Darkhorse League Leader Candidates (2021 Fantasy Football)
One of my favorite parts of the NFL offseason is reading training camp reports and reviewing draft picks and depth charts trying to find hidden gems that will become unexpected stars in fantasy football. I think one of my biggest strengths in fantasy football is that I can find players that other people are not talking about in the offseason. Sometimes that is to my detriment because I concentrate on finding gems to the point that I sometimes write off veteran players a year too early. However, I also find a lot of unheralded players that end up being very good in fantasy football and are available late in drafts or on the waiver wire to start the season.
That is not exactly what this article about; a dark horse is not the same thing as a sleeper. A sleeper is someone that has not had much success and is poised for a breakout because he is flying under the radar. A good example of a sleeper this year is Gabriel Davis. He had a nice rookie season playing with Josh Allen, and he may have an expanded role this year. He very well could be a great bargain in fantasy football, a sleeper that exceeds expectations and become a valuable fantasy commodity. That does not make Davis a dark horse to lead the league in receiving yards. Stefon Diggs is going to lead the Bills in receiving yards unless he suffers a serious injury. There would be no reason to predict Davis as a dark horse to lead the league in anything.
Going to the other end of the spectrum, Calvin Ridley is also not a dark horse to lead the league in receiving yards because Julio Jones is now in Tennessee and Ridley is finally a featured wide receiver. Ridley plays with an established quarterback in Matt Ryan, and Jones only played nine games last year. Ridley was already their best fantasy receiver, and he tied for fifth in the NFL with 1,374 yards last year, and he was ninth in targets last year with 143. He is a likely candidate to lead the league in receiving yards, not a dark horse, even though he has never led the league in receiving yards or been the top option on an NFL team for an entire season. You cannot be the fifth-ranked fantasy wide receiver and a dark horse.
A dark horse to be a league leader is a player that people are expecting good things from in fantasy football, but not someone in one of the top two tiers at their position. It is a player that people expect to draft in fantasy football, but they are not expecting the player to lead the league in a statistical category or be the centerpiece of their fantasy team. It could be a veteran player that has not led the league in a statistic. It could be a young player that has had success early in his career but is not expected to be a league leader. It just needs to be someone that is on the fantasy football map but not considered an elite player.
Here is my list of dark horses to lead the league in various statistical areas this year. While they will have some challenges to overcome to reach that goal, they also have shown great potential, and they are in situations where things could bounce right, and they end up being the very best at their position in these statistical areas.
Fantasy Points Scored
Ryan Tannehill (QB – TEN)
Fantasy points scored are usually dominated by the quarterback position, so it is a safe bet to go with a quarterback in this spot. Tannehill does not seem like a likely candidate to lead quarterbacks in fantasy points scored because the offense is dominated by Derrick Henry. Henry had 378 rushing attempts for 2,027 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns last year. Those numbers were a major hit to Tannehill’s fantasy value, as the Titans ranked just 30th in pass attempts with 485.
Tannehill was still a great fantasy quarterback last year with 350.36 fantasy points, which was good for seventh in the NFL. He is an underrated runner, as he finished the year with 43 rushing attempts for 266 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He also averaged 7.9 yards per passing attempt, thanks to A.J. Brown, one of the best vertical threats in the NFL. The Titans have added Julio Jones into the mix in a trade with the Falcons. They also added Josh Reynolds in free agency, and they added Dez Fitzpatrick in the NFL Draft. This offense has the potential to be one of the most exciting in the NFL, and if they dominate in the vertical passing game, Tannehill could be a dark horse to be the most productive quarterback in fantasy football. He has improved each of the last two years and has the potential to have his best season ever in 2021.
Joe Burrow (QB - CIN)
It is a shame that Burrow's 2020 season was cut short by injury because he was averaging 268.8 passing yards per game when he was lost for the season with an injury. He averaged more passing yards per game than Aaron Rodgers (267.7), Russell Wilson (263.3), and Philip Rivers (260.6). That was with him having no preseason games due to the pandemic and A.J. Green having the worst season of his career. He was relying on Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and Drew Sample to put up big passing numbers, and he was playing behind the worst offensive line in the league. That still amounted to the eighth-most passing yards per game in the league last year.
Cincinnati signed Riley Reiff, and he should be an upgrade at the right tackle spot. They drafted guard Jackson Carman in the second round, who could also be a nice upgrade to their line. Finally, they drafted Ja'Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick to give them a franchise wide receiver to replace Green. Those changes could make this passing offense one to be feared, and if Burrow can start in Week 1 and build on his rookie campaign, he could be a dark horse to lead the NFL in passing yards. The combination of favorable changes to the offense and the Bengals still having a weak defense could be the perfect combination for monster passing yard numbers in Cincinnati.
