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Trending Up/Trending Down (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Matthew MacKay | @Matt_MacKay_ | Featured Writer
Jun 13, 2021
Antonio Gibson

Teams have begun to assimilate in an attempt to establish the foundation of their 2021 identity through OTAs and minicamps. It was a busy offseason that transformed many rosters and coaching personnel, which will make it a challenge to rely on 2020 performances for some of the players on these revamped teams.  Opportunity reigns supreme in fantasy football, but its location in 2021 could take fantasy managers by surprise.

In a sea of the top one percent of athletes, a player’s landing spot tends to dictate their usage, regardless of skill set or previous outings on a different team. Analyzing the coaching schemes and tendencies of a team’s offensive coordinator or head coach is crucial towards gaining an edge over other fantasy managers in your league. Understanding the role each player will encompass within their offense will prevent reaching too early in redraft and dynasty drafts alike.

Using coaching schemes and personnel as primary metrics, I’ve ranked and evaluated a few players I believe are either trending up or trending down in 2021.

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Trending Up

Antonio Gibson (RB – WFT) ADP 22| ECR RB13

Gibson was restricted in the passing game during his rookie season, ceding 110 targets to J.D. McKissic on a team that ranked ninth in pass attempts but finished 25th in passing yards per game. Gibson had a terrific rookie season carrying the ball, turning 170 attempts into 795 yards and 11 touchdowns across 10 starts. The running back out of the University of Memphis is also guaranteed to see an increase in targets, as McKissic led all running backs in targets last season with 110 and averaged 6.9 targets per game versus Gibson’s measly 3.1 targets per game.

Positive target regression is certainly in store for the second-year running back, who has been impressing with additional burst and speed in OTAs to buck rumors of lingering turf toe issues from 2020. Veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick brings energy, experience, and stability under center in 2021 and receives a pair of utility slot receivers in Curtis Samuel and rookie WR Dyami Brown. Terry McLaurin also demands the attention of defenders, allowing running lanes to emerge more frequently with less crowded fronts and stacked boxes.

Gibson established continuity with an offensive line that was the sixth-best unit across the league in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s a bonafide RB1 who can currently be drafted in the back of the second-round in half-PPR formats. A bump in Gibson’s target share and receiving touchdowns is expected as he ascends to take full control of touches in the Washington backfield, making Gibson arguably my favorite player trending up in 2021.

Tee Higgins (WR – CIN) ADP 66| ECR WR27

Cincinnati opted to use their fifth overall draft pick on LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase, which has completely taken the spotlight off of emerging second-year wideout Tee Higgins. The former Clemson Tiger has seen his value soar after recording 108 targets in his rookie season with the Bengals, just two targets shy of tying target leader Tyler Boyd. Higgins established great continuity with Joe Burrow prior to his ACL tear in Week 10, drawing 28 targets in a three-week span to emerge as one of the most potent rookie wideouts in 2020.

Contrary to public perception, the Bengals spent capital on improving an atrocious offensive line, signing former Minnesota Vikings’ RT Riley Reiff and returning Jonah Williams from injury at left tackle. An upgraded and healthy offensive line often makes the difference for skilled personnel, as Bengals’ RB Joe Mixon will have a significantly better opportunity to dominate as a consistent RB1 each week. If Mixon can avoid injury and improve efficiency, passing lanes will expand and widen for Burrow, with Higgins being a massive beneficiary.

Secondaries will not be able to key in on Chase, Higgins, Boyd, and Mixon on every down, especially with strong run-blocking to open up play-action. Chase will draw attention and allow Higgins to receive softer coverage than what teams began to show later into the season in 2020. This will allow Higgins to win more one-on-one matchups along the perimeter and in the red zone.

The Bengals ranked 14th in pass attempts last season, with Burrow attempting 404 passes in just 10 starts. Expect Burrow and Higgins to continue connecting in a high-volume passing offense that is being undervalued. Considering the Bengals return most of their defense from a bottom-tier unit in 2020, Higgins will be force-fed targets and could elevate his play with more opportunity in a stacked receiving corps. He can be drafted as a WR3 with WR1 potential and a WR2 floor in the sixth round of half-PPR redraft leagues. For all of these reasons, Higgins is certainly a player trending up in 2021.

T.J. Hockenson (TE – DET) ADP 53| ECR TE 4

The Detroit Lions are rebuilding their roster and culture in 2021 under new head coach Dan Campbell.  Using the seventh overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Lions signed University of Oregon OT Penei Sewell in a clear effort to improve the offensive line and laying the foundation for smashmouth football. Jared Goff replaces Matthew Stafford under center in the Motor City, bringing a tendency to favor his tight ends, which has elevated the ADP of emerging star TE T.J. Hockenson this offseason.

The Pro-Bowler finished 2020 as the TE4 with the fifth-highest target total amongst tight ends, catching 67 of 101 targets for 723 yards and six touchdowns. He accomplished this feat with a more robust receiving corps in Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr., who both signed elsewhere this offseason. This leaves a much less talented group of receivers for Goff to utilize, with Hockenson becoming the unquestioned alpha within the Lions’ passing attack in 2021.

Hockenson was extremely durable last season, playing in all 16 games during his breakout sophomore campaign. With a 6’5″, 247-pound frame and quick burst off the line, the third-year tight end will continue to dominate defenders in the middle of the field with his immense size and speed to create mismatches at every level. I project Hockenson to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards with an uptick in targets, as wideouts like Quintez Cephus, Breshad Perriman, and Tyrell Williams comprise a lackluster receiving corps on the perimeter of the offense.

