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The Safest 2021 NFL Draft Picks

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Safe is a loaded word in the fantasy space. Most see it and immediately think floor: “If the worst situation presents itself, how many points will this player score?” However, it is a flawed perspective on roster construction. The reality is any player’s floor is a Saquon Barkley(season-ending injury in week 2) or every week a Lamar Jackson(missing playing time due to “cramping”). In the prism of optimum roster construction, the term safety takes on a different meaning- Opportunity cost. Time to dive on several players who present a low cost with a high reward.

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Justin Fields (QB – Ohio State)
Quarterback talk starts with Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence’s billing as a generational prospect and the best since Andrew Luck. Of course, he is a “safe prospect”? Lawrence is a prime example of opportunity cost. His hype has placed him firmly inside the first round of one-quarterback rookie drafts and as a popular first-round dynasty startup pick. Simply put, a miss costs an elite established player.

Justin Fields brings a very similar profile. The two players have been tied together since high school recruiting when they traded spots at the top. They’ve shared the college football playoff field to close back-to-back seasons; over those two games, they are dead even in fantasy scoring in most formats, 69.7 points from Fields and 70.26 from Lawrence.  

The difference between the two currently lies in the cost. Fields can provide a similar caliber player at a lower price, opening the opportunity to build a more robust roster. Add in a 4.44 40 yard dash at his Pro Day, and the Konami QB upside on Fields could find him in the top half of quarterback rankings in all formats.  It is a safer proposition to draft him later while accumulating value for a guy who would be the first quarterback off the board in many years.

Najee Harris (RB – Alabama)
After a bumper crop of running backs filled the 2020 draft class, the 2021 group comes up short. Najee Harris’s surprise decision to return to school for the 2020 season has primed him as the top RB by a margin. Harris stated a desire to improve as a pass-catcher and 43 receptions that placed 4th among college football RBs. His dedication has allowed him to answer any questions, posting some eye-popping stat lines, particularly the SEC Championship game against Florida, posting 245 all-purpose yards to accompany five touchdowns.  His 230 lbs frame easily slides him into a three-down role projection.

The opportunity cost is extremely high, a near-consensus pick 1.01 in one quarterback rookie formats. The lack of available alternatives coupled with the value of the position makes this cost worth paying. The following two backs (Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams) project currently as committee backs. Etienne displays excellent pass game utility in a slighter frame sets him up as a passing-down back, while Williams projects to see early-down and goal-line work. If you are in the market for 2021 running back, Harris draft stock and versatility will prove the safest option.

Terrace Marshall Jr. (WR – LSU)
Every instinct pushes to put Marshall Jr.’s college teammate Ja’Marr Chase (a mortal lock as the first WR off the board) in this spot. However, Corey Davis from the 2017 class can shed light on the pitfalls awaiting receivers in the top half of the draft. Primarily, teams drafting at the top have secured that position in large part to inefficient offenses. The 2016 Titans were 28th in passing attempts and 25th in passing yards.  Davis was the first WR off the board, and the 2017 class was the only class in the last five years to see any WR go before pick 15. Davis has yet to come anywhere close to his lofty projection and now finds himself on a new team.

Marshall Jr.’s entry price is much more palatable. In FantasyPros’s rookie ranks, he sits outside of a standard 1st round coming in at pick 13. In a class lacking size, Marshall Jr.’s combination of a 6’2″ frame and a 4.36 40 yard dash Pro Day performance will put him in a great position to land in the latter portion of the first round. That type of landing spot would potentially secure a pairing with a proven franchise-level quarterback.

 On the field, Marshall Jr. held his own in a receiving corp that featured 2020 breakout Justin Jefferson along with Chase.  In four games to begin 2019 (before suffering a knee injury), Marshall Jr. posted a 20-304-6 line, compared to Jefferson’s 21-392-5 and Chase’s 20-397-5.

The package adds up to a high upside player priced at a very favorable cost.

Kyle Pitts (TE – Florida)
There could be no other choice to round out this group than Kyle Pitts.  Pitts dominated the 2020 college football season.  His 770 yards finished 27th in the sport (the only TE in the top 45) and 3rd in touchdowns with 12.  He followed that season up with a sensational Pro Day, posting a 4.44 40 while measuring in at 6’5″ and 245 lbs.  

Much like Harris, the opportunity cost is at the max.  Given the TE landscape across fantasy (only three players land inside FantasyPros top 65 Superflex Dynasty rankings) and the lack of alternatives in the class, Pitts ceiling makes any opportunity cost worth swallowing.  Pitts is the only TE in this class worth projecting fantasy superstardom.  Anyone in the market for a young TE, aka everyone playing fantasy football, should feel comfortable swallowing the opportunity cost.

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