Zachariason: 15 Bold Predictions for the 2021 Fantasy Football Season
I get it, I get it. You clicked a link, you're staring at this column, and you're now thinking to yourself, "Oh, here goes...another completely bonkers, unoriginal, unlikely bold predictions article."
I can't promise you that you'll fall in love with this piece, or that your fantasy football draft strategy will drastically change after reading it. To be transparent, each year, this article has had its fair share of hits and misses. Last season, it talked down on Stefon Diggs' and Keenan Allen's outlooks. (Yikes!) It claimed Cam Newton had a shot to be a top-five fantasy quarterback. (Double yikes!)
The year before that, one of the bold predictions said that JuJu Smith-Schuster would be the top fantasy football wide receiver.
Yeah, I can be an idiot.
But even though this is a bold predictions article -- and most bold predictions articles are sort of "out there" -- the goal is to always lead with logic. That logic led me to calling out Logan Thomas as the surprise late-round tight end last season. It led to being higher than the consensus on Adam Thielen, who found the end zone 14 times. It led me to saying good things about both Calvin Ridley and Will Fuller.
But it still had some gems. And that's all you can ask for when thinking outside the box before a fantasy football season.
Let's hope we hit on more here in 2021.
1. Trey Lance Will Finish Top-5 in Quarterback Points Per Game
Why This Is Bold: A lot of hype is building around Trey Lance, but he's still being drafted outside the top-10 at the position. In your home leagues, he's going to likely go as a mid-range QB2.
Why This Will Happen: It's glaringly obvious that in today's fantasy football game, if you want a difference-maker at the quarterback position, one of two things needs to happen. That quarterback either needs to have an outlier season from a touchdown rate (touchdowns divided by attempts) perspective, or that quarterback needs to be mobile.
Trey Lance definitely brings the latter.
Lance rushed for 1,100 yards in his lone season as starter in college, finding the end zone 14 times. He'll bring that element to the NFL.
On top of that, the 49ers have the easiest schedule in the league when looking at schedule strength through the lens of Online Sportsbook team win totals. San Francisco has a coaching staff that's ranked in the top half of the league in each of the last four years in yards per play despite inconsistent quarterback availability.
And look at who Lance, as long as he eventually gets the starting nod, gets to throw to. One of the best tight ends of this era? A second-year wideout who showed alpha-like signs as a rookie? A bulldozer who can create tons of YAC?
The 49ers have things set up pretty well for Trey Lance. Once he starts -- maybe that'll be Week 1, maybe it won't -- I'm expecting big things.
2. Tom Brady Will Finish Outside the Top-12 at the Quarterback Position
Why This Is Bold: People really like Tom Brady, and he's being selected as a top-10 quarterback.
Why This Will Happen: To add onto the quarterback mobility talk, over the last two seasons, we've seen top-12 quarterbacks score 18.9% and 18.2% of their fantasy points via the ground. That's up significantly compared to what we'd seen the eight years prior.
As we know, Tom Brady isn't much of a rusher. He's a dad runner. In turn, for him to have a difference-making season, he'll need to convert passing touchdowns at a pretty high rate.
Can that happen? With that wide receiver group -- of course! But keep in mind that just last year, Brady, with the third-highest touchdown rate of his career and 40 touchdown passes, still finished as the QB11 in points per game (QB10 if you don't include Dak Prescott).
This one isn't all that bold. It's just that there are a lot of Brady backers out there, and I figured I'd put them on tilt.
3. Trey Sermon Will Outscore Both Myles Gaskin and Mike Davis
Why This Is Bold: Sermon will often go about a round or so after the two in best-ball drafts, and the gap is even larger in regular home redraft leagues.
Why This Will Happen: The easiest way to frame this argument is to look at the downside for both Myles Gaskin and Mike Davis.
With Gaskin, you've got a potential committee back who will cede goal-line work to the bigger-bodied Malcolm Brown. He could finish outside the top-30 at the position as a result, even if he does present some upside.
Davis is a 28-year-old journeyman back who's never been a true bell-cow at the NFL level. He's being boosted in average draft position (ADP) by lack of competition in the Falcons backfield. There's a lot of fragility to his situation, especially if Atlanta adds a veteran player who ends up getting cut later this month.
