 even more impressive is the fact that he didn’t have Dak Prescott throwing him the ball for 11 weeks of the season. With Prescott expected to return to the Cowboys in free agency, Lamb’s ceiling is truly through the roof right now. There’s a chance we see Lamb put together a season in 2021 that has him finish as a WR10 or better, even with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup also commanding targets.
3. Tee Higgins (CIN)
For a few seconds, some people thought there would be an outside chance that the Cincinnati Bengals could reunite Joe Burrow and Jefferson. But when Jefferson went to the Vikings with the 22nd overall pick, the Bengals turned their attention to Tee Higgins out of Clemson with the No. 33 overall selection. In a long line of freakish wide receivers to come out of Clemson, Higgins would become the next one to show promise in his rookie season as he hauled in 67 passes for 908 yards and six touchdowns.
Higgins also produced 1.83 yards per route run, which was the third-most among wide receivers from the 2020 NFL Draft, per Pro Football Focus.
Highest yards per route run among 2020 WR Class:
Justin Jefferson – 2.66
Chase Claypool – 1.90
Tee Higgins – 1.83
Donovan Peoples-Jones – 1.83 pic.twitter.com/c4FkOd7L0Y
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) February 19, 2021
One of the only reasons why Higgins didn’t finish better than WR28 in 2020 was due to the 104 targets that were assessed to A.J. Green. Luckily for Higgins, Cincinnati is forecasted to move on from Green, opening the door up for more opportunities for him and Tyler Boyd.
4. Brandon Aiyuk (SF)
Getting an opportunity to play in a Kyle Shanahan is something that a lot of players would love to get the chance to do. It is definitely something that benefitted Brandon Aiyuk, who was a versatile wide receiver coming out of Arizona State. Shanahan allowed Aiyuk to do what he does best, which is create yards with the ball in his hands.
Aiyuk would log seven broken tackles, tying him for the 11th most among wide receivers in 2020. Regardless of whether or not Jimmy Garoppolo is the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in 2021, Aiyuk might have leapfrogged Deebo Samuel – especially in PPR formats – as the wide receiver to have from the Bay Area. If the 49ers do upgrade at quarterback from Garoppolo, Aiyuk’s value in fantasy football could trend upward even more.
5. Chase Claypool (PIT)
The leading touchdown getter of the rookie wide receivers in 2020 was Chase Claypool of the Pittsburgh Steelers with nine. Claypool, who climbed draft boards at the speed of light after his performance at the NFL Combine, flashed his big-play ability as a first-year player. Claypool would be utilized as a vertical threat in Pittsburgh’s aerial attack, notching an aDOT of 13.2 yards, which was tied for the 15th most among wide receivers who saw 50+ targets. He also made himself a reliable player to target as he dominated opposing defenders in single-coverage, per Pro Football Focus.
Most REC Yards vs Single Coverage by a Rookie WR since '16:
1. Justin Jefferson – 752
2. A.J. Brown – 671
3. Michael Thomas – 607
4. D.K. Metcalf – 516
5. Chase Claypool – 478 pic.twitter.com/erTTzlpptm
— PFF (@PFF) January 31, 2021
What makes Claypool’s stock in fantasy football a bit unknown is the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position for the Steelers. Even if Ben Roethlisberger returns, he is a shell of his former self, capping Claypool’s ceiling. On the other hand, Claypool is too talented a player to ignore, regardless of who his quarterback is in 2021. Unless it is Mason Rudolph, then Claypool could drop down my rankings faster than Usain Bolt.
6. Jerry Jeudy (DEN)
Coming out of college, there likely wasn’t a more polished route runner in the 2020 NFL Draft class than Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy was the second wide receiver taken in the draft, going to the Denver Broncos. He was quickly thrust into a prominent role due to the season-ending injury of Courtland Sutton. The Alabama product would corral 52 receptions, 856 receiving yards, and three touchdowns.
