Zachariason: 10 Players You Should Be Targeting in Your Fantasy Football Drafts

Fantasy football draft season is here. Which players should you be targeting for 2021?

"Strategy doesn't matter if you can't pick the right players."

Don't lie, you've heard that phrase before. Fantasy football analysts and managers say it all the time: if you don't draft the right guys, then how do you expect to win a championship?

The notion isn't totally wrong -- shockingly, you do need good players to win in fantasy football -- but strategy sure as hell can get you closer to nailing your picks.

And yours truly has done a whole lot of strategy-related work this offseason to help. I looked at how mobile quarterbacks and rookie quarterbacks have historically affected their pass-catchers in fantasy football. I found ways to find breakout running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends. I asked the question that I never wanted to ask: is the late-round quarterback strategy dead?

All of those offseason pieces have come together to help formulate an overall draft plan. I now know how I'd like to approach each position in fantasy drafts this month, and, more specifically, I know which players I want to walk away with most often.

These 10 players highlight that list.

Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

Across the first nine games of the 2019 season, Russell Wilson was averaging close to 25 standard fantasy points per contest, which was tops in the league. Through the rest of the season, that number fell to just 14.9, making him no better than a lower-tiered waiver wire streamer.

Fast forward a year, and it was déjà vu. From Weeks 1 through 8 last season, Wilson was scoring 29.4 points per game. He was, once again, the best quarterback in fantasy football. After Week 8, that average fell to just a little over 17. He was basically producing like Drew Lock in fantasy football down the stretch.

This may not be just simple variance. Brian Schottenheimer's offense was boring and predictable, which could've led to defenses figuring things out during the second half of these seasons, making it more difficult on Wilson.

Even if that's not the reason, the change in offensive coordinator from Schottenheimer to Shane Waldron could be big for the passing game. Waldron comes from the Rams, and during his three-year stint as the team's passing-game coordinator, he called plays at times with head coach Sean McVay. And the LA offense looked a lot different than Seattle's.

Season Seattle Seahawks Los Angeles Rams
2020 14th 21st
2019 28th 7th
2018 32nd 21st

The table above shows where both teams have ranked over the last three years in overall pass-to-rush attempt ratio. The Rams have been more pass-friendly than the Seahawks have, and that was with Waldron helping the Los Angeles offense versus Schottenheimer in Seattle.

These numbers are even more glaring when you look at them in neutral game scripts, or the pass rates when games were within a six-point margin.

Season Seattle Seahawks Los Angeles Rams
2020 9th 15th
2019 31st 9th
2018 32nd 15th

This is a clear picture of intent. When a game is close, we get a better idea of how an offense wants to function. And, clearly, the Seattle offense -- last year aside -- wanted to run the damn ball.

Whether or not the Seahawks move to a more pass-heavy, pass-friendly scheme remains to be seen. The reason this data is important is because of what's possible.

Wilson has played just 16 games in his entire career where he's hit 40 pass attempts. Since 2011, that 16 number ranks 27th-highest in the NFL. Blake Bortles has more 40-plus attempt games in his career. So does Waldron's ex-quarterback, Jared Goff.

In those games of 40-plus pass attempts, Wilson's averaged 26.4 fantasy points. That's the second-highest average in the split among all quarterbacks since 2011 who've had at least 10 games with 40 or more pass attempts. The only player with a higher points per game average -- and it's by less than half a point -- is Patrick Mahomes.

The allure with Wilson is that the ceiling is so obviously there if the scheme just shifts even a little bit. At worst, you're getting a player who will simply meet expectation. You're drafting him as the QB6 -- and you're drafting him a good bit below the top-tier quarterbacks given his average draft position (ADP) -- and he likely won't have a tough time finishing around that spot.

A tweak to the offense could shoot Wilson's fantasy output to the moon, though.

Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans

Like Wilson, Ryan Tannehill has thrived in fantasy football despite playing in a low-volume passing attack. Since taking over as Titans' starter in 2019, Tannehill's averaged 21.7 fantasy points per game. Only Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, and Aaron Rodgers have averaged more points per contest over this time, with Jackson being the only one in that group to average more than a point above Tannehill's mark.

So, yes, you're reading that right: since becoming the guy for Tennessee, Tannehill's actually outperformed the aforementioned Russell Wilson in points per game.