Sermon, meanwhile, fits the Ambiguous RB1 Theory quite well. The Ambiguous RB1 Theory 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. The team RB1s selected in those scenarios have had pretty insane hit rates.
The 49ers, as I noted earlier, have the easiest schedule in the league entering the year, so that could put their running backs in a lot of favorable game scripts. Sermon's already getting plenty of love out of San Francisco's camp, too. If he grabs hold of a tandem role with Mostert, given his environment, it's not hard to see him outscoring Gaskin and Davis.
4. The Best Fantasy Football Quarterback With the First Name "Justin" Will Be Justin Fields
Why This Is Bold: There's this guy named Justin Herbert who's getting selected well before the rookie Justin Fields in drafts this year.
Why This Will Happen: To be clear, I prefer Justin Herbert to Justin Fields this season. You should be drafting Herbert over Fields.
But there's some reason to believe that Fields can outperform Herbert, at least on a points per game basis.
I've already talked through the importance of rushing at the quarterback position, and Fields brings that to the table more than Herbert does. We saw that in action during the first week of the preseason, where Fields ran the ball 5 times for 33 yards and a rushing score. That alone accounted for almost 10 fantasy points, and he didn't play the full game.
We should take this with a grain of salt, but Fields did run a 4.44 40-yard dash at his pro day. At the very least, we know he's fast and capable of scoring points on the ground.
That baseline can catapult him into QB1 territory in fantasy football. Since 2011, we've had 27 quarterbacks rush for 500 or more yards. A solid 20 of those quarterbacks finished as QB1s in pretend football.
Herbert, again, should be ranked and drafted as a top-10 quarterback this year. Keep in mind, though, that things weren't all butterflies and rainbows throughout his rookie campaign a year ago. He was the eighth-best quarterback in points per game last season, but he scored fewer than 17 fantasy points in 4 of his final 6 games. During that stretch, he watched his touchdown rate fall by about 2.5%.
Herbert is more mobile than people may give him credit for, and there's a chance he eventually ends up making more of a Josh Allen-like impact on the ground. That's not close to a guarantee, though. And with Fields giving us that running floor, if he's a better-than-average rookie passer, he's got a shot to finish high in fantasy football this year.
5. Najee Harris Will Finish as a Top-8 Running Back
Why This Is Bold: Harris is often being drafted outside the top-12 at the position.
Why This Will Happen: The name of the game is volume.
Harris came into the league with a 96th percentile rating in my prospect model, giving him the best grade of any running back that's come out over the last two years. Much of that is driven by strong draft capital, but that strong draft capital should give us comfort that the Steelers, in win-now mode with an aged Ben Roethlisberger, are going to utilize Harris heavily. This isn't a Mike Davis situation where there's a chance another running back catapults him on the depth chart. This is Najee Harris' backfield.
Let's quickly run through an exercise to showcase Harris' potential ceiling.
Back in 2018, James Conner, in just 13 games, saw over 70% of Pittsburgh's running back rushes and a target share north of 10%. If we assume Harris hits those marks -- two relatively modest projections given everything I just said -- then he'd join a list of 39 running backs who've hit those marks over the last 10 years. Of those backs, only two finished outside the top-10 at the position in season-long scoring.
Now, clearly, a player being able to hit those marks means he was able to stay healthy throughout an entire season. Even on a points per game basis, though, those running backs thrived: all but one scored more than 14 PPR points per game, and 33 of the 39 hit 17 PPR points per game. Why is 17 important? Well, a back hitting 17 points per game last season would've finished as the RB8.
That's just one simple way of viewing Harris' ceiling and why this bold prediction isn't all that out there. We can talk about Pittsburgh's bad offensive line or their potentially tough schedule all day long. In the end, volume is what wins in fantasy football.
6. Bryan Edwards Will Finish as a Top-36 Wide Receiver
Why This Is Bold: No one wants to draft Bryan Edwards.