Goff ranked 14th in tight-end targets amongst all quarterbacks in 2020 and is likely to finish within the top ten of this statistical category by Week 18. Hockenson is worth his fifth-round ADP, as long as you’ve constructed your core backs and receivers. Only Travis Kelce and Darren Waller should be drafted ahead of Hockenson in half-PPR redraft leagues, as I project the Lions’ Pro-Bowl tight end to finish as the TE3 over George Kittle in 2021.

Trending Down

Josh Jacobs (RB – LVR) ADP 42| ECR RB21

The Raiders fed Josh Jacobs 273 carries last season, ranking third amongst all running backs only behind Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook. He’s a talented runner in between the hashes and has explosiveness that doesn’t necessarily reflect in his 3.9 yards per attempt average. However, there are several reasons why I’m fading Jacobs at his current ADP as we inch closer to the start of the 2021 season.

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and OC Greg Olson remain the play-callers in Las Vegas, which means that Jacobs is unlikely to see a sharp increase in targets. To make matters worse for Jacobs’ usage in the passing game, the team signed former Arizona Cardinals RB Kenyan Drake to a two-year, $11 million deal during free agency. Drake could easily become the featured receiving back for the Raiders, replacing Jalen Richard and, ironically, taking on the role that Chase Edmonds saw with the Cardinals in 2020. Drake saw 14 fewer targets than Jacobs under Kliff Kingsbury last season but was efficient with the limited target share, catching 25 of 31 passes and averaging 5.5 yards per reception. Drake also carried 239 times as the primary rusher in Arizona and will likely usurp carries from Jacobs, including valuable goal-line touches. This is an area Drake excelled in last season and a large reason why he managed to finish as the RB14 in half-PPR leagues despite playing alongside elusive QB Kyler Murray.

As if Jacobs’ outlook wasn’t already bleak enough, he will be running behind a downgraded offensive line that will have to establish continuity with each other after trading former Pro-Bowl C Rodney Hudson to Arizona this offseason. Although rookie OT Alex Leatherwood was signed to beef up a pedestrian offensive line unit in Las Vegas, I don’t think it will be enough to justify drafting Jacobs as the RB21 in half-PPR leagues. I much prefer the upside of a Myles Gaskin (RB22) or Travis Etienne (RB25) due to offensive personnel and coaching staff. Mike Davis (RB25) is another running back with guaranteed touches who I’d prefer to draft a few spots later rather than relying on Jacobs to deliver another 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2021.

Brandon Aiyuk (WR – SF) ADP 62| ECR WR25

Brandon Aiyuk led an injury-plagued 49ers team in targets (96) and receptions (60) during his rookie season, finishing with 748 yards and five touchdowns while adding two more touchdowns as a ball-carrier. Players such as JaMycal Hasty, Ross Dwelley, and Richie James were forced into starting roles often throughout the 2020 season, creating the opportunities needed for Aiyuk to become a fantasy asset in 2020. A healthy receiving corps and a potential dual-threat quarterback in rookie Trey Lance could severely impact Aiyuk’s target share in 2021, which is why he’s a player trending down in terms of fantasy value in 2021.

Deebo Samuel will return from a hamstring injury that limited him to seven games last season, where he is likely to eclipse the 81 targets QB Jimmy Garoppolo threw his way during their Super Bowl run in 2019. Rumors of Jalen Hurd impressing in OTAs shouldn’t be ignored either, as the converted wideout has dealt with season-ending injuries in consecutive years, making his talent and upside largely unknown. George Kittle will definitely return to 100+ target territory after only playing eight games in 2020 due to a small fracture in his foot. He’s an elite tight end who has the size, speed, and hands to significantly devalue Aiyuk on the perimeter.

For a team that ranked second-lowest in its wide receiver target share at just 50.7 percent on 281 attempts last season, it’s difficult to justify drafting Aiyuk as your fringe WR2/WR3. Especially in an offense that utilizes its running backs more than its wide receivers. With Samuel and Kittle returning at full health and Hurd making waves in his own right, Aiyuk is a hard fade for me at his current ADP. Tee Higgins (WR27) and Kyle Pitts (TE6) are a couple of impact players set up for much more success than Aiyuk in 2021 and are available to draft later on in the middle of the fifth round.

Mark Andrews (TE – BAL) ADP 55| ECR TE5

Operating in one of the most unique offensive schemes across the league, Baltimore Ravens TE Mark Andrews has been the most dominant receiver for the team throughout the last few seasons. However, the Ravens ranked 32nd in targets to their wide receivers during 2020 and addressed this issue through their offseason and within the draft. It’s clear that head coach John Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman realize that Jackson needs a bonafide WR1 to elevate his productivity in the passing game.

Andrews saw an ADOT of 10.2 yards last season, as he often slipped up the seam to streak behind linebackers for uncontested catches. Rookie wideouts Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace, along with veteran Sammy Watkins and the return of Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, will certainly reduce Andrews’ 6.3 targets per game average that he saw last season. Bateman is a big-bodied, sure-handed wide receiver who can make all of the catches and run a full route tree, while Wallace and Brown will keep opposing secondaries honest with their top-end speed stretching the field. This will allow the RPO-styled offense of Greg Roman to open up less contested running lanes for Jackson and J.K. Dobbins to hit on, effectively elevating the entire Ravens’ backfield, including fourth-year RB Gus Edwards, who recently signed a two-year, $10 million contract.

Andrews’ ADP of 55 is too high for me to justify, especially knowing that potential league-winning quarterbacks such as Jackson (QB4), Dak Prescott (QB5), and Kyler Murray (QB3) are all three available in the same round. These quarterbacks present much better value based on their personnel and dual-threat ability. Even with Andrews positioned to continue being the dominant TE1 for the Ravens, he is on a run-dominant offense with a reloaded receiving corps. He’s a hard fade for me and one of the players I expect to trend downward in 2021.

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Matthew MacKay is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Matthew, check out his archive and follow him @Matt_MacKay_.

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