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Best Ball Early-Round Targets (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Josh Shepardson | @BChad50 | Featured Writer
May 27, 2021
Terry McLaurin

In the interest of offering early-round suggestions for everyone, regardless of draft position, this piece focuses on players selected between pick 25 and pick 40. Saying a top-five player is an elite target doesn’t do someone picking at the turn in a 12-team league any good. My favorite early-round targets available in the 25-40 range include a pair of feature backs and a No. 1 receiver with the best quarterback he’s played with entering the fold this year.

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Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC): 28.24 ADP in 12-team BestBall10s (All Drafts) from 5/1/21-5/23/21

It feels as if CEH failing to meet his unrealistic expectations as a rookie has muddied the perception of his 2021 outlook. Without measuring his success against his 2020 average draft position (ADP), there was a lot to like about his rookie season.

According to the FantasyPros snap counts page, Edwards-Helaire played the second-highest percentage off snaps among rookie running backs at 58%, trailing only James Robinson‘s 69%. He played 60% or more of Kansas City’s offensive snaps in seven of 13 games.

Despite missing three games, he ranked 29th in yards from scrimmage (1,100), 14th-most among running backs, per Pro-Football-Reference. CEH also posted a few rock-solid marks as a runner, ranking 14th out of 51 qualified players in attempt per broken tackle (12.1 Att/Br), tied for 26th in yards before contact per attempt (2.3 YBC/Att), and tied for 22nd in yards after contact per attempt (2.1 YAC/Att), all essentially average or better marks. Pro Football Focus also awarded him the 20th best run grade out of 47 running backs with a minimum of 100 attempts.

Coming out of college, most draftniks gushed about his receiving chops. In his final season as a junior at LSU, he hauled in 55 receptions for 453 receiving yards and one touchdown, per Sports-Reference. He left something to be desired as a rookie with 2.8 receptions and 22.8 receiving yards per game, one touchdown grab, and 5.5 yards per target. However, he did earn Pro Football Focus’s 18th-highest receiving mark out of 47 backs targeted at least 25 times.

The pessimistic view is he was overrated as a receiver coming out. The optimistic view, which I’m taking, is he’s just scratching the surface. I’m unwilling to throw the baby out with the bathwater after a ho-hum receiving season as a rookie in an unprecedented year for rookies and the NFL navigating a pandemic. Further, the Chiefs allowed Sammy Watkins to walk as a free agent, and their biggest splash at the position was selecting Cornell Powell in the fifth round of the NFL Draft.

Watkins vacates 55 targets in 10 games from last year’s offense. Perhaps Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, or Powell absorbing all or most of those targets. I also think CEH may be called upon more frequently in the passing attack. The return of Super Bowl LIV hero Damien Williams after he opted out for the 2020 season posed a threat to CEH’s playing time, but the team cut him. They’ve added receiving-back Jerick McKinnon, and Darrel Williams is still on the squad after a respectable postseason showing, but the path is there for a near workhorse role for CEH.

His potential for a hefty workload is ideal, as is being tied to a Patrick Mahomes-led juggernaut offense. He was an RB2-caliber back last year, and incremental improvement in year two could push him into the fringe RB1 territory. He’s RB17 in ADP right now, but I’d select him over a handful of backs going ahead of him and would gladly pop him in the top half of the second round.

Terry McLaurin (WR – WAS): 34.34 ADP

The Washington Football Team has had a revolving door of hot garbage at quarterback in McLaurin’s two years in the NFL. Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, Colt McCoy, Kyle Allen, Taylor Heinicke, and a significantly diminished Alex Smith have thrown passes for the Football Team the last two years. Oof. The team will get a shot in the arm from our YOLO-ball-throwing Lord and Savior, Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Calling Fitzmagic a gunslinger isn’t just anecdotal. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he ranked second among qualified quarterbacks in 2020 in aggressiveness percentage (21.7 AGG%), which they define as “the amount of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within one yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion.” He ranked fourth in AGG% in 2018 and 2019, too. He’s going to take chances and give his receivers, McLaurin included, a chance to make plays.

Even with the lackluster quarterback play, McLaurin’s averaged 5.0 receptions per game, 70.2 receiving yards per game, and 9.0 yards per target in 29 games. Beyond his stellar box-score numbers, McLaurin’s usage was drool-inducing as well. Namely, Player Profiler credited him with 100.0% route participation on a 98.1% snap share.

McLaurin ranked as WR21 in point-per-reception per-game scoring last year. Gamers are making him the WR12 in ADP, but I’m even more bullish on his outlook, ranking him as WR8. His speed and ability to stretch defenses should meld perfectly with Fitz’s willingness to huck it deep.

According to Sports Info Solutions, McLaurin ranked 13th in average depth of target (13.8) as a rookie in 2019, one spot ahead of Fitz’s former running mate, DeVante Parker (13.7). From Week 7 — after Fitz dispatched of Josh Rosen at quarterback — through Week 16 in 2019, Parker ranked second at receiver in PPR points and WR6 in per-game PPR scoring. I’m reaching for McLaurin again this year and advise gamers to pop him a bit earlier than his ADP.

Chris Carson (RB – SEA): 39.73 ADP

The Seahawks have put their money where their mouth is regarding valuing Carson, re-signing him to continue to lead their backfield. Carson’s being selected as RB22, yet he finished as RB17 in PPR scoring and an even more impressive RB10 among backs who played at least nine games in per-game PPR scoring. Through that lens alone, he appears to be a substantial value.

Carson’s not a flashy runner, but he’s a grinder who checks out well in a few measures. Among qualified runners in 2020, he ranked tied for 13th in yards before contact per attempt (2.7 YBC/Att), good for tied for ninth among running backs specifically. He also ranked tied for 18th in yards after contact per attempt (2.2 YAC/Att) and 21st in attempts per broken tackle (14.1 Att/Br). He also averaged a career-high 4.8 yards per carry.

Carson also made major strides as a receiver in regards to his usage. After setting a new high in receptions per game and receiving yards per game in 2019 with 2.5 and 17.7, respectively, he bumped those marks up to 3.1 and 23.9 last year. Pro Football Focus was also fond of his work, ranking him fifth out of 47 running backs targeted at least 25 times in their receiving grade metric. Further, he ranked 11th with 1.39 yards per route run. He rewarded the Seahawks for using him more in the passing game, which bodes well for him continuing to receive passing-game work.

I have Carson ranked as my RB16. His minimum ADP of 28 is closer to where I’d be willing to reach and secure his services, and I’m likely to regularly select him in the third round, while his ADP is early in the fourth round.

I end up with a top-five pick in a perfect world and can select one of the elite backs or Travis Kelce, CEH, McLaurin, and Carson near or slightly ahead of their respective ADPs. It’s also not out of the question to be able to snag a top receiver at the end of the first, reach on CEH in the second, and still have McLaurin and Carson on the board in the third and fourth rounds. Regardless, CEH, McLaurin, and Carson are three early-round targets I’ll be overweight on in best ball leagues.

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Josh Shepardson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Josh, check out his archive and follow him @BChad50.

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