Why This Will Happen: The Raiders drafted Edwards in Round 3 of the 2020 NFL Draft, but he spent a lot of last season banged up. He played in just 12 games and finished with a measly 15 targets on the season.
Traditionally, players who don't get off to a hot career start -- regardless of injury -- don't pan out at that high of a rate. The odds are against Edwards working out.
But without a true alpha on the roster, Vegas presents an opportunity for a wide receiver to emerge. And while most people are on Henry Ruggs as a late-round pick, Edwards wasn't much worse of a prospect. Despite such a drastic difference in draft capital (Ruggs was the 12th overall pick while Edwards was 81st), Ruggs and Edwards don't have immensely different prospect scores in my model.
Edwards has been getting a ton of love in camp -- at one point irresponsibly being compared to Terrell Owens and Randy Moss -- and is, more importantly, playing the starting X receiver role in the Raiders' offense.
Vegas is also entering the season with the toughest schedule in the league. That could lead to more passing volume which, in turn, could give Edwards a higher-than-expected floor as long as he's a starter.
Is this a likely outcome? Is a WR3 season likely for Bryan Edwards? No. It's just in his range of outcomes.
7. Javonte Williams Will Be a Top-10 Running Back During the Second Half of the Season
Why This Is Bold: At this time, Javonte Williams is typically being drafted outside the top-24 at the position.
Why This Will Happen: We'll likely see some sort of committee in the Denver backfield to start the season with Williams and Melvin Gordon. There's a chance, as the season goes on, that Williams' talent is simply undeniable. Williams was a 92nd percentile prospect in my model, making him a top-6 running back across the last two draft classes. Pro Football Focus' data pegged him with the top broken tackles per attempt rate that they'd ever seen.
He's probably going to be really good.
We've seen rookie running backs bust free during the second half of the season in recent years, too. Jonathan Taylor's the easiest example to point to from last year, but Antonio Gibson, J.K. Dobbins, D'Andre Swift, Miles Sanders... we've seen this happen plenty of times over the last few seasons. Why not with a strong prospect in Williams?
8. CeeDee Lamb Will Finish as a Top-5 Wide Receiver
Why This Is Bold: Expectations have become higher and higher with Lamb, but he's still more of a fringe top-10 wide receiver selection than a top-5 one.
Why This Will Happen: In five games with Dak Prescott last year, CeeDee Lamb averaged 17.1 PPR points per game. As a rookie. That number ranked in the top-15 among relevant wide receivers.
The Cowboys were really pass-heavy last year under Prescott, to be fair. Prescott was averaging over 50 attempts per game before suffering his season-ending injury -- he was pacing to break volume records. That naturally is going to help any receiver on the team in fantasy.
But Lamb's peripherals were also strong. He averaged almost a 19% target share per game during the stretch -- again, remember, he was a rookie! -- and led the Cowboys in targets within the 10-yard line.
Second-year breakouts are very real for wide receivers. Considering Lamb's elite profile coming out of college, it's not hard to envision him having a monster season in what should be another pass-heavy scheme.
9. Antonio Brown Will Outscore Brandon Aiyuk
Why This Is Bold: Brandon Aiyuk is one of the best young receivers in the game, and he gets drafted significantly higher than Antonio Brown.
Why This Will Happen: Make no mistake: Brandon Aiyuk has a very real shot to have a big year. Remember how I just said that second-year breakouts are a thing for wide receivers? Well, that's Aiyuk.
This bold prediction is less about the ceiling for Aiyuk, and more about the floor. Will he likely be productive enough to not totally sink your team? Definitely. He's a great wide receiver. Are there red flags surrounding his situation? Yeah, there are.
Like I keep saying, the 49ers have the easiest schedule in football this year, and that's on top of already being a run-heavy team. Over the last three years, San Francisco's ranked 22nd, 29th, and 21st in neutral script pass rate, and they were 18th, 31st, and 20th when looking at overall pass rate.
History hasn't been as kind to pass-catchers on teams with rookie quarterbacks, and the same can be said for teams that have mobile quarterbacks. (Those links explain those claims.) Trey Lance, the probable eventual starter for the 49ers, is both a rookie and mobile.
