Starters with Shaky Job Security (2021 Fantasy Football)
The most important characteristic of a football player for fantasy football is that they must actually play football. We often concern ourselves with whether players may miss time due to injury, but equally as important is whether a player is at risk of missing time due to being usurped by a superior player.
Job security varies from position to position. At quarterback, it is relatively obvious when a player is at risk of losing his job. It is rare that a fantasy-relevant quarterback has job security issues. At tight end, while not as obvious as at quarterback, the concern is largely over whether a player will actually produce fantasy points rather than playing time. At wide receiver, we care more about the player’s actual talent than running backs, so if a receiver is at risk of losing his job, it is probably because he’s not very good.
The bulk of this list will focus on running backs. As the most replaceable position on an NFL offense, multiple running backs lose their jobs every season. The difference between running backs and the other three fantasy positions is that at running back, a backup can step in and match or come close to the production of the displaced starter. At wide receiver, if Stefon Diggs goes down, Gabriel Davis does not become a WR1 or even a WR2 automatically. But if Ezekiel Elliott goes down, Tony Pollard is a must-start every week RB1.
Without further ado, here are a handful of fantasy-relevant starters with questionable job security.
Jameis Winston (QB – NO) or Taysom Hill (QB – NO)
The consensus seems to be that Jameis Winston will get the first crack at the Saints’ starting quarterback job. I’m not so sure. After all, when Drew Brees missed a month last season, Taysom Hill, not Winston, started those four games. Regardless of which quarterback starts in Week 1, he will very much be at risk of being benched due to poor play. Although he went 3-1 in his four 2020 starts, if it’s Hill, we’re still talking about a quarterback that has exactly four career starts and just 134 career pass attempts at age 31. Hill’s 2020 could easily prove to be a mirage, leading to him losing his job. Hill scored between 18.5 and 24.4 fantasy points in all four of his starts, making him a clear-cut QB1 for fantasy. If he starts, you want him on your fantasy team.
Winston is a true rarity in the fantasy football world. In his final season in Tampa Bay, Winston averaged 18.6 ppg, good for a QB8 finish. He led the league with 5,109 passing yards and was second with 33 touchdowns. He also led the league in interceptions with 30. He just launched the ball haphazardly at his receivers. It was great for fantasy but terrible for the Bucs. If Winston starts in New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine much changing. Winston is definitely the preferred option for Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, but if he can’t keep the interceptions in check, Sean Payton is going to turn to Hill. It seems inevitable that both of these quarterbacks make starts in 2021, making the situation a bit of a headache for fantasy.
Cam Newton (QB – NE)
I’m going to include Cam Newton here because I still consider him a viable late-round QB dart throw. At 32 years old, Newton may be nearing the end of his career as running quarterbacks do not age as well as traditional pocket passers (Michael Vick was done at 32), but he did open the 2020 season with two monster games. He posted a dud in Week 3, then got COVID, and just wasn’t the same when he returned. Newton himself attributed part of his struggles to covid. It’s entirely possible he’s correct, and a bounce-back year is ahead of him. However, the Patriots drafted Mac Jones in the first round, and he is going to start in 2022. The biggest question is whether he makes starts in 2021. It’s possible that Newton can hold the job throughout the season. It’s certainly not unprecedented. But anyone taking Newton late must assume the risk that a poor game from Newton could result in Jones taking over at any point.
Breshad Perriman (WR – DET) and Tyrell Williams (WR – DET)
The Lions underwent quite the overhaul this offseason. They jettisoned their head coach, franchise quarterback, and top three wide receivers. The wide receiver on their current roster that was also on the team last season with the most targets is Quintez Cephus. To replace Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola, the Lions signed Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams and drafted Amon-Ra St. Brown. Perriman and Williams are journeymen who have shown flashes but could never really sustain success. They will open the season as the starting receivers, but by no means are their jobs secure. St. Brown and Cephus could simply outplay Perriman and Williams. It would not shock me if Perriman and Williams saw their snap shares decrease as the season wears on. Perriman and Williams remain viable WR5s because someone has to catch passes in Detroit other than T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift, but be prepared to drop them the moment you see it not working out.
