2021 Top Rookie Wide Receivers

Justin Dunbar analyzes the top rookie wide receiver from the 2021 draft.

Recently, we deeply examined the rookie quarterback class, looking the anoint the true “QB1”. However, in leagues that only start one quarterback, the other positions likely hold greater value. Isn’t it crazy how different fantasy football is from positional valuation in the NFL? Wide receivers are also seen as a valuable position, though obviously less so than for quarterbacks, and the bar is higher for them in rookie drafts than running backs.

Is there a 100% consensus on who the is the “WR1”? I wouldn’t go quite that far, but there’s more attention being placed on the depth of the class than just who the top receiver is. Instead of just deciding if the consensus “WR1” is the right decision, let’s take a look at the top-5 rookie wide receivers for dynasty leagues. We’ll take a look at their future outlook, fantasy player comparisons, and any other useful tidbits that help us paint a greater picture of their abilities. Meanwhile, if you stay tuned to the end, we’ll also look at a few sleepers as well! This is another tremendous wide receiver class, so without further ado, let us examine it in full depth!

To see where these rookies rank for redraft leagues, check out our friends at FantasyData.

All Stats via Pro Football Focus and Player Profiler. 

 

#1: Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals

 

Yeah, I know; I’m boring. That being said, can you blame me? Ja’Marr Chase was a ridiculously talented draft prospect, and I have little doubt that he’s ready to tear up the NFL. I mean, just look at the numbers he put up as a 19-year-old:

 

Are We Sure Ja’Marr Chase Isn’t Lying About His Age?

 

Did I mention that he was only 19-years-old? It’s pretty easy to understand why he felt comfortable opting out of the 2020 season; there was nothing left for him to prove. Chase’s ability to line up out wide (81.2%) and run a vertical receiver (14.3 aDOT) may not stand out, but considering how many college receivers are seeing their production boosting by lining up in the slot, that means more than you’d expect. Oh, and should I touch on his athleticism metrics?

 

Ja’Marr Chase Athleticism Scores (Percentile)

 

From here, the difference between these receivers becomes much, much smaller. Still, you can’t get wrong with a Heisman Trophy winner, am I right? As just the fourth player to win the award, it’s safe to say Devonta Smith accomplished a rare feat in 2020.

Where do we even start with Smith, who is a much more polarizing player than you’d expect given his accomplishments? As always, let’s start with the good news: he just put together arguably the most dominant season by a college receiver of all time:

 

Devonta Smith Wasn’t Human In 2020

 

This certainly wasn’t a player who stretched the field as much as Chase. Rather, he did his magic in the shorter areas of the field, with 26.8% of his targets last year becoming behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, the goal of Alabama’s offense was rather simple: get the ball in Smith’s hands. Did it work? Well, how does a national championship sound? With over 12 targets per game, he clearly did his part by demonstrating elite separation skills and doing damage with the ball in his hands. If an offense is as incentivized to get you the football as Alabama was, it probably says a lot about your abilities.

While Smith lined up much more in the slot (36.1%) than Chase, he still more than demonstrated the ability to beat man coverage on the outside. After all, you’re betting on his route-running here, and with that being a significant and stable skill when adjusting to the pro level, that would appear to be a calculated bet. When asked to work down the field, he has still flourished with 37.22 deep (20+ yards down the field) passing yards per game and 22.84 receiving yards/deep target over the past two years, which are very impressive numbers.

Now, for the negatives. Whereas Chase dominated as a 19-year-old, most of Smith’s production came as an upperclassman; he was a 22-year-old senior this past year. Furthermore, there are concerns about him adjusting to the NFL level with his 170-pound frame, a weight very few receivers have thrived at before. Showing out with elite athletic testing numbers may have quelled these concerns, but, alas, we weren’t given that luxury. If Smith had the most decorated college track record, that’d be one thing, yet the fact he averaged just 1.71 yards/route run as a freshman and sophomore is a bit concerning. Generally, the elite receivers have performed as an underclassman, and there are a lot of hurdles that Smith will have to overcome here.