Matt Ryan (QB - ATL)
Ryan has come close to leading the league in touchdown passes, but he has never done that in his Falcons career. He had 38 touchdown passes in 2016, which was second in the league, and 35 passing touchdowns in 2018, which was good for third. The Falcons could just not figure out the red zone last year, as Ryan had only 26 touchdown passes and the Falcons were just 26th in red zone touchdown percentage last year at 53.45%. That is a big reason the Falcons added Kyle Pitts in the first round of the NFL Draft and signed Mike Davis in free agency. Being better in the red zone is a priority for them, and they need more targets down there other than Calvin Ridley. Ridley caught nine of Ryan's 26 touchdown passes last year.
The Falcons will take a step back without Julio Jones, who was traded to the Tennessee Titans this offseason. Keep in mind that Jones only played nine games last year, and he has only nine touchdowns in his last 24 games. Pitts will not be able to be Julio Jones, the Hall of Fame player in his rookie year, but he can do better than what Jones gave them the last two seasons. Younghoe Koo had 10 field goals made from inside 30 yards and another 11 field goals made from inside 40 yards. If they can turn that trend around and score some more touchdowns, Ryan has a chance to lead the league in touchdown throws this year for the first time in his career.
Miles Sanders (RB - PHI)
The one player that seemed to benefit the most from Jalen Hurts entering the lineup was Sanders. He averaged 18.3 touches in Hurts' three starts in Week 14-16. That was some of his best usage of the season on an offense that was a train wreck. There has been speculation that this is going to be more of a running back by committee this year with the new coaching staff in place. I am not sure that is going to be the case with the other running backs being Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell. Sanders is the most talented back on this roster, and he should see the bulk of the touches.
The key to me is going to be the Eagles offensive line. Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce had down years last year, and Brandon Brooks and Andre Dillard missed the entire 2020 season due to injuries. Isaac Seumalo is normally stellar at run blocking but struggled in that area. If this line can stay healthy this year, the pieces are there for them to have one of the best offensive lines in the league. That could help Sanders carve out a bell-cow role, and Hurts ability to run the football will open up lanes for Sanders. Nick Sirianni was an offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, and they did utilize a committee there, but they also had Marlon Mack, Jonathan Taylor, and Nyheim Hines in his three years there. This is not as deep of a backfield, and if Sanders separates himself from the other running backs, it could mean a monster year for him in Philadelphia as their featured back.
Antonio Gibson (RB - WAS)
I have been reading a lot of good things about Gibson this offseason. ESPN's John Keim reported the Football Team wants Antonio Gibson to be more involved in the passing offense by running more pass routes. Washington RBs coach Randy Jordan was quoted by Keim as saying that Gibson's improvement in year two is like night and day. That is a scary thing for the rest of the NFL, as Gibson was one of the most productive scorers in the league last year, tallying 11 rushing touchdowns on just 170 rushing attempts. He ranked seventh in rushing touchdowns, despite starting only 10 games and playing in only 14 games.
They added Charles Leno Jr. in free agency and Samuel Cosmi in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft to a team that had the sixth-ranked offensive line by Pro Football Focus. If that line is improved this year and Gibson progresses from his rookie year, the sky is the limit for this rushing offense. Derrick Henry has led the league in rushing touchdowns with 16 and 17 the last two seasons, but Gibson is someone that could emerge as the leader in rushing touchdowns this year with the proper commitment to running the football in the red zone.
Najee Harris (RB - PIT)
The Steelers are going to have to commit to the run more this year. Ben Roethlisberger is 39 years old, and he cannot throw the ball 45 times per game and move the ball at will down the field. Furthermore, Harris is the lead back on the team. They used a first-round pick to acquire him, and his two top backups are Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. (RB - PIT), are the reason they used a first round pick on Harris. Both were on the team last year, and neither showed enough to suggest they will be in an RBBC.
I do not think Harris will be the most efficient running back in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers were a disaster running the ball last year. They were 28th in rushing attempts (373), 32nd in rushing yards (1,351), and 32nd in yards per rushing attempt (3.6). Part of that was a Steelers offensive line that was 17th by Pro Football Focus, and that line lost David DeCastro when the Steelers released him as a post-June 01 cut. That unit is going to need to improve for them to have a great rushing offense, but Harris is a big physical back, and I could see him approaching 300 carries this year. There is not another running back on the roster that warrants significant work, and he can handle the workload at 6' 2" and 230 pounds. The Steelers have one of the easiest running back schedules in the NFL, and if they can figure out the offensive line, Harris will be running a lot this year.