And this is happening in an offense that's been insanely run-heavy. In 2019, the Titans were 29th in overall pass-to-rush attempt ratio. That dropped to 30th last year.

It's true that Tannehill may have a hard time maintaining the efficient throwing we've witnessed during this career revival. He's been best in the league in adjusted yards per attempt since becoming starter (yes, better than Mahomes), and his touchdown rate (touchdowns divided by attempts over the last two seasons has been north of 7%. That's typically not a sustainable rate.

But, like Wilson, there's a chance we see more volume through the air in the Titans' offense this year. Not only is the defense a little questionable, but, as we all know, they went out and traded for Julio Jones in June. Tannehill now has two very legitimate options to throw to in Jones and stud A.J. Brown.

Let's not forget the other side to Tannehill's game, either, which is his rushing. He's likely to be a fringe top-10 quarterback when it comes to rushing yards, but over the last two seasons, he's found the end zone 11 times. More potential passing could bring more scrambles, too, which, in turn, brings more fantasy football goodness.

Tannehill's situation isn't unlike Russell Wilson's. With Tannehill, you're getting a player who shouldn't have much trouble meeting expectation. Of course, we want -- need -- quarterbacks to exceed expectation in fantasy football in order to be true superstars, but not all quarterbacks have obvious room for growth in volume like Tannehill does. He's a great value pick in drafts this season.

Trey Lance and Justin Fields, QB, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears

If the top-tier quarterbacks don't fall in individual drafts this season, my overall strategy at the position is to target Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill, or one of the mobile rookie quarterbacks.

Lumping Trey Lance and Justin Fields together seems a little odd, and I'm certainly not saying they're the exact same type of quarterback. The upside they present, though, is very similar: both players may have standard rookie struggles throwing the rock, but the two first-year quarterbacks could be difference-makers with their legs.

The fantasy football world has become sharper, and drafters now recognize the importance of rushing at the quarterback position. Just to show you how much of a cheat code (shout out to the Konami Code) running quarterbacks have become, consider last season. Tom Brady, a quintessential pocket passer, had the third-highest touchdown rate of his career while throwing 40 touchdown passes, the second-highest touchdown total of his career.

He finished as the QB11 in points per game.

This just highlights the shift we've seen in fantasy football. Passing numbers were up in total last year, sure, but the way top-12 quarterbacks have scored points over the last couple of years has looked dramatically different than prior seasons.

Year Total Points Points From Rushing Percent From Rushing
2011 3645.4 430.1 11.8%
2012 3646.6 549.8 15.1%
2013 3528.8 435.3 12.3%
2014 3598.0 300.7 8.4%
2015 3743.3 413.0 11.0%
2016 3575.9 498.0 13.9%
2017 3379.8 414.4 12.3%
2018 3853.8 408.4 10.6%
2019 3655.2 689.4 18.9%
2020 4196.1 765.3 18.2%

In 2020, top-12 quarterbacks scored by far the most points we've seen over the last decade, and, all the while, they continued this new pace of seeing more than 18% of those points come via the ground. We've clearly seen a shift in "percentage of points from rushing" among fantasy football QB1s over the last two seasons.

Mobile quarterbacks are no longer being held back as passers. That dual-threat ability is really allowing them to separate in fantasy football.

And this is where Fields and Lance come into play. As of today, we don't know when either quarterback will be starting for their franchise. Technically, it may not even happen this year. Odds are, though, given what we've seen from first-round quarterbacks in recent memory, their time will come sooner rather than later.

With Fields, you're getting a quarterback who faced really tough college competition and performed exceptionally well. And we know the athleticism and mobility is there: he ran a freaking 4.44 40 at his pro day.

Lance is evidently lighting it up at 49ers camp, and he's entering the league with an impressive college rushing resume. He's got a great coaching and personnel situation in San Francisco, too. The 49ers also have the easiest schedule in the league this year when looking at strength of schedule from the lens of team win totals provided by Online Sportsbook.

There aren't many obvious late-round quarterback options this year who can get it done with their legs. Both Lance and Fields provide that upside. I'd prefer Lance over Fields -- Lance could end up making a Lamar Jackson-like impact on fantasy football eventually -- but either player works as a double-digit round option this year.

This may be the year of the rookie quarterback in fantasy football.

Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

It's tough for borderline first-round picks to be values, but Aaron Jones doesn't seem to be properly ranked right now.

