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The Riskiest 2021 NFL Draft Picks

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Risk, when played correctly, wins leagues. The consensus ADP was down on Stefon Diggs last season, placing him outside the top 50. He returned a WR3 finish and was one of the most rostered players across championship games.

When played wrong, in the case of a popular top-five overall pick like Clyde Edwards-Helaire, you are stuck with a player who struggles to finish as a startable running back. When viewed through the prism of league-winning upside combined with a harrowing downside, which players stand out in the 2021 NFL Draft landscape?

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Zach Wilson (QB – BYU)
Zach Wilson has experienced a meteoric rise to the top of the draft board. His current standing as the expected second pick in the draft would place him on a New York Jets roster lacking real starting competition. Given the draft’s other top quarterbacks (besides Trevor Lawrence) have a chance to start the season behind veteran placeholders, the immediate rewards are tempting. However, Wilson’s profile gives reason for serious pause.

His breakout 2020 season (33 TDs, 3 INTs) came against a much lighter schedule than the one that saw him struggle against Power 5 competition in 2019. We have certainly seen smaller-school quarterbacks perform throughout league history. However, while Josh Allen displayed similar struggles against higher competition, Wilson does not possess the physical tools that have propelled Allen’s success.  

Physical limitations are a critical differentiator between Wilson and the other top quarterbacks. Despite an ability to keep plays alive, Wilson has yet to display the rushing floor of players like Lawrence, Justin Fields, or Trey Lance, all of whom have nearly doubled Wilson’s 642 career rushing yards through 30 games. Twenty yards per game puts Wilson closer to Teddy Bridgewater (18.6 yards per game) than Russell Wilson (32.6 YPG). Two points per game may seem minimal, but the difference can compound when combined with fewer red-zone rushing attempts.

As quarterbacks with rushing upside tend to rise up fantasy leaderboards, Wilson could find himself relegated to Superflex QB2 status. He’s a risky proposition compared to his escalating draft cost.

Kenneth Gainwell (RB – Memphis)
Gainwell has seen his price rise and currently sits at RB4 and 11th overall player in FantasyPros’ rookie rankings. A breakout 2019 season that saw him accumulate 2,069 total yards placed him on preseason watch lists. Unfortunately, due to a Covid opt-out, that was the last time he’s played. A year of missed football and a slight frame (201-pound Pro Day weight) increases the risk profile.

Gainwell has shown exceptional utility in the passing game. In 2019, his 51 receptions placed him fifth across all college football running backs. The concern lies in getting pigeonholed into a satellite back role. The problem is two-fold. First, the cost requires bypassing players who possess higher upside, such as wide receivers Terrace Marshall Jr.. or Elijah Moore. Second, players like Javian Hawkins or Demetric Felton could serve similar roles and come at much lower prices.

Swing for upside early in rookie drafts. Gainwell does not outweigh the risk profile at his current price.

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Devonta Smith (WR – Alabama)
There is no way around it: Devonta Smith is an outlier. He was the first Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991. He has sat out all pre-draft activities and weighs an estimated 170 pounds. His 117 receptions and 1,856 yards stat last season placed him 31 catches and 663 yards ahead of the second-place finisher (Elijah Moore) in both categories. It begs the question: How much do all these outliers matter?

Smith’s price tag is weighty. He sits at WR2 and sixth overall in the FantasyPros’ rookie rankings. Indeed, his public profile plays into that price and will raise his value in many leagues. However, his frame raises concerns about his ability to ascend into an alpha target role. He held up to a heavy volume in his Heisman season, and his exceptional route-running and hands give hope that if he can beat NFL press coverage consistently, a fantasy WR1 ceiling is within reach.

His landing spot looms as a significant question mark. The NFL Draft history of WR busts presents a long and distinguished list: N’Keal Harry, Mike Williams, John Ross, Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson, etc. Many of these players were forced to the top of the depth chart and target tree before they were ready.

If Smith can land with a strong quarterback in an early secondary role, he could pay off. But there is a high risk he ends up miscast as a No. 1 in an offense desperate for an answer.

Pat Freiermuth (TE – Penn State)
Rookie tight ends are always a risky proposition, and Freiermuth is a traditional tight-end prospect. His 2020 season ended early due to surgery on a shoulder injury, which prevented him from participating in pro-day testing. Nevertheless, he currently sits at the back half of the second round in rookie rankings.

Given the desperation at tight end across the fantasy landscape, there is a good chance he gets pushed up draft boards in many dynasty leagues. The primary concern is inconsistency. He has flashed as a lead receiver with some big games (the last game of his collegiate career was a 7-113 outing against Nebraska), but he has also disappeared for stretches. Drafters need to expect a standard learning curve from the position, which frequently leaves multiple seasons before seeing an actual return.

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