For redraft purposes, you’re banking on Smith getting peppered with targets in Philadelphia, as his efficiency could be impacted by Jalen Hurts there. For future seasons, though, it’s likely that Smith is supported better. I personally believe the next player on this list is a more talented receiver, but Smith profiles better for PPR fantasy purposes as someone who’ll accumulate a lot of receptions, giving him a higher overall floor. That being said, I understand the potential trepidation with his profile. I’m really excited him look to work past that weight barrier this season; if he succeeds, he could be opening up opportunities for lighter-weight receivers in the future. Hopefully, this isn’t Jerry Jeudy 2.0- a great receiver who gets hampered by an inaccurate quarterback. Hey, just when you think quarterbacks matter less than other positions, they come back be impactful in ways you didn’t expect!

 

This Year’s Outlook: “WR3”

Future Outlook: Intriguing “WR2”

Fantasy Comparison: Diontae Johnson

Top Strength(s): Separation Ability, Production After The Catch

Biggest Obstacle: Weight, Breakout Age

 

#3: Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins

 

Believe or not, but Smith wasn’t even the highest-drafted receiver from his own team last year. Wait, what? That’s right; the honor actually goes to Jaylen Waddle, whom the Dolphins selected with the 6th overall pick. Considering they traded back up for him after initially trading down (draft-pick trading is sooo complicated some times..), it’s obvious they have a lot of faith in him to build a high-end passing attack around Tua Tagovailoa.

Were they correct in this approach? I won’t comment on trading up, which is generally a poor decision from a value perspective, but I do believe Waddle was the second-best “real life” receiver in this class. Just from an efficiency standpoint, the 22-year-old actually outperomed Smith in college:

 

Jaylen Waddle’s Tremendous College Efficiency Numbers

 

Whether it was making plays after the catch in the short passing game or being a vertical threat, Waddle was quite the versatile chess piece for the Alabama offense. He was mainly used in the slot (77.2%), and the mission in the NFL will be similar to what is was in college- get the ball in his hands. He didn’t participate in athletic testing drills, but it’s clear how dynamic of a weapon he is athletically. He was compared to Tyreek Hill for a reason, after all.

Now, onto the concerns with Waddle. For me, the main one is such a small sample size. Due to an injury in his junior year and not working his way further up the depth chart previously, he only ran 560 routes in his three-year college career. The overall efficiency was great, but it required him thriving in a favorable role out of the slot, and it’s unclear if it would’ve maintained had he played more- you generally can’t extrapolate efficiency statistics to a larger sample. Plus, given that it’s unclear if he can win on the outside, he is a bit more reliant on how he’s used than the likes of Chase and Smith, which increases his bust rate. The highs could be very high, but for risk-averse fantasy players, he might not be for you.

As our own Erik Smith puts it, though, you can’t ignore draft capital. During Miami’s second preseason game, Waddle was targeted on Tagovailoa’s first three passes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him peppered with targets out of the slot, which gives him the floor from a receptions standpoint that we’re looking for. Meanwhile, with the most “big-play” ability of anyone on this list, he’s also less reliant on targets than others to produce, and is the exact type of receiver that will have some major “blowup weeks” than daily fantasy players will love. In weekly leagues, that boom-or-bust style of play may be less to your liking, yet he’s definitely someone that will be of use in bestball leagues. Hence, the fantasy comparison to Tyler Lockett. I’m much higher on him (top-36 receiver) in redraft formats, and am very tempted to put him above Smith in dynasty just because of that big-play ability and all the different ways he can be a productive fantasy asset. In fact, I better stop writing more before I change my mind!

 

This Year’s Outlook: “WR3”

Future Outlook: Volatile “WR2”

Fantasy Comparison: Tyler Lockett

Top Strength(s): Big-Play Ability, College Efficiency

Biggest Obstacle: Limited College Sample Size, Limited To The Slot

 

#4: Elijah Moore, New York Jets

 

Finally outside of the top ten picks in the draft! Actually, we’re going out of the first round altogether here! With how receiver-heavy the 2021 draft was, I remain surprised that Elijah Moore couldn’t find his way into the first round, especially with teams like the Packers, Saints, and others at the back-end of the first round needing reinforcements to their receiving corps. Hey, I’m sure the Jets weren’t complaining! After drafting Moore with the 34th overall pick in the draft, expect him to play a major role in their offense moving forward.