In his rookie season, Jeudy would garner 31.46 percent of Denver’s air yards, which was the 14th highest mark in the NFL and the second-most among rookie wide receivers. Though, it was surprising to see Jeudy struggle with drops (he had 10 of them in 2020) after having strong hands in college. While I fully expect Jeudy to fix his dropping woes from his rookie campaign, the quarterback situation for the Broncos, plus the return of Sutton, limits Jeudy’s value in 2021. Getting Deshaun Watson as his quarterback could definitely change the outlook on Jeudy in fantasy football.
7. Michael Pittman Jr. (IND)
The Indianapolis Colts acquired Carson Wentz at quarterback, which could be an upgrade over Philip Rivers if everything goes according to plan. Wentz has seen success for a couple of seasons, with his best years happening under the tutelage of Frank Reich. That should bode well for the wide receivers of the Colts, especially Michael Pittman Jr.
Pittman impressed in a limited role in 2020, contributing 293 yards after the catch, showing off his playmaking ability for his size. There were only two wide receivers who saw fewer than 65 targets to finish with 290+ yards after the catch: Deebo Samuel and Pittman. The former Trojan should see an expanded workload with the Colts in 2021 with a quarterback in Wentz that averaged 9.1 intended air yards per attempt in 2020 (tied for fourth-most in the NFL). Plus, if T.Y. Hilton heads elsewhere in free agency, there could be more targets headed Pittman’s way.
8. Laviska Shenault Jr. (JAX)
If there was one wide receiver from last year’s draft class that I would take as a running back, it’s Laviska Shenault Jr. During his collegiate career at Colorado, Shenault was utilized similarly to how Deebo Samuel is used with the 49ers. The Jacksonville Jaguars would make sure to take advantage of his versatility, giving him the ball on jet sweeps and screens as much as possible.
That resulted in Shenault recording eight broken tackles, which was tied for the seventh-most among wide receivers, and tied for the second-most among rookie pass-catchers. Also, Shenault used his bulky body to haul in 56.2 percent of his contested targets (30th among wide receivers in 2020). With Trevor Lawrence likely being the next signal-caller for the Jaguars, all of the wide receivers in Jacksonville receive a much-needed boost. Though, if Jacksonville continues to limit the deep routes that Shenault participates in, then his ceiling could be slightly curbed.
9. Henry Ruggs III (OAK)
Henry Ruggs was the first wide receiver selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, with the Las Vegas Raiders anxious to make him their No. 1 vertical threat in the offense. However, Ruggs would fail to earn that role as Nelson Agholor led the wide receivers of the Raiders in just about every statistic. The speedster would still conclude his rookie campaign with an aDOT of 17.4 yards, which was the second-most for wide receivers who earned 40+ targets.
Despite his relatively low output, Ruggs wasn’t a complete failure in his first year with the Raiders as he used his speed to consistently create separation, tallying 3.3 yards of separation per route run (tied for best among rookie wide receivers). The blazing speed that Ruggs possesses is hard to ignore, especially in a league that is searching for Tyreek Hill-like wideouts. Even with Ruggs poised to see higher usage next season, having Derek Carr as his quarterback likely won’t allow him to reach his ceiling.
10. Darnell Mooney (CHI)
Of the late-round selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, not many players performed as well as Darnell Mooney of the Chicago Bears. Mooney, a fifth-round pick last year, would promptly earn a distinguished role in Chicago’s passing attack as a rookie. While Allen Robinson was the go-to wide receiver for quarterbacks of the Bears in 2020, Mooney served as a commendable sidekick to Robinson.
Despite his putrid quarterback situation, Mooney was among four rookie wide receivers who saw 50+ targets to record an aDOT of 11+ yards and a drop percentage that was lower than five percent. In the event that Robinson takes his talents elsewhere in free agency – which is expected – then there are a ton of targets vacated in Chicago’s offense for Mooney to receive. Mooney is one of my favorite second-year wide receivers to buy low on during the offseason. And just like Jeudy, if Mooney gets Watson as his quarterback, my rankings could be altered drastically.
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