Jamison Crowder (WR – NYJ)
I was surprised to see Jamison Crowder agree to restructure his contract to return to the Jets. Between the acquisitions of Corey Davis and Keelan Cole, Denzel Mims entering year two, and the drafting of Elijah Moore, it sure looked like Crowder was on the outside looking in. Crowder should return to his role as the Jets’ primary slot receiver, but Moore is kind of like Crowder, except better at every aspect of football. Crowder is still only 28 years old, so it’s far from a given that the guy who has essentially been the Jets’ primary receiver for the past two seasons will suddenly be cast aside, but it seems far more likely that Moore will take Crowder’s job than Davis’. Given the situation, I will be avoiding Crowder in 2021 fantasy drafts.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC)
What? How can the back-to-back AFC Champions’ 2020 first-round running back have job security issues? To be clear, I don’t believe Clyde Edwards-Helaire is at any risk of losing his job outright. I’m including CEH because many analysts are (justifiably) very high on him taking a leap forward in 2021. CEH’s 2021 season is overall RB1; that is undeniably in his range of outcomes. Also in CEH’s range of outcomes is falling into a timeshare where Darrel Williams eats into early-down work and Jerick McKinnon takes a large portion of passing down work. Edwards-Helaire is a good receiver out of the backfield, but he was consistently pulled off the field in favor of Williams last season. Outside of Jamaal Charles and 2017 Kareem Hunt, Andy Reid has always used a third-down back in Kansas City. His third-down back is not necessarily a satellite back – it’s merely someone other than the first and second-down back. In 2016, Spencer Ware came off the field for Charcandrick West even though Ware was superior at every aspect of football. In 2018, Hunt came off the field for Ware even though Ware apparently wasn’t worth playing on third downs in 2016. 2019 was just a mess with Damien Williams and a washed LeSean McCoy. And in 2020, CEH lost third-down work to the aforementioned Darrel Williams.
More concerning is the fact that the Chiefs saw what CEH did over the first half of 2020 and then decided to sign arguably the least talented running back in the NFL, Le’Veon Bell (yes, I know Bell is one of the most talented backs of the past decade – the 2020 version of him could barely make an XFL roster – he’s done). After CEH got hurt late in the season and returned in the playoffs, he split snaps with Darrel Williams. It’s impossible to know whether that was due to gameplan or not overloading CEH following his injury. Regardless, the fact remains that CEH’s workload is very much up in the air entering 2021, making him one of the riskiest picks in the second round with a low floor and an extremely high ceiling.
Myles Gaskin (RB – MIA)
Volume may be king in fantasy football, but I am done chasing situation and opportunity when it is literally the only reason a running back has value. Myles Gaskin is the unquestioned RB1 in Miami, and if he keeps that job throughout the season, he is a virtual lock to be a value at his fourth-round ADP. I’m just not confident enough that he can keep that job because there is nothing about his talent that tethers him to his role. Gaskin is a replacement-level running back. Give him the work, and he will produce. However, the term “replacement level” was coined for a reason. Gaskin can be replaced by a number of other backs, and the team will not see a drop-off in productivity. If Gaskin gets hurt or simply plays poorly, it could easily be Malcolm Brown, Salvon Ahmed, or Gerrid Doaks that takes over and never looks back.
Mike Davis (RB – ATL)
Volume may be king in fantasy football, but I am done chasing situation, and…oh, I said that already. The same assessment of Gaskin can be applied to Mike Davis. The difference with Davis is he’s on a better offense, and the caliber of running backs behind him is even worse. But while Gaskin is entering his second season, Davis is 29 years old and has never been given the keys to a backfield before. If anything, we have more reason to question Davis’ ability to hold this job than Gaskin’s. Davis filled in admirably for Christian McCaffrey last season, which is what ultimately got him the starting gig in Atlanta. Unfortunately, Davis is also a replacement-level talent and could easily get hurt, watch one of Cordarrelle Patterson, Qadree Ollison, or Javian Hawkins play well and then return to a backup role. The team could also sign a free agent to split time with Davis. As of now, Davis looks like he’s locked into a three-down role and, like Gaskin, if he holds it, he will be a value in the fourth or fifth round, but he is far from a guarantee to be the starter in October, let alone the entire season.
Leonard Fournette (RB – TB)
Ronald Jones was the starter in Week 1 2020. Due to injury, he lost his job to Leonard Fournette. Simply put, that narrative could easily reverse yet again in 2021. The Bucs have no allegiance to either Jones or Fournette. Fournette is the starter because he had a torrid postseason, and the Bucs won the Super Bowl. That has rightfully earned him the lead role. But, if we recall, Fournette was deactivated at one point last season and was very close to being cut. If Fournette plays poorly, Jones could take his job. If Fournette gets hurt and Jones plays well, Fournette could return to a reduced role. This is all baked into Fournette’s price because if we knew Fournette was going to be the primary back all season in Tampa, he’d be going in the third round. Instead, Fournette is properly priced as a high risk/high reward RB3.
I intentionally left out guys like Melvin Gordon and Chase Edmonds because although they are technically starters, I view their backfields as much more of 1a/1b situations than anyone being a true lead back. I also left out backfields with no clear starter at the moment, like the 49ers and the Jets. It goes without saying that any running back that ends up starting on a team without a clear starter now likely has minimal job security.
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