What I Learned While Doing Projections For All 32 Teams (2021 Fantasy Football)
There are some exercises we do as analysts that take longer than others. There’s some research I’ve done that’ll never see the light of day because when all was said and done, there was nothing to be gained/learned from it. Projections are not one of those things.
There are some who are married to projections. I’m not one of those people. Projections are a gauge to make sure your initial reaction isn’t too outlandish. It’s to make sure your heart hasn’t taken you too far in the wrong direction, whether it be raising a player up your board that you like or moving one down that you dislike.
There are some who’ve worked on models for years where it spits out projections based on them, but what I do is go through each team individually, look at the past tendencies of the head coach, offensive coordinator, look at what they’ve done with their personnel and how it may affect the way they approach the game, as well as player benchmarks.
Projections aren’t a perfect process, because there are some opinions inserted, but it’s a much better gauge than simply sitting down and putting names in order, because that’s nothing but opinion. The reason I love projections is because it takes the emotion out of it. You go team-by-team, not looking at names like Amari Cooper and Robert Woods next to each other. I promise, you’ll be shocked by what you come up with once you go through this process. For this article, I decided to share some of those surprises with you.
Arizona Cardinals: It’s hard to envision a scenario where Chase Edmonds is actually the workhorse for this team. Them signing James Conner screams timeshare, and it wouldn’t even shock me if Conner winds up with more carries than Edmonds, though Edmonds does have the passing role locked down. Even if Larry Fitzgerald doesn’t return, it’s going to be tough to find a consistent target in this offense not named DeAndre Hopkins, though if there were, my bet would be on Christian Kirk. If Fitzgerald does return, it’s even worse.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons pass attempts under Dirk Koetter never ranked lower than the fourth-most in the NFL, dating back to 2013. Even under Steve Sarkisian, they had the fifth-most pass attempts in 2018. In comes Arthur Smith, whose teams ranked 30th and 31st in pass attempts over the last two years. To be fair, those teams did have Derrick Henry, but I wouldn’t be expecting the Falcons to be among the league leaders in pass attempts, especially now that Julio Jones was traded. Rookie Kyle Pitts came in at TE10 in my initial projections at tight end, though that number changed to TE6 after Jones was traded. Still, there’s volatility with the coaching change that not many are accounting for.
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have targeted their wide receivers just 393 times over the last two years combined (average of 196.5). Even if we bump that number up to 271 targets (I did), I couldn’t find a top-40 wide receiver on this roster. JK Dobbins‘ lack of involvement in the passing game certainly caps his upside, and it’s unlikely that role grows with all the receiving help they’ve added, but he should get enough work in this high-efficient offense to be a rock-solid RB2 with RB1 upside most weeks. On average, quarterbacks have scored a rushing touchdown every 83.1 rushing yards over the last two years. Lamar Jackson has scored 14 rushing touchdowns while rushing for 2,211 yards, or one every 157.9 rushing yards. Even if he were just on par with every other quarterback, he would’ve rushed for 26.6 touchdowns. We still haven’t seen his ceiling as a rusher, which is crazy.
Buffalo Bills: As long as both Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, and Josh Allen are healthy, you aren’t going to want to roster a Bills running back. Singletary caps a lot of upside because he gets the primary passing-down role, and while Moss is the best early-down back, Allen is the best goal-line back. The Bills also signed Matt Breida, who will certainly get a handful of touches per game. Moss is the one I like most, but there’s just not enough opportunity to justify drafting him as anything more than an RB4. Cole Beasley continues to be undervalued, even by me. Did you know he’s finished as the WR34 and WR26 over the last two seasons with Allen under center? He came in as the WR43 in my first set of projections. His current ranking in ECR is WR54.
Carolina Panthers: If you needed a nudge to take Christian McCaffrey over any other running back, know that my projections had him scoring 54 more half-PPR points than the closest running back. I projected the Panthers wide receivers for a massive 394 targets, though none of them came out higher than WR18 in the projections. If Terrace Marshall plays a big role out of the gate, it’s going to be tough for D.J. Moore to take that leap into the WR1 tier.