Will there be enough volume to support Aiyuk as a top-20 wideout? Maybe. Maybe not. It's certainly not a lock.
And while Antonio Brown finishing that high isn't a lock, either, it's not completely farfetched. Without any reps with the Buccaneers last season, Brown stepped in and averaged a 20.0% target share per game (17.6% if you remove his outlier performance in Week 17). He was also targeted on 18.9% of his snaps played, ranking fifth-highest among all offensive skill players across the NFL.
Tom Brady liked throwing the ball his way.
Is it that hard to imagine one of the best wide receivers of all time, who's now getting normal work with his offense, having a strong fantasy season? The Bucs have a pass-friendly offense, and Brown should benefit big time.
10. Devonta Smith Will Lead Rookie Wide Receivers in Fantasy Points Scored
Why This Is Bold: DeVonta Smith isn't the first rookie wide receiver falling off draft boards. That's Ja'Marr Chase.
Why This Will Happen: Ja'Marr Chase is one of the best wide receiver prospects that my model has ever seen -- he's got a 99th percentile rating within it. Devonta Smith really isn't that far behind, though, ranking in the 98th percentile.
The situation for Chase is a little more attractive for Year 1 given the fact that the quarterback position for Cincinnati appears to be more stable, and the Bengals have been one of the most pass-heavy teams in football since Zac Taylor came to town.
The whole "mobile quarterbacks bring down the fantasy value of their pass-catchers" thing is true for Smith. Let's not forget about that. But Smith is pretty clearly the top pass-catching option on his team, capable of gobbling up a target share north of 20%. Easily.
The fact that he's the first Philadelphia pass-catcher to be selected in drafts matters, too. Historically, middle-round wide receivers who are the first wideouts drafted from their teams by average draft position tend to outperform expectation at a higher rate compared to the alternative. Moreover, when these receivers don't have a teammate wide receiver being selected around them in the middle rounds, that rate increases even more.
You can listen to this in much more detail on Episode 526 of The Late-Round Podcast.
That describes Devonta Smith. He's a middle-round selection, and his teammates -- his wide receiver teammates -- aren't getting any love around him. He's also an elite prospect who's got a higher target share ceiling in Year 1. It doesn't seem that bold to think he'll be the best rookie wideout statistically in 2021.
11. Tyler Higbee and Dallas Goedert Will Finish Outside the Top-12 at Tight End
Why This Is Bold: Both Tyler Higbee and Dallas Goedert are being picked up in the middle rounds of drafts, inside the top-12 at the position.
Why This Will Happen: Goedert was someone I called out as an avoid this year, mostly because of the fact that the Eagles haven't gotten rid of Zach Ertz, but also because of what we've seen historically from middle-round tight ends who have team pass-catchers who get drafted before them.
They generally kind of suck.
Over the last 10 years, we've had 55 tight ends get selected in Rounds 6 through 9 -- Picks 61 through 108 -- who weren't the top pass-catcher from their team by ADP. So, for example, Dallas Goedert this year. Devonta Smith is being drafted ahead of him.
If you plot average draft position versus post-season result to get a trendline that shows "expectation" at a particular ADP, that subset of tight ends has traditionally performed below average. We've really only had three big breakouts from the group.
This isn't to say that these players are incapable of scoring fantasy points. Trust me, I understand the allure with Higbee given his splits with and without Gerald Everett. There are just a whole lot of late-round tight ends who are intriguing this season, including Everett. And that competition could really push middle-round tight ends out this year.
12. Gus Edwards Will Outscore Damien Harris
Why This Is Bold: Gus Edwards is typically ranked about 10 running back spots after Damien Harris.
Why This Will Happen: There's nothing wrong with drafting Damien Harris this year. Truly. If you're going after him, you should just recognize that you'll need a little more from him in the passing game.
He totaled seven targets in 10 games last year, and even on a run-heavy team, that still accounted for just a 2.1% target share per game rate. The only player with that low of a target share to finish as a top-10 PPR running back over the last decade has been LeGarrette Blount. In 2016. Blount wasn't utilized as a receiver at all that year, and he scored 18 touchdowns.