The big fear in drafting any Green Bay Packer this year is regression. The Packers scored 64 touchdowns a season ago, and history has taught us that teams who score a lot of touchdowns one year tend to see that number drop the following year. In fact, since 2011, there've been 37 teams to hit 50 total touchdowns in a season. Of those 37, 29 have next-season data -- 8 teams were able to hit the mark during last year's offensive explosion.

Among those 29 teams with 50 or more touchdowns, only 3 were able to improve on their touchdown totals the following year. The average drop in touchdowns was 11.

This may seem like a bad thing for Jones, but one reason to still be bullish on the Packers' top running back is because of how the Packers scored touchdowns last year.

Aaron Rodgers ended 2020 with the second-highest touchdown rate of all time -- a large proportion of the Packers' touchdowns came via the air. Their pass-to-rush touchdown ratio was 3.0, third-highest in the league.

That number tends to regress year over year. So even though the Packers may not score as many touchdowns this season, the way they get their touchdowns should skew more towards the run than it did last season.

This is really evident when looking at what happened at the goal line. Aaron Rodgers threw it 30 times from within his opponent's 5-yard line last season. That was the most of any quarterback in 2020, and it was the fourth-most of any quarterback since 2011.

He converted 20 of those 30 throws into touchdowns, marking the most goal-line passing touchdowns in a single season in NFL history.

It was the best Packers offense that Jones had ever played in. The Packers averaged 6.3 yards per play versus a high of 5.8 in Jones' other three seasons with the team, and their 64 total touchdowns was 20 more than the team's previous three-season high.

Despite this, Jones had just 10 goal-line rushes in 14 games, or 0.7 goal-line rushes per game. The previous season, that number was 1.1.

Jones, as the primary ball-carrier, scored 0.6 rushing touchdowns per game in an offense that posted 64 touchdowns.

Regression was always going to hit Aaron Jones after a 2019 campaign that saw him in the end zone nearly every week. But considering the Packers did so well offensively in 2020, Jones actually could've been better in fantasy.

Teammate A.J. Dillon will be involved, and he may even take some goal-line work. Let's not overstate what that means, though: Jones has been one of the best goal-line backs in the league over the last couple of seasons. With a target share that's been consistently in the 13% to 15% range over the last two years, Jones is one of the few running backs in fantasy football this year with a true overall-RB1 ceiling. He's being drafted near Austin Ekeler right now, but he has a similar floor as Ekeler while providing a more significant ceiling given the goal-line work likely coming his way.

To me, you should consider Jones closer to the Ezekiel Elliott tier than the Ekeler tier.

Travis Etienne, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Sometimes you just have to cross your fingers and hope for rational coaching.

Don't get me wrong, James Robinson is a good running back. Yours truly was touting Robinson around this time last year. (I get things wrong and call them out, too, don't worry.) But let's not pretend Robinson is on Travis Etienne's level as a prospect. Let's not pretend Robinson can make splash plays the way Etienne did in college. Let's not pretend Robinson's the same type of pass-catcher.

At the very least, Etienne should slip into a pass-catching role for the Jaguars right away. Among the backs in the 2021 draft class who were invited to the combine (which didn't happen, but there was still an invite list), Etienne ranked third in best-season reception share. And that was on one of the best teams in the country.

It's tough to imagine the Jaguars simply relegating Etienne to a satellite back role after spending a first-round pick on him. Yes, it's true that not all first-round running backs see massive workloads right away in the NFL, but the majority of them do. Over the last 10 years, we've seen 14 first-round running backs take the field as rookies. Those players averaged about 206 rush attempts and 47 targets during their rookie campaigns. They had an average team rush share of more than 47% and a target share north of 8%. Those two numbers would've ranked 16th and 23rd, respectively, at the running back position last year. (Keep in mind, those numbers also include injuries.)

Aside from draft capital history, average draft position history paints a pretty favorable picture for Etienne, as well.

The Ambiguous RB1 Theory -- which you can read more about -- states that when you're looking for ambiguous backfields to target, you should be attacking middle-round team RB1s who have teammates who are also being selected in the middle rounds.

If you'd rather not read the study, essentially, when we get situations like the one we have in Jacksonville where two running backs from the same team are being drafted in the middle rounds together, the player who's been drafted first has traditionally had a way higher-than-normal breakout hit rate.

That player is Travis Etienne.