Chicago Bears: I’ll start by saying this… If Justin Fields starts right out of the gate, his mobility allows him to have top-12 upside in his range of outcomes. The return of Tarik Cohen and addition of Damien Williams is going to crush the ceiling for David Montgomery. After running through the projections, he’s best served as a very low-end RB2, or preferably, a high-end RB3/flex option. Improved quarterback play can certainly help Darnell Mooney become fantasy relevant, but as long as Allen Robinson is there, he’s not going to see consistent enough targets to be started on a weekly basis. If Jimmy Graham is still on the team, you’re going to have to wait another year on a potential Cole Kmet breakout. Neither of them should be drafted as top-20 tight ends if both are on the roster.
Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon has seen just 3.2 targets per game under Zac Taylor. Bumping that number to 3.6 per game, he wound up as the RB12 in my projections. Everyone seems quick to give him Giovani Bernard‘s targets, but don’t forget about the addition of Ja’Marr Chase, as more targets will be directed at the wide receiver position in 2021. Mixon’s upside is massive, but again, it’s still the same coaching staff that failed to give him as much work as they should’ve the last couple years. Chase and Tee Higgins are likely to cap each other’s upside, but both can finish as top-24 wide receivers. If there’s a team that can churn out three top-36 wide receivers, it’s the Bengals, who I have projected for 644 pass attempts. But if you like one of these wide receivers as a top-15 receiver, someone else has to take the fall for them to get there. Initial projections came in Chase WR21, Higgins WR24, and Tyler Boyd WR38.
Cleveland Browns: For as good as Nick Chubb is and projecting him to average 5.0 yards per carry with 10.5 rushing touchdowns, he still comes in as the RB10 due to the presence of Kareem Hunt. Prior to doing projections this year, I had Odell Beckham ranked as my WR19. After doing projections, he’s around the WR27 range. I still believe in him as a player, but we must dial back expectations after so many injuries, and this offense isn’t going to net him the massive target totals he was used to. Still, as a WR3, you should be happy.
Dallas Cowboys: This is the only team that was projected to have a top-10 running back, top-15 tight end, and three top-36 receivers. That’s probably not going to happen, but the fact that the projections allowed it to gives you an idea as to the upside that some players might have. Last year was the first one Ezekiel Elliott didn’t finish as a top-five running back on a per-game basis. Don’t sleep on him. Both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb can both finish as top-15 wide receivers, especially if Michael Gallup sees fewer than 100 targets. I had Blake Jarwin around TE22 before projections, but have moved him up to TE15 after them, though it’s possible I’m underestimating the role Dalton Schultz will have in the offense.
Denver Broncos: This is such a tough team to project because we don’t know who the quarterback will be, but we’re not going to know the answer to that until a week or two before the regular season opener. Melvin Gordon is good enough that we must temper expectations for Javonte Williams in his rookie season. If this plays out how I’ve projected, neither of them finish as a top-24 running back, but both finish as top-30 options. The same can be said for Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, as both can finish as top-36 options, though neither are projected to finish as top-24 options. The bottom line to this offense is that for any player to take the next step, they need better quarterback play.
Detroit Lions: Do the Lions sign Todd Gurley? If they do, Swift moves down from someone who could reach top-12 numbers to one who’d be lucky to finish with top-18 numbers. There wasn’t a receiver on this team that cracked the top-50 wide receivers, but that’s due to us not knowing the pecking order. It seems likely that Tyrell Williams was brought in due to his knowledge with Anthony Lynn’s offense, which is why I have him leading the receivers with 85 targets, but Breshad Perriman, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Quintez Cephus are all in the mix. If there’s one player who you should feel confident with in this offense, it’s T.J. Hockenson, who I projected for 110 targets and the TE5.
Green Bay Packers: For now, we must project the Packers with Aaron Rodgers under center. If he’s not with the team, throw this paragraph out because everything changes. If you dialed Rodgers’ touchdown rate in 2020 back to his career average (which is still elite at 6.3 percent), he would’ve finished as the QB10 instead of the QB2. The loss in mobility is definitely worth noting and he came in as the QB8 in projections. Unless rookie Kylin Hill gets more work than most expect, Aaron Jones is a candidate for 80-plus targets and firmly in the middling RB1 tier.