I'm not going to bet that this year's New England offense is as good as that one.
Had the Patriots gotten rid of James White this offseason, the path to receiving work would've been much clearer for Harris in 2021. But with White there, it's not hard to imagine a world where Harris is still just a 3% or 4% target share running back.
Realistically, Gus Edwards isn't going to score points in a dramatically different way. Edwards has been getting love as a "first-teamer" with teammate J.K. Dobbins, and while I would very much rather have Dobbins, evidence backs up the idea that Edwards may be used quite a bit this year.
Greg Roman has now been offensive coordinator in Baltimore over the last two seasons. In those two seasons, no Ravens running back has reached a 70% snap share in a single game. That's translated to workload -- the highest single-game running back rush share from a Ravens' running back during this timeframe has been 76.4%. That's by far the lowest rate in the league.
What does that tell us? It tells us that Gus Edwards is going to be involved. We already knew that, sure, but perhaps not to the degree in which it was just presented.
Both Baltimore and New England are likely to be pretty run-friendly teams this season, but Baltimore's been by far the run-heaviest team in football over the last two years. So if neither running back is in store for a huge target share -- a significant target share -- then Edwards can definitely outperform Harris by doing the same thing Harris does in a better offense.
13. Jakobi Meyers Will Finish as a Top-30 Wide Receiver
Why This Is Bold: His ADP is likely going to continue to rise, but Meyers is still getting selected past WR60.
Why This Will Happen: One of the most predictive statistical tools that we have when forecasting players is volume. Players who see a lot of work one year tend to see a good bit of work the next. And it makes sense as to why: good players get good volume.
So why aren't we giving Jakobi Meyers more love? Meyers saw over 19% of New England's targets go his way last year, and he only played in 14 games. His target share per game rate -- as a second-year receiver -- was 24.7%, and he averaged an obscenely high 31.3% target share per game from Week 7 onward last season. That was the week he returned from a two-week absence.
The Patriots added competition this offseason, but are we really that worried about Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne? Is it a hot take to say that Jakobi Meyers is the best wide receiver on that team?
There's a very real possibility that he sees at least 20% of New England's targets this year, if not much more. That alone could allow him to be a top-30 player at the position.
14. Michael Pittman Will Outscore DJ Chark
Why This Is Bold: Pittman will typically fall off draft boards about 30 spots after Chark.
Why This Will Happen: Chark is someone I'm not super into this year given the fact that he's playing with a rookie quarterback, he's had overrated production throughout his NFL career, and he honestly may not be the best wide receiver from his old team. That was all chronicled last week.
Pittman's flown under the radar over the last few weeks because of the Carson Wentz injury, but that Carson Wentz injury seems to be going better than initially expected. And, honestly, Pittman shares a lot of the same traits breakout wide receivers traditionally have had in fantasy football.
He's the first pass-catcher being selected on the Colts by ADP, which is a plus. He's a second-year wide receiver. He's part of an ambiguous wide receiver group. His target share wasn't totally non-existent last year.
(Again, for more detail on finding breakout wide receivers, check out The Late-Round Podcast.)
Pittman has a shot to be the alpha on his team. Chark does, too, obviously, but this is about being bold, right? The bold idea here is that Pittman grabs hold of that top gig, but Chark doesn't.
15. The Super Late-Round Tight End Breakout Will Be Donald Parham
Why This Is Bold: Does Donald Parham even have an ADP?
Why This Will Happen: The Chargers no longer have Hunter Henry, who was gobbling up a 15% to 20% target share consistently when he was active over the last couple of years. That leaves an opening at tight end. Most are assuming veteran Jared Cook will be the guy for LA, but don't sleep on the 6'8'' Donald Parham.
You XFL degenerates (I'm one of you) will remember Parham for his awesome production in that league. He got a shot with the Chargers last season and didn't do anything special, posting a 10-catch, 159-yard, 3-touchdown line.
This season, things could be different. He's been playing more with the first team, and it's been reported, for whatever it's worth, that he's been a favorite target of Justin Herbert's in camp.
Parham may not be that dude this year, but he's got as good of a shot as anyone going super late in drafts.