Smith obviously had the best receiver season out of anyone in college last year, but don’t let that make you forget how dominant Moore was. With a 92.4 PFF receiving grade and 3.85 yards/route run, he was essentially the entire Ole Miss offense, averaging 11.4 targets per game, while he served as “Mr.Reliable” for them with an 85.3% catch rate. Don’t take this as a sign he was simply being peppered with targets in uncontrollable fashion, however. Rather, the 21-year-old was seen as an elite separator, and still has a 10.9-yard average depth of target. Envision him as someone who’ll a force in the intermediate passing game and a PPR machine.

That sounds amazing, so what’s the pushback? Let’s look at Moore’s college track record:

 

Elijah Moore’s 2020 Stands Out Above His Prior Numbers

 

Is this a sign of general progression? Maybe. At the same time, Moore’s 85.3% catch rate, 2.6% drop rate, and 73.3% contested-catch rate all scream “regression waiting to happen”, while he didn’t play a full season in a year where offense was at a career high. Plus, he’s been utilized in the slot (92%) more than Waddle, limiting his overall versatility unless he proves capable of consistently winning on the outside. Luckily, that’s less of an issue with such extensive use of 11-personnel across the NFL, while the Jets figured to include him in their two-receiver sets. That means more opportunity for targets, and since he profiles as a “PPR target merchant”, this is critical. There isn’t as much “boom” in this profile, yet he’s the exact type of high-floor player that I generally cater to. If healthy, I could see him being a noteworthy contributor this season, and it’s hard not to imagine the same in future years as well. Between him and Zach Wilson, Jets fans have to feel great about the future of their offense moving forward.

 

This Year’s Outlook: Low-End “WR4″/High-End “WR5”

Future Outlook: Low-End “WR2”

Fantasy Comparison: Sterling Shepard

Top Strength(s): 2020 Production, Overall Refinement

Biggest Obstacle: Might Be Limited To The Slot, Not a Super Lengthy Track Record, Size

 

#5: Rashod Bateman, Baltimore Ravens

 

In normal circumstances, Rashod Bateman would easily be at least my “WR4” in this class, if not higher. Yet, circumstances matter, and as we’ll get to, those are staked against him slightly after being taken by the Ravens with the 27th overall pick in the draft. If you’re betting on talent, though, expect Bateman to win out in the long run.

Whereas most receivers boosted their stock in 2020, when defenses were at an all-time low, Bateman is similar to Chase in that his “big season” came in 2019. In that year, he earned an 89 PFF grade, averaged 20.3 yards/reception, and 3.48 yards/reception. Most impressively, he did that while running out 79.2% of his routes out wide, and with over 80% of his targets being beyond 10+ yards. As NFL.Com’s Lance Zierlien puts it, he’s someone with “pro-ready hands and the upper-body agility needed to adjust in air and bring the ball in.” Almost all scouting reports indicate that he has skills releasing off the line of scrimmage, making contested catches with his 6’2″, 210 frame, as well as his overall route-running make him a special wide receiver prospect.

Would I have liked to see more of Bateman? Yes; he opted out of some of the 2020 season, saw his production slipped as he battled COVID-19 (which he should get a pass for), and played significantly more in the slot. Considering he had the support of Tyler Johnson to draw defenders’ attention away in 2019, it is worth noting he’s yet to serve as the “alpha target generator”, and may ultimately settle into a vertical threat in a “WR2” mold.

Also, there are the Baltimore problems. The Ravens have consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in pass attempts per game thanks to their run-heavy offense around Lamar Jackson, who has struggled to throw the ball outside the numbers. Jackson is going to remain in Baltimore, along with tight end Mark Andrews, so don’t be surprised if Bateman is less involved in the offense than we hope. I would want to stay away from receivers in this offense, and with Bateman attached to it for at least the first 4-5 years of his career, that’s an issue as we hope for him to develop into a prolific weapon. Hopefully. he returns from his groin injury to make some sort of impact this year, but it’s an overall bummer that his talents may go slightly wasted in the offense he’s in. Even if he’s a great “real-life” receiver, that might not show up completely in his fantasy production, which needs to be acknowledged. Don’t be surprised if he’s the type of receiver whose stock suddenly goes up in dynasty a year out of free agency, a la Michael Gallup. Since that time won’t come for a while, though, feel comfortable taking Moore over him in rookie drafts; I wouldn’t let him fall past that, however.