Houston Texans: I refused to do the Texans projections right now because there is too much up in the air. We have no idea who their starting quarterback will be, and for how long he’ll be. We have no history to go off with their head coach or offensive coordinator. We have tons of moving parts. Projections at this time would be a waste.
Indianapolis Colts: By early projections, Jonathan Taylor is being overvalued as the RB6 in early ECR. I put him down for 242 rushing attempts and 42 targets while Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines split 162 carries and 93 targets. That’s a 60/40 split on the ground with Taylor vs. Mack/Hines. Last year, Taylor had 232 carries compared to Jordan Wilkins/Hines’ 173 carries, or a 57/37 split, so it’s not like I’m out of line to say that Mack will get more than Wilkins did. Sure, Taylor saw a major bump towards the end of the year, but Mack getting re-signed was not an accident; Reich wants to split the work. He came in as the RB13 in early projections. T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman, and Parris Campbell all came within eight spots of each other in the rankings, which means they’re capping each other’s upside, and none are likely to finish top-36 without injury.
Jacksonville Jaguars: With Urban Meyer moving to the NFL, there’s a lot of uncertainty to the Jaguars projections, so we can’t make any concrete statements from them. What I will say is that Trevor Lawrence‘s projection is very similar to what we had with Joe Burrow last year. Maybe not as many pass attempts, but more rushing upside. He was my QB12 in early projections, so the floor/upside is certainly there. Travis Etienne being used as a receiver is not a bad thing. Evidence here: Despite me projecting him for just 155 rushing attempts (I was conservative), he came in as the RB21 in projections. There’s potential for him to be a top-15 back. The combination of Etienne and Marvin Jones might smash any hope we had for a Laviska Shenault breakout.
Kansas City Chiefs: Do not sleep on Clyde Edwards-Helaire. This is the perfect example of a post-hype sleeper. I modestly projected him for 215 carries and 74 targets, which amounted to the RB11 in projections. If he scores double-digit touchdowns, he can be a top-six running back. Despite the loss of Sammy Watkins, no other Chiefs wide receiver popped up as a top-50 option. With all the scoring this offense does, it’s very top-heavy, which is why Edwards-Helaire was important to note because Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce had their best-case scenarios happen in 2020.
Las Vegas Raiders: The addition of Kenyan Drake was a big one for the projection of Josh Jacobs, but I don’t think it buried him as much as some may think. We’ve had guys like DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard stealing targets and carries from him long before Drake, yet Jacobs has proved to be usable. Even with Drake netting 144 carries and 52 targets in my projections, Jacobs is still a solid middling RB2. Not a single wide receiver eclipsed 85 targets in the projections, which is certainly problematic for someone like Henry Ruggs. Best case scenario is that he’s like Marquise Brown. Darren Waller is certainly part of the elite three at tight end, as there’s a 65-point gap between him and the No. 4 tight end. Even projecting him at wide receiver, he’d come in at No. 11 on that list.
Los Angeles Chargers: If there’s one player who shocked me while going through projections, it was Ekeler popping up as the RB8. I’m still hesitant to rank him that high, but it goes to show the territory that he should be considered. It certainly helps that he’s one of just two running backs (Christian McCaffrey being the other) projected for 100-plus targets, but it’s also important to note that I only projected him for 200 carries. Did you realize Keenan Allen didn’t top 1,000 yards on 147 targets last year? They need Mike Williams to be the receiver to pick up chunks of yardage. If he can stay healthy, he should be in the low-end WR3 conversation.
Los Angeles Rams: Despite me giving a 2:1 carry ratio to Cam Akers over Darrell Henderson (248 to 125), Akers came in as the RB16 early in projections. I think that ratio is probably the best-case scenario for Akers, so he’s going to need to top my 10-total-touchdown projection in order to reach top-10 territory. If anything, Henderson is being undervalued as a high-end handcuff and a running back who’ll have a role even without injury. Matthew Stafford should be much more efficient under Sean McVay, but his lack of mobility will limit his fantasy ceiling. Still, he came in as the QB13 in early projections. The exit of Gerald Everett has allowed Tyler Higbee to get into the 90-100 target territory, which netted him TE10 in my initial projections.
