Fantasy Football: 2020 Studs, 2021 Duds
Analyzing past performance is certainly relevant in assessing future success. However, a common pitfall amongst novice fantasy managers is placing too much weight on past performance as an indicator that the same level of performance will continue.
Every season, we see players drafted highly based almost entirely on what they did the prior season. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. Last season, we saw 2019 studs like Drew Brees, D.J. Chark, Mark Ingram, and Austin Hooper disappoint in 2020. Which studs from last year are likeliest to bust in 2021?
Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It feels wrong to put James Robinson here because by no means do I want to suggest that he doesn’t have the talent to perform at the level he did as a rookie in 2020. Unfortunately, the Jaguars spent a first-round pick on Travis Etienne to pair with his college teammate, first overall pick Trevor Lawrence.
Robinson benefited from leading all running backs in opportunity share last season. No other running back dominated his team’s carries like Robinson, and the perfect confluence of situation and opportunity led him to an overall RB5 finish (minimum eight games played to qualify). He averaged 17.9 points per game (PPG), too.
With Robinson now sharing a backfield with Etienne and another Urban Meyer favorite, Carlos Hyde, Robinson won’t see anywhere near the volume he did in 2020. For what it’s worth, I actually think Robinson is still going to touch the ball a fair amount and will be the Jaguars’ primary early-down and goal-line back. He will undoubtedly finish as a dud relative to his 2020 performance, but Robinson has a decent shot at providing a positive return on investment at a sixth or seventh-round ADP.
I admit that calling Josh Jacobs a 2020 stud is a bit generous. He was a late first or early second-round pick and returned about par value, maybe a little less. Jacobs averaged 15.7 PPG and finished as the overall RB11.
Heading into 2021, much like James Robinson, Jacobs’ price has dropped significantly due to circumstances beyond his play. For what it’s worth, Jacobs’ ADP should have dropped based purely on his ability, but the Raiders’ acquisition of Kenyan Drake did the trick nonetheless. Las Vegas handed Drake a two-year contract with $11 million guaranteed. That isn’t the type of money you pay a pure backup. Drake will share snaps with Jacobs and should command the majority of the passing-down snaps.
Last season, Jacobs frequently was on the bench watching Jalen Richard handle the two-minute offense. Now Jacobs is behind both Drake and Richard on passing downs. Jacobs had 318 combined carries and targets last season in 15 games. Even with an extra game on the schedule and not discounting for a potential injury-caused absence, Jacobs is unlikely even to hit 300 total opportunities.
If we extrapolate Jacobs’ 2020 numbers over a 17-game season, he would’ve earned 360 touches. Since I suspect that he’ll earn less than 300, that’s a projected drop of at least 60 opportunities.
Also, while Drake isn’t some special talent, he has proven capable of being a lead back before. If he plays well, he could earn more opportunities, further diminishing Jacobs’ share of the touches. Jacobs is correctly priced as a fourth-round pick because he has very little chance to approach his 2020 numbers, but he is becoming cheap enough where he could be worth taking.
Although Will Fuller’s season was cut short due to a violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, he averaged 17.2 PPG in the 11 games he suited up for. That was good enough for an overall WR8 finish. He was a legitimate WR1, and had he played out the season, he might have an ADP somewhere in the third or fourth round this year.
Instead, Fuller enters 2021 with one game remaining on his suspension and in an entirely different environment. In Houston, Fuller benefited from having an elite quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who owns one of the best deep balls in the league (50.8% deep ball completion percentage according to PlayerProfiler). This Fuller to lead all wide receivers in yards per target at 11.7. Now, he’ll catch passes from Tua Tagovailoa, one of the worst deep-ball passers in the NFL. Tagovailoa completed just 36.4% of his deep passes, 24th in the league, and averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt, 30th in the league.
Also, instead of competing with just Brandin Cooks like he was last season, Fuller is now competing with DeVante Parker, Jaylen Waddle, and Mike Gesicki for targets. Fuller is certainly the most talented pass-catcher on the team and should lead the Dolphins in targets, but he is unlikely to see the 6.8 targets per game he got last season. With a downgrade at quarterback leading to a drop in efficiency combined with more competition for targets, Fuller has little chance to finish as a WR1 in 2021. He may not even finish as a WR2.
I planted my flag on Adam Thielen in 2020 because he was unfairly disrespected in fantasy drafts last year. He entered the year as Minnesota’s clear WR1, after all, with a consolidated target share to boot. Thielen smashed last season, finishing as the overall WR11 and scoring 16.8 PPG.
However, I wasn’t completely correct to be high on Thielen. I expected him to return to the 140-150 targets he saw in 2017 and 2018. Instead, Thielen only saw 108 targets and was usurped by Justin Jefferson as the team’s top receiver. Thielen survived by dominating in the red zone (20 red-zone targets) and catching 14 touchdowns after his previous season-high was nine. That’s just not happening again.
Thielen is now 31 years old, and while I don’t think he’s done, he could easily decline with Jefferson on the upswing. This is a low-volume passing game and a team that wants to run the football. When they pass, look for Jefferson to be the primary target ahead of Thielen. After a strong WR1 finish in 2020, Thielen is likely a low-end WR2 at best in 2021 — unless he can somehow replicate his touchdown proficiency from 2020. He is priced similarly to where he was last season, except he doesn’t have nearly the same upside. I don’t anticipate rostering Thielen anywhere this season.
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