Should we ignore reports about James Robinson running as the clear top running back in the offense? Of course not. Especially to start the year, I'd expect Robinson to be the key early-down guy. We've got to think about the full season, though. Etienne's talent, his pass-catching ability on a team that should face plenty of negative game scripts, the draft capital backing him, and the market's historical tendencies have me feeling good about Etienne's rookie year compared to how the consensus is feeling.

Let's just hope Urban Meyer doesn't get cute.

Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks

One of the more polarizing players in fantasy football has to be Tyler Lockett. Analysts seem to generally like him, but when you mention his name, the masses come with pitchforks screaming, "Inconsistency! Bust! Overrated!"

Clearly, I'm on the side that thinks Lockett is good. Not that he's just good -- that he's great.

Russell Wilson's front-to-back-half splits last year are already known (see above). Naturally, those impacted Lockett, as well.

Split Yards/Game TD/Game FP/Game WR Rank
Weeks 1-7 90.3 1.2 23.5 2nd
Weeks 8-17 51.2 0.3 12.4 37th

From Weeks 1 through 7, which includes a monster 20-target, 200-yard, 3-touchdown game against the Cardinals, Lockett was averaging almost 24 PPR points per game, trailing only DeAndre Hopkins in the category. After that point in time and through the end of the season, Lockett had significantly fewer yards and touchdowns per game. He went from being a complete stud to being a WR4 in fantasy.

Volume was part of the problem for Lockett in and out of this split, there's no doubt. In the front half of the season, he averaged 9.7 targets per game. That fell to 7.4 in the second portion of the split.

On top of that, Wilson's touchdown numbers regressed. In the front half of the 2020 season, Wilson had a touchdown rate of 10.2%. Had he kept that pace throughout the entire season, he would've broken the single-season touchdown rate record. There was no way he'd keep going at the same rate through Week 17.

There's also no way Russell Wilson is going to maintain the touchdown rate he had during the second half of last year, either, which was 4.6%. Wilson's career average touchdown rate is 6.2%. He's fallen below that 4.6% mark in only two NFL seasons.

To assume the Seahawks from the second half of 2020 are going to be the Seahawks of 2021 is a bit foolish.

So, where does that put us? Well, we certainly can't just assume Lockett's going to average the 23.5 points he averaged during the first half of last year. What we can do is look at what's more predictive year over year, and that's sheer volume.

Was Lockett a good fantasy asset after his monstrous Week 7 game? No, not really. Were his peripherals still fine? Actually...yes.

Split Targets/Game Target Share/Game
Weeks 1-7 9.7 26.6%
Weeks 8-17 7.4 22.9%

So we're clear, I'm not selling Lockett's front part of 2020 as his projection for 2021. It's highly unlikely that he ends up seeing more than 26% of the Seahawks' targets this year.

What I am selling is a 23% target share in a Wilson-led offense. And, again, that could be an offense that throws more than we're projecting.

Just because Lockett's numbers were significantly worse during the back half of 2020 -- a time of year where he was also banged up with a knee injury -- doesn't mean everything was terrible. His peripherals were still fine. And with Lockett in line to see at least the second-most targets in Seattle's offense this year, he should have little trouble giving you what you need in fantasy football.

Chase Claypool, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

What if Chase Claypool is just really, really good?

I've asked myself that question over and over this offseason, and it's led me to getting a ton of Claypool across my leagues. No one cares about my leagues, I know, but seriously: what if he's just special?

We have some evidence that that may be the case. Claypool finished his rookie season last year with 11 total touchdowns. He scored twice on the ground and nine times through the air.

Since the late '90s, here's a look at all wide receivers who found the end zone 10 or more times as rookies: Calvin Ridley, Tyreek Hill, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Mike Williams, and Randy Moss.

Those, uh, aren't bad comps!

Perhaps what's most insane about Claypool's ability to find the end zone as a rookie was that he wasn't even playing a full complement of snaps. He played all 16 games but was often being swapped out for James Washington, and that resulted in just a 63% snap rate. That was third-best among the Steelers' wide receivers, and it ranked 67th across the entire league at the position.

Touchdown regression is definitely coming for Claypool. We can't project another double-digit touchdown season

Volume can help combat that.

He'll see more snaps in 2021, he'll be another year in the league with more experience, and he'll build off of the 16.7% target share that he compiled as a rookie.