Miami Dolphins: Despite bumping the Dolphins pass attempts to 621 for this 17-game season, I can’t find more than 105 targets for any one pass catcher in this offense, which is problematic for stability on a week-to-week basis, though Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle should be valued over DeVante Parker, who wound up at WR62 in my initial projections. Still, it shouldn’t shock anyone if the Dolphins don’t have a top-36 wide receiver at year’s end. The additions of Fuller and Waddle also knock down Mike Gesicki‘s target floor, which is no longer stable.
Minnesota Vikings: The lack of passing volume in this offense prevents me from getting too excited about guys like Irv Smith. Look, Adam Thielen isn’t going away anytime soon, and even if you combined Smith’s and Kyle Rudolph‘s targets last year, that number was 80 targets (nothing to get excited about). Keep in mind that was with the Vikings passing more than normal due to their terrible defense, which should be better in 2021. Smith came in at TE15 in early projections. If Justin Jefferson is going to finish as the top-eight wide receiver he’s being drafted as, Thielen is going to fall into WR3 territory. I know they were both top-12 last year, but Thielen caught 14 touchdowns on 74 receptions, something that’s not happening again.
New England Patriots: They’re the only other team I’m waiting to do projections on (Texans were the other), as the difference in offense run with Cam Newton and Mac Jones is night and day, so we need to pay attention to this battle as the offseason progresses.
New Orleans Saints: As of now, I’m preparing for Jameis Winston to start for the Saints, though Taysom Hill will steal some attempts, along with a lot of goal-line work. That will prevent Winston from looking like a steal in drafts. Surprisingly, Kamara held strong in the projections despite the loss of Drew Brees and came in at RB5, though it’s a distance from RB4. Michael Thomas could very well see 170-plus targets this year and prove to be a steal at his current draft price (WR11 in ADP). Even projecting him at 152 targets, he came in at WR7. Heck, I’m even projecting Adam Trautman as a top-15 tight end if Winston is under center.
New York Giants: There are suddenly too many mouths to feed in New York, and we don’t have a quarterback who’s proven to be able to feed them. The weapons were not all there in 2020, but Daniel Jones throwing 11 touchdowns in 14 games is… not great. Even projecting Jones to take a massive leap and finish with 26 passing touchdowns, I couldn’t get Kenny Golladay into the top-20 wide receivers in projections. No other Giants receiver cracked the top-50. Evan Engram is the one who suffers most from the arrival of Golladay, Kadarius Toney, and the return of Saquon Barkley, as his initial projection comes in at TE17.
New York Jets: Someone has to get carries for the Jets, right? Well, the breakdown I did has Tevin Coleman getting 155 of them while Michael Carter gets 140. That can easily be flip-flopped, as Carter is the better back of the two. I did give the edge to Carter in the target department, which is what bumped him to the RB35 range in the initial rankings. It’s easy to see a scenario where he finishes as a top-25 option. The only receiver who wound up in the top-50 options was Corey Davis who barely got there with the 111 targets I projected him for, which was good for WR44 in the projections. Unless Jamison Crowder gets cut, I just don’t see how Elijah Moore makes big contributions as a rookie.