Yards From Scrimmage
D'Andre Swift (RB - DET)
One of the more puzzling aspects of the Lions 2020 season was how little they used Swift. Despite using the 35th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on him, Swift had only 114 rushing attempts and four starts. Some of that was due to injuries, but some of it was Matt Patricia's puzzling decision to give Adrian Peterson 156 rushing attempts. They just did not use Swift enough, even though Swift averaged 4.6 yards per attempt.
One of the more underrated parts of the Detroit offense last year was their offensive line. Frank Ragnow was the second-ranked center by Pro Football Focus, and the Lions were the 13th ranked offensive line. Furthermore, the Lions were the beneficiaries of Penei Sewell falling to the seventh spot in the 2021 NFL Draft. Adding him to that offensive line could be a game-changer and solidify the Lions as one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Pro Football Focus has them ranked as the 10th best unit entering the 2021 season. If they can increase Swift's rushes to 250 and his targets to 75, he could become one of the most used backs in the league behind one of the league's most underrated offensive lines. When you combine that with no big-name wide receivers and Jared Goff at quarterback, this could be a situation where Swift sees enough work to lead the league in yards from scrimmage.
D.J. Moore (WR - CAR)
Moore thrived in Matt Rhule's offense, and he finally became the vertical threat that the Panthers hoped he would be when they drafted him in the first round back in the 2018 NFL Draft. Moore had 118 targets, 66 receptions, 1,193 receiving yards, and four receiving touchdowns, playing with Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater is not known for having the strongest arm in the league, so it will be exciting to see if Moore can build on that success with Sam Darnold at quarterback. Darnold struggled with the New York Jets, but he was also on one of the worst rosters in the NFL, and he never had a wide receiver with Moore's talent. He has great arm talent, and in the right system, he could stretch the field and make big plays for his offense.
Leading the league in receiving yards is hard when there are superstars like Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill playing with much better quarterbacks. I am not ready to write Darnold off at this point. Nobody could have succeeded in the chaos that was the New York Jets the last couple of seasons. Moore is developing into one of the best vertical threats in the game, and if he can have some stability at the quarterback position, he has a chance to dominate one of the best wide receiver schedules in the NFL.
Justin Jefferson (WR - MIN)
Jefferson had one of the best rookie seasons of all time with 88 receptions for 1,400 yards receiving. The one part of his game he needs to improve is touchdown scoring, as he had only seven receiving touchdowns last year. A big reason for that is Adam Thielen had an outlier season with 14 of his 74 receptions going for touchdowns. Thielen had never had a double-digit touchdown season and exploded in 2020 for the most receiving touchdowns in a single season of his career. That did not leave enough touchdowns for Jefferson to have a big impact in the red zone as a touchdown scorer.
I think Thielen is going to regress to his normal touchdown production, and Jefferson is going to become the focal point of the Vikings passing offense. Dalvin Cook is going to take away a lot of touchdowns in the red zone, and Irv Smith Jr. figures to have a bigger role this year at the tight end spot. There should still be enough balls for Jefferson to increase his touchdown production, and if Kirk Cousins has a big year, Jefferson could be a sneaky pick to lead the league in touchdown receptions this year.
CeeDee Lamb (WR - DAL)
Lamb had a very quiet rookie season compared to the hype surrounding his draft selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Dak Prescott only played five games last year, and after he was lost to injury, the Cowboys' passing offense was an inconsistent mess. Lamb still had 111 targets, 74 receptions, 935 yards receiving, and five receiving touchdowns. His potential in the slot and space makes him a very intriguing option, and Mike McCarthy loves to throw the football. The Cowboys signed Prescott to a massive contract, and they are expected to be one of the best throwing offenses in the NFL.
Lamb will be hurt by Amari Cooper being on the roster and the team's commitment to running the ball with Ezekiel Elliott. Lamb showed a lot as a rookie, though, and The Dallas Morning News' Michael Gehlken reported at the beginning of June that Lamb has been lining up at four different receiver spots this offseason. Lamb sounds like a player they are going to move across the formation to create space. I could see them using him like McCarthy used Randall Cobb in Green Bay and Cobb had 127 targets in 2014 and 129 targets in 2015. If Lamb is able to carve out a role similar to Cobb, it could put him in a position to lead the league in targets this year.
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Derek Lofland is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Derek, check out his archive and follow him @DerekLofland.