Which Duds From 2020 Will Become Studs in 2021? (2021 Fantasy Football)
Each year in the league, certain elite players plateau or experience a downturn in their production. Other times, first or second-year players experience a breakthrough in their development that improves their play and earns them more reps within their offense. By focusing on some of the changes made to team rosters and coaching personnel this offseason, one can begin to figure out which players will fit into these categories. Understanding player progression during minicamp and training camp is extremely beneficial to your fantasy odds, as you can use this information to make smart investments during your upcoming draft.
We all know injuries and natural regression happen. However, a few elite players have slid down the ADP boards, creating tremendous value in the process. Take advantage of the industry skepticism use them to build the core of your roster. The moves made by all 32 NFL teams this offseason have created a massive opportunity for the following players to go from fantasy duds in 2020 to fantasy studs in 2021.
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Lamar Jackson (QB – BAL): ADP 56 | QB4
The quarterback who evaded defenders and bolstered fantasy managers’ lineups with an outstanding 2019 season was among the most disappointing players in 2020. Lamar Jackson still managed to finish as the QB10 in half-PPR last season, but he regressed in terms of scoring efficiency. Even worse, Jackson fumbled 10 times, including three games with multiple fumbles.
By averaging 22.8 fantasy points per game in 2020, Jackson salvaged a QB1 finish with a 26:9 TD/INT ratio. He added another 1,005 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. The issue fantasy managers experienced with Jackson in 2020 was his failure to repeat the absurd stat lines he produced in 2019, as some took him as early as the second round. He still was a valuable fantasy quarterback during 2020, scoring a passing touchdown on 6.91 percent of offensive snaps, which ranked third in the league. However, his regression from a ridiculous 8.98 actual passing touchdown percentage has made many within the fantasy community hesitant to spend early draft capital on the signal-caller. That fact is reflected in Jackson’s ADP of 56 in half-PPR formats.
Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman relied heavily on a committee approach during the 2020 season, giving J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Jackson nearly the same amount of carries. Jackson only threw to his wide receivers 221 times, which ranked last in the NFL. Nearly half of these targets went to Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who totaled 100 targets but only averaged 3.6 receptions per game. It became clear that the receiving corps needed a massive boost to help balance the offense.
As a result, the team took Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace within the first four rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft. The Ravens also signed veteran wideout Sammy Watkins to a one-year, $5 million contract during free agency. Each addition offers a unique skill set. Bateman brings in his 6-foot frame and explosive burst to hopefully develop into an alpha target along the perimeter. Wallace offers speed and durability that mirror Brown. Watkins has the experience needed to be a leader at the position and makes a great late-round flier or waiver wire add after fantasy drafts conclude. Let’s also not neglect former Pro-Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, who enters his fourth year in Baltimore with established chemistry with Jackson.
Along the offensive line, Baltimore lost Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs, but the return of a healthy Ronnie Stanley at left tackle will certainly help Jackson feel more comfortable in the pocket. In addition, Alejandro Villanueva switched alliances from the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers and should fill in nicely for Brown. Third-round draft pick Ben Cleveland will also add depth to the interior of Baltimore’s line. A beefed-up offensive line will create more rushing and passing opportunities for Jackson, giving him a chance to return to the absurd 28.1 fantasy points per game he averaged during his MVP season.
To put into perspective how much Jackson can elevate his game in 2021, he still finished as the QB10 despite a league-low 376 pass attempts in 2020. No other top-12 quarterback attempted fewer than 481 passes. This means that if Jackson can reach 450 pass attempts in 2021, he will be the unquestioned fantasy QB1. He only needed 401 passes to deliver an astounding fantasy season in 2019. So do yourself a favor and take advantage of the fade on Jackson, as he is poised to go from a 2020 dud to a 2021 stud.
Michael Thomas (WR – NO): ADP 24 | ECR WR9
Injuries completely derailed Michael Thomas’ season in 2020. The former All-Pro wideout played in just seven games, through which he totaled 55 targets while averaging 9.1 fantasy points per game in half-PPR. He is also due for positive touchdown regression, as he failed to find the end zone in a disappointing year for New Orleans.
Much has changed for the Saints since the end of last season. Drew Brees is no longer under center, removing the check-downs that were fed to Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, and Jared Cook. The quarterback battle rages on between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston during minicamp and will ramp up once again during training camp at the end of next month. Remember that Winston threw for over 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns during his last starting campaign for Tampa Bay, which means Thomas could easily return to the 185 targets he saw during his 2019 All-Pro season.