Keep in mind, a few weeks ago, I did an episode of The Late-Round Podcast where I looked at ways to spot breakout wide receivers. You should listen to the episode for more detail on the subject, but to dumb things down, the study found that breakout wide receivers -- or receivers who outperformed average draft position expectation by 100 or more points while being drafted after Round 5 -- rarely came from nowhere. They typically had a decent target share and season the year before their breakout.

Quarterback play also didn't seem to matter, at least when analyzing through an ADP lens. The fact that Ben Roethlisberger is being drafted so late doesn't really matter for Claypool.

Breakout wide receivers were also part of more ambiguous wide receiver groups -- they didn't usually have highly-drafted teammates on their team. Now, to that point, there was an increase in hit rate when the wide receiver was the top pass-catcher drafted from his NFL team by ADP, which Claypool isn't thanks to Diontae Johnson. But the Steelers don't have a clear-cut number-one guy for fantasy according to the market, making the group ambiguous.

And then the other key piece -- the keyest of pieces -- was that we've usually seen more substantial breakouts from Year 2 wide receivers. As we know, that's Claypool. He's a second-year wideout.

He doesn't fit the criteria perfectly, and he's not always being drafted after the fifth round. He's more of a fringe breakout candidate by ADP. Even still, there's a lot pointing to him having a great year as Pittsburgh's biggest vertical threat.

Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver Broncos

You can take all the things I just said about breakout wide receivers and apply them directly to Jerry Jeudy.

Breakout wide receivers typically don't come from nowhere. Check: Jeudy secured a 21.2% target share in the Broncos' offense last year.

Breakout wide receivers don't have to have top quarterbacks throwing them the ball. Check: both Denver quarterbacks have low average draft positions.

Breakout wide receivers typically come from ambiguous wide receiver situations by ADP. Check: the Broncos don't have any pass-catchers going early in fantasy drafts. (Though, ideally, there also wouldn't be another wide receiver being drafted with Jeudy in the middle rounds.)

Breakout wide receivers have a higher hit rate when they're the first pass-catcher being selected from their NFL team by ADP. Check: in recent drafts, Jeudy has jumped over teammate Courtland Sutton as the preferred Denver wide receiver.

Breakout wide receivers see an increased hit rate when they're second-year pass-catchers. Check: this will be Jeudy's second year in the league.

Jeudy was a top-ranked prospect in a class filled with strong wideouts. He had a top-25 target share among all NFL wide receivers as a rookie. He finished the 2020 season with the sixth-most air yards in the league.

Things are looking up for Jeudy, and you should do your best to target him in the middle rounds of your draft this year.

Elijah Moore, WR, New York Jets

There's been a lot of hype surrounding Elijah Moore this offseason, and while it's typically smart to shy away from players who are getting tons of positive buzz through the media, it's difficult to do that with Moore. Because he was and is a very good wide receiver prospect.

According to my prospect model, only Ja'Marr Chase (99th percentile prospect) and DeVonta Smith (98th) were better wide receiver prospects than Moore in this year's draft class. Rashod Bateman was essentially tied with Moore with a 96th percentile ranking, but the point is, despite being the sixth wide receiver selected in the NFL Draft, Moore doesn't profile to be the sixth-best wide receiver in this year's class.

One of the fears with Moore as he transitioned to the NFL was his ability to play more than just a slot role. Per Pro Football Focus, Moore had a slot snap rate of 78% during his final collegiate season, and only 38 of his snaps were against press coverage.

It wasn't that he absolutely couldn't play a more traditional wide receiver role, or that he couldn't play on the perimeter -- it's that we just didn't know. And we still don't know.

Now, some may view the Jets keeping slot receiver Jamison Crowder around as a bad thing for Moore. And, sure, I'd agree that it makes Moore a slightly more volatile draft selection since, again, we don't really know if he can play outside the slot.

You have to assume that New York didn't keep Crowder around for laughs. Moore has now started to play with the first-team offense in camp, taking Keelan Cole's perimeter role while playing alongside Corey Davis and the aforementioned Crowder. The Jets are trying to get Moore onto the field, and they're putting him in the position we didn't exactly know he could play.

Does that not get you excited about his potential talent? The fact that he checks every box analytically -- his production profile is superb, the draft capital is there, the athleticism is there -- and now his team is throwing him all over the field to get reps?

You can say that I'm simply following the hype, but there's more to this than hype. Elijah Moore is talented, and he'll get opportunity this year to showcase his skills.