 

This Year’s Outlook: Low-End “WR5″/High-End “WR6”

Future Outlook: -End “WR2” Trapped Into “WR3” Status

Fantasy Comparison: Michael Gallup

Top Strength(s): Size, Vertical Prowess

Biggest Obstacle: Offense He’s In, Unproven As Top Producer In an Offense

 

Potential Sleepers

 

The Texans’ future doesn’t look great right now, but don’t forget about Nico Collins! Drafted in the third round after Houston traded up for him, he might see serious playing time right away, and has a very intriguing skillset. Anyone who stands in at 6’4″ 215 pounds with a 4.50 40-yard dash (89th percentile speed score) and above-average agility is going to get my attention, and Collins also averaged 19.7 yards/reception and made an impact even as a freshman at Michigan. Yes, his production wasn’t great, but his quarterback play was suboptimal, and considering that he ran a route tree of such great depth down the field, that would obviously hinder his overall numbers. There’s a lot of upside with this profile that I’d want over some of the slot-only receivers in this class.

For a deeper sleeper, Dwayne Eskridge may be 24-years-old, but he also averaged 23.3 yards/reception at Western Michigan with 9.4 yards/after catch reception. Meanwhile, he did this while working on the outside, while his production in six games this season was ridiculously absurd:

 

Is Dwayne Eskridge a potential Sleeper?

 

Never ignore draft capital, and Eskridge’s second-round investment should mean something. He’s currently capped as the third receiver in Seattle, but that may mean more in the future if Tyler Lockett misses time again due to injury or the team uses more three-receiver sets with a new offensive coordinator taking over. In the latter scenario, even if he doesn’t receive a lot of targets, he could still be fantasy viable based on his big-play ability; just less Russell Wilson cook!

I’d also add Tylan WallaceJaelon Darden, and Marquez Stevenson as two receivers unlikely to ever get a major role as day-three picks, yet still with intriguing college profiles and the ability to profile as playmakers out of the slot if given the chance to do so.

We’ve been blessed by elite receiving talent coming out of the draft for a while now, and this year was no exception. Chase is as elite of a prospect as I’ve seen since Amari Cooper, while the Alabama receivers also profile as high-end fantasy assets as well. Plus, the depth doesn’t end with these five. In fact, to continue on my rankings, they’d look as such:

Overview

 

  1. Ja’Marr Chase (Tier 1)
  2. DeVonta Smith (Tier 2)
  3. Jaylen Waddle (Tier 2)
  4. Elijah Moore (Tier 3)
  5. Rashod Bateman (Tier 3)
  6. Rondale Moore (Tier 3)
  7. Terrace Marshall Jr. (Tier 3)
  8. Dyami Brown (Tier 4)
  9. KaDarius Toney (Tier 4)
  10. Nico Collins (Tier 4)
  11. Amon-Ra St.Brown (Tier 4)
  12. Josh Palmer (Tier 5)
  13. Dwayne Eskridge (Tier 5)
  14. Amari Rodgers (Tier 5)
  15. Tylan Wallace (Tier 5)

 

This is an ultra-talented class that we cannot be grateful for enough. Palmer may be the Chargers’ #2 receiver next year, Wallace could thrive if given a chance in Baltimore, while Rondale Moore, Marshall Jr., and Brown could all make their presence known this season. Plus, this is despite a draft where players didn’t all go where we’d hope they’d end up; the Saints or Packers really couldn’t draft one of these players, while the Ravens had to draft two of them? Anyways, there’s a lot to like with this class, and it’s hard to see the top six to seven players busting. With that in mind, sit back, and watch these playmakers go to work!

 

Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

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