The Saints offense ranked 27th in total wide receiver targets and 24th in the percentage of targets distributed to wide receivers in 2020, which certainly won’t be the case again with a bigger-armed quarterback and a fully healthy Thomas. The Saints have one of the top-heaviest receiving corps — Thomas is clearly their best option, and Tre’Quan Smith is the clear-cut WR2, and he averaged only 2.4 receptions per game. Tight end Adam Trautman is getting a lot of offseason hype and could become a legitimate TE1 by the end of the 2021 fantasy season, but Thomas is the unquestioned premier receiver with his elite hands and strength that create a matchup nightmare for defenders.
If you can take Thomas as your primary receiver in the third round after nabbing a pair of elite top-tier running backs, you’ll have the edge over the other managers in your league. Thomas is a proven WR1 when healthy and should get a quarterback who will look his way often. Don’t be scared to invest in Thomas, as he is the wide receiver likeliest to go from a 2020 dud to a 2021 stud.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC): ADP 27 | ECR RB15
The Kansas City Chiefs’ revamped offensive line is the main reason why I expect an ascension from Clyde Edwards-Helaire in 2021. After an unfortunate string of injuries decimated Kansas City’s offensive line in the 2020 postseason, Patrick Mahomes and Edwards-Helaire could accomplish next to nothing due to Buccaneers’ dominant defensive front. However, the team wasted no time after their Super Bowl loss, as they signed and traded for several prominent linemen. That list includes left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., left guard Joe Thuney, and right tackle Mike Remmers.
Le’Veon Bell is no longer with the Chiefs, which is another roster move that benefits Edwards-Helaire. The former All-Pro running back absorbed 82 carries and 20 targets within the Chiefs offense once he signed mid-season, which drastically lowered the touches Edwards-Helaire had seen across the first six weeks of his rookie year. Even worse, the former LSU Tigers running back never saw more than eight targets in any game, despite possessing exceptional hands, averaging just 4.15 targets per game. The Chiefs were pedestrian with their running back target share in 2020, ranking 16th with only 18.2 percent of the team’s total target share.
Despite all of the adversity thrown his way, Edwards-Helaire finished as the RB22 in half-PPR formats, averaging 12.2 fantasy points per game and a solid 4.4 yards per rush. He received 43 red zone carries but only nine targets, and he turned these valuable touches into all five of his touchdowns. Fantasy managers watched with frustration and disbelief as Edwards-Helaire was held just short of crossing the goal-line on numerous occasions, particularly early in the season before Bell’s arrival. This means that he is due for some positive touchdown regression in 2021.
A less crowded running back room, a beefed-up veteran offensive line, and another year to build a rapport with Mahomes and Reid all combine to create the perfect scenario to buy low on Clyde Edwards-Helaire. I believe he has a real shot at developing from a 2020 dud into an unquestioned 2021 stud.
Irv Smith Jr. (TE – MIN): ADP 113 | ECR TE13
One of the most slept on tight ends entering the 2021 season has to be Minnesota’s Irv Smith Jr. Smith saw only five more targets than veteran Kyle Rudolph in 2020 but turned that limited opportunity into 30 receptions for 365 yards and five touchdowns. The Vikings even took him in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and he’ll finally get his time to shine now that Rudolph is gone.
Former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak passed the play-calling duties to his son, Klint Kubiak, this offseason. The fundamental philosophy of zone-run blocking should remain intact, but you should expect the offense to incorporate more exotic formations and packages that feature Smith as both a runner and a receiver. The former University of Alabama tight end enters his third season in the league with the same quarterback in Kirk Cousins, which should boost their chemistry and Cousins’ confidence in targeting Smith on play-action when near or inside the red zone.
Under Gary Kubiak, Minnesota targeted the tight end position on 22 percent of their offensive targets, which ranked 16th in the league. If Dalvin Cook can continue to dominate within the zone-run blocking scheme under Klint Kubiak, expect Smith to see his targets nearly double while he faces minimal coverage up the seam or across the middle — defenders will be too busy accounting for Cook, Justin Jefferson, or Adam Thielen. He’s going to be the ultimate safety valve for Cousins to rely on when pressure breaks down the pocket. Rudolph leaves 37 vacated targets from his departure to the New York Giants, meaning that it isn’t an exaggeration to say that Smith could double his target total in 2021.
After a lot of hype last offseason, fantasy managers were disappointed to have Rudolph get an almost equal target share despite the Vikings rostering a markedly more athletic and younger tight end in Smith. His five touchdowns weren’t enough to bring him close to a TE1 finish, as he finished as the TE22 in half-PPR formats. If rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw can make an immediate impact like Tristan Wirfs did for Tampa Bay last season, Cousins should have more time in the pocket to set his feet and deliver strikes to Smith all season long. Irv Smith Jr. is a phenomenal receiver and athlete and should blossom from a 2020 dud into a 2021 stud.
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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_.