Philadelphia Eagles: You may not like Hurts as a passer, but you don’t have to in order to like him as a fantasy quarterback. His rushing prowess got him to QB6 in my initial projections. Again, this is not to say you need to draft him there (I won’t), but rather give you the territory he can be considered. The upside is certainly there, especially if he progresses as a passer. I want to like Miles Sanders, especially with Hurts under center, but everything the Eagles have done under Nick Sirianni screams timeshare, so I had to cap him at 215 carries and 59 targets which landed him at RB18 in the projections. I’d been saying that DeVonta Smith should be considered a solid WR3 in redraft formats, but after doing the initial set of projections where he came in at WR37, I clearly need to lower expectations just a bit. Don’t sleep on Dallas Goedert as a top-six option at tight end if Zach Ertz is released/traded.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Please don’t hate me, but Najee Harris came out as a top-six running back in the early projections. There are just five running backs I’m projecting for 280-plus carries, and Harris is one of them. When you have that volume, efficiency isn’t even all that important. If he doesn’t get at least 325 touches, I’d be shocked. We’ve seen 36 running backs get that over the last 10 years, and just two of them have finished worse than RB7 (none finished worse than RB12). The trio of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are going to cap each other’s upside. They all wound up in the WR24-WR36 range of projections.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers projections are going to change if we hear that Trey Lance is starting, but as of now, my projections assume that Jimmy Garoppolo will start the first five games with Lance taking over after the bye week. If you’re someone who believes Lance will take over sooner rather than later, you should be downgrading the 49ers running backs in your rankings. They handled 424 carries in 2019 and then 396 carries in 2020, which is a ton, but Lance is going to average six-plus carries per game, which removes some of that high volume they’d received. I have the Raheem Mostert/Trey Sermon duo netting 341 carries between them, so it’s unlikely for both to be fantasy relevant on a weekly basis, but an injury would give the other massive opportunity. For now, Mostert pops up as the RB22 while Sermon is the RB33. Despite giving Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel 75 percent of the wide receiver targets, neither of them could crack the top-20 receivers. Aiyuk can certainly get there by scoring eight-plus touchdowns, but I just can’t project him there.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson may be boring, but there’s a reason he’s continually finishing as a top-10 quarterback, including five top-six finishes over the last seven years. So, it’s no surprise that he comes in at QB5 in the early projections. Unless the Seahawks start throwing the ball more, it’s going to be tough to see DK Metcalf getting into the truly elite tier of wide receivers. He averaged 10.1 yards per target and caught 10 touchdowns on 83 receptions, yet still finished as the WR7 last year. He’s probably capped at around 130-140 targets without an injury. Tyler Lockett came in at WR17 in the projections, but he’s not someone I’d draft there, as he’s much more volatile than you’d want your WR2.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The good ol’ reliable Tom Brady checked in at QB9 in the projections, which is a projection I feel good about, though I can’t say the same about the running backs in Tampa Bay. I have them projected for 381 carries, which broke down like this: Ronald Jones 178, Leonard Fournette 147, Giovani Bernard 42, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn 14. I have zero confidence in this projection, though I do still feel Jones is the most talented early-down back on the roster, hence the most carries. The targets are going to throw off everything, though, as Bernard can easily be seen as the third-down back, which would murder the value of Jones and Fournette. It’s possible they all share the targets (and my projections highlight exactly that) and limit the appeal of all of them, which would mean none finish as a top-24 option.
Tennessee Titans: The loss of Arther Smith changes everything for this offense, as they ranked No. 31 and No. 30 in pass attempts during the two years under him. Do you want to project more passing? Cool, me too. Apparently, the Titans agree after trading for Julio Jones. Even with Jones, there’s only so many players on this roster who deserve targets. I’ve applied a 47.6 percent target share to the combination of Jones and A.J. Brown, and still, that might be too low of a number. Both are projected to be top-12 wide receivers, though they do cap each other’s true ceiling. With Smith gone, it’s possible we see Derrick Henry used more in the passing game, which would certainly be a good thing because this offense is likely to lose some of its efficiency. Anthony Firkser was someone who could’ve flirted with 80-plus targets, but the arrival of Jones curbs our enthusiasm.
Washington Football Team: It’s easy to say you love Antonio Gibson going into 2021, but it’s another thing to look at the projections and figure out where his production will come from. J.D. McKissic isn’t going away, and this is the same coaching staff who had McKissic out-target him 110-44 (71/39 split) last year. I’ve given Gibson a bump to see a 42/58 target split, but it still caps his upside. Unless he scores at the pace he did last year (once every 15.5 carries), he’s likely going to wind-up in the RB2 territory. Also, Curtis Samuel returning to his former coordinator Scott Turner is questionable, as his role was extremely different than the one he played under Joe Brady last year.