Second-Year Players Set to Underachieve (2021 Fantasy Football)
This was one of the most difficult articles I have had to research and write this offseason. Main reason being: The 2020 rookie class was one of the best in recent memory. Individual performances by Justin Jefferson, who had one of the best seasons for a rookie receiver in league history, and Jonathan Taylor, who finished the season with over 1300 total yards, highlighted what was a bumper crop of talent entering the league.
The challenge now is to project how these players will fare in their sophomore season. With the NFL offseason being affected by COVID-19, a lot of the work being done is away from team facilities. While last year’s rookies didn’t step foot into their team’s facilities until late summer, all of the players listed below are in situations where there were injuries to their supporting casts or new coaching staffs will be in place this season.
I bookend the list with two players who will raise some eyebrows but I am taking a lot of factors into account. Tee Higgins and Justin Herbert are both coming off impressive rookie seasons. Higgins has to now compete for targets with Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd while Justin Herbert has a new coaching staff to get comfortable with. While they are both elite talents, we may have to temper expectations a bit.
Tee Higgins (WR – CIN), ECR: 61 Overall, WR28
Higgins had the most prolific rookie season of any Bengals receiver not named A.J. Green or Chris Collinsworth and was one of the best values of 2020. Joe Burrow was a shot in the arm to the Bengals for fantasy purposes and averaged 40 attempts per game. During that 10-game stretch, Higgins racked up 71 targets and was on a 1,000-yard pace. However, the addition of Ja’Marr Chase to a receiver room that already has Higgins and Tyler Boyd gives me some concerns heading into this season. Chase’s selection was clearly at the urging of Burrow and they showed tremendous chemistry together at LSU in 2019. If Chase becomes the 1B to Boyd’s 1A in the passing offense, Higgins will struggle to put up similar numbers to last fall. While Higgins is a special talent, losing out on targets will hurt his overall production.
Brandon Aiyuk (WR – SF), ECR: 50 Overall, WR23
Aiyuk had a tremendous six-game stretch beginning in a Week 7 win against New England where he had six catches for 115 yards. Over his next five games, Aiyuk racked up a whopping 62 targets and caught 39 passes for 345 yards. The problem is that stretch accounted for over half of his production for the year and the 49ers were severely lacking in weapons during that time. Deebo Samuel and George Kittle both missed games as did Raheem Mostert. With all of those guys back, Aiyuk could end up becoming more of a secondary option in the passing game. This leaves his floor/ceiling combination a little murky and he could fall well short of the 96 targets he received last year.
Denzel Mims (WR – NYJ), ECR: 184 Overall, WR67
With just 23 catches for 357 yards, Mims didn’t have the most productive rookie season so it will be hard for him to truly regress. Nevertheless, based on the offseason hype, it might be best to pump the brakes a little bit. Mims is still in a situation where the quarterback play is uncertain as Zach Wilson has a wide range of outcomes. Even in the best-case scenario where Wilson thrives, the additions of Corey Davis and Elijah Moore both put a dent in Mims’s overall outlook. Topping 23 catches may not be difficult but I am betting against him being fantasy relevant in 12-team leagues.
Chase Claypool (WR – PIT), ECR: 58 Overall, WR26
Claypool was, at times, spectacular last season for the Steelers. He had a blowup game against Philadelphia in Week 3 where he scored over 40 fantasy points and he had 11 touchdowns on the year. He also had the most downfield targets of any rookie receiver in the NFL as splash plays were a big part of his production. That might be problematic coming into 2021, however. Ben Roethlisberger is a year older and his arm is clearly not what it once was so pushing the ball downfield isn’t his specialty. The Steelers run the fewest number of play-action plays of any team in football meaning Claypool will have to rely on winning one-on-one as opposed to catching the defense off guard. The addition of Najee Harris may also signal a recommitment to a dominant running game meaning fewer opportunities for Claypool for flash. Like some others on this list, the talent is here. The opportunity, however, may not be.
Justin Herbert (QB – LAC), ECR: 71 Overall, QB8
This isn’t meant to be a hot take in sliding Herbert on this list. It’s just that he had one of the best rookie seasons of any quarterback in history in 2020. Herbert would have had over 4800 yards and 35 touchdowns if he would have started a full 16 games. Numbers like that could be difficult to duplicate, especially with a defensive-minded head coach Brandon Staley taking over. That said, I could also look foolish for even suggesting Herbert could regress. Still, I believe it is a stretch to believe Herbert will be called upon to carry the offense if Austin Ekeler can put together a healthy season. Herbert will still be a top-10 option but to top last season’s production, he would need to finish in the top-5 to outperform his 2020 numbers. I am taking the over there.
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