AFC North Roster Holes: Optimal Landing Spots for the 2021 Rookie Class

Erik Smith looks at roster situations that could produce impactful rookies in 2021 fantasy football leagues.

The 2021 NFL Draft is rapidly approaching, scheduled to be held in Cleveland beginning on Thursday, April 29.  Rookies can oftentimes be overhyped in the fantasy world but the right landing spot can go a long way towards a rookie approaching those lofty expectations.  This series of articles will focus on the most enticing positions for rookie production at the offensive skill positions for each NFL team.  Today we focus on the AFC North.

 

Baltimore Ravens: WR

 

Baltimore should be set at running back with 2020 second-round pick J.K. Dobbins leading the way. While they lost Mark Ingram to free agency this offseason, they still have the bruising Gus Edwards under contract through 2021, and former fourth-round pick Justice Hill should slot in as the occasional third-down option. And while the Ravens run plenty of multiple tight end sets, they currently have six tight ends under contract and bring back veterans Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, making them unlikely to use a pick on the tight end position.

As a run-heavy offense, it will be interesting to see just how urgently the Ravens seek an upgrade to their receiving corps. Baltimore’s 0.79 pass to rush ratio was by far the lowest in the league in 2020, and Lamar Jackson‘s rushing ability could certainly make the Ravens consider spending their resources elsewhere. Baltimore did use a first-round pick on Marquise Brown in 2019, and Brown will be under contract through the 2023 season. While Brown has been far from a true WR1 through his first two seasons, he enters his age-24 season with plenty of reason for optimism, assuming he can stay healthy and build on his rapport with Jackson.

Sammy Watkins signed a one-year deal with Baltimore this offseason, but the soon-to-be 28-year-old has failed to reach even 700 receiving yards in a season since 2015. Baltimore may ultimately need to make a decision on their pair of third-round receivers, Devin Duvernay and Miles Boykin, before committing draft capital to another receiver selection. Duvernay contributed just 201 yards on 20 receptions in his rookie season last year, while Boykin has primarily been a red zone option with a combined seven touchdowns on just 32 receptions over his first two seasons in the league.

At the end of the day, this doesn’t appear to be an intriguing destination from a fantasy perspective for a rookie wide receiver. If the Ravens are able to land a true alpha-receiver in the draft then this could be an appealing spot, but most rookies will find themselves battling for snaps behind Brown and Watkins in a low-volume passing offense. Brown and Watkins have certainly struggled to stay on the field at times, so an opportunity could present itself in 2021. But the jury is still out on whether this offense has much fantasy upside in the passing game.

 

Cincinnati Bengals: WR, TE, RB

 

When a team finishes 4-11-1 and picks in the top five of the NFL Draft for the second consecutive season, you can be sure that the roster is in need of a talent infusion across the board. The Cincinnati Bengals’ roster is no exception, giving them a relatively straightforward draft approach of simply taking the best player available throughout. The defense needs playmakers across the board, especially in the front seven, and the offensive line needs more help even with the signing of Riley Reiff and Jonah Williams‘ return from injury. The key pivot-point of their draft will come right away at pick five, where the Bengals will be debating between offensive tackle Penei Sewell or a playmaker for Joe Burrow.

If the Bengals do go with a playmaker at pick five, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase is the likely pick. Whether the Bengals draft Chase or not, it looks fairly certain that Cincinnati will address the position within the first three or four rounds of the draft. While some fantasy managers might get scared off of Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd with the addition of another pass-catcher, I’m not so sure that they all can’t find success. The Bengals quietly have a bunch of targets up for grabs, as the departure of A.J. Green frees up 104 targets from 2020. All three of Boyd, Higgins, and Green topped 100 targets last year, and that was with only half a season from Burrow and with Green struggling mightily (he caught just 47 of those 104 targets). Burrow was averaging 40 passing attempts per game before his injury, second in the league to only Ben Roethlisberger, and while those numbers could come down post-injury, it seems clear that this offense will be built around spreading things out for Burrow to run the show. Higgins and Boyd are signed through 2024, but the rest of the receivers on the roster become free agents after this season, and outside of some flashes from Auden Tate as a possession receiver, there isn’t much standing in the way of a rookie to have a bright future. Whether that rookie comes at pick five or in the third round, this is a clear area of opportunity for fantasy purposes.

The Bengals could certainly use a tight end like Kyle Pitts, so it’s possible they take him at pick five. Cincinnati took tight end Drew Sample as the 52nd overall pick in 2019, a head-scratcher as Sample profiles as a low-ceiling receiving option. C.J. Uzomah has been solid, but irrelevant for fantasy purposes, and is coming off of a dreaded Achilles injury. Thaddeus Moss was signed in the offseason and is a former teammate of Burrow’s at LSU, but his health is a question mark as well. So while the opportunity is certainly there for a rookie tight end to contribute, it is a notoriously tough position to get production out of in year one, so anyone outside of Pitts can be ignored for the 2021 season.

With Joe Mixon under contract through the 2025 season, it’s unlikely Cincinnati uses an early pick on a running back. I wouldn’t rule out a pick somewhere in the fourth-round range, however, as the departure of Giovani Bernard and his 59 targets from 2020 leaves an opening for the third-down role. The Bengals like their backup running back in Samaje Perine, so they wouldn’t be looking for a three-down back. But a pass-catcher could find the field right away if he excels in the role, making him a potential deep dynasty league stash.

 

Cleveland Browns: WR

 

While the Browns will be addressing their defense throughout the draft, they are relatively settled at the skill positions. Baker Mayfield is under contract for two more seasons on his rookie deal, and while it has been far from a perfect start to his career, the Browns aren’t looking for his replacement anytime soon. Kareem Hunt is signed through the 2022 season while Nick Chubb enters the final year of his contract in 2021, giving the Browns one of the league’s best backfield tandems yet again this season. While they could be searching for a replacement for Chubb in next year’s draft, this backfield would be too crowded to address the issue a year early. Austin Hooper is signed through the 2023 season, Harrison Bryant was a fourth-round pick just last year, and David Njoku enters the final year of his contract. That leaves just one position with any fantasy opportunity in the upcoming draft.

The Browns have just four receivers on their roster due guaranteed money over the remainder of their contracts. Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones round out the back end of the position, with Higgins entering the final year of his deal while Peoples-Jones was a sixth-round pick in 2020. A rookie with some decent draft capital should have a leg up on both if they impress early, giving a potential draft pick an inside track at the third wide-out job.

Of course, there are two giant roadblocks starting in Cleveland with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and both could be in town for a while. OBJ is coming off an ACL injury and has been mentioned in trade rumors from time to time, but for now, Beckham Jr. is under contract through 2023. His contract allows the Browns to trade him without cap issues at any time, and this is the final year of his contract with guaranteed money left on the deal. Entering his age 29 season, this may be a make or break season for OBJ’s future in Cleveland. Landry is the same age as Beckham and becomes a free agent after the 2022 season, though the Browns can move on with relatively little financial penalty at any time.

The 2020 draft may give us a glimpse of Cleveland’s evaluation of their receiving corps. An early-round pick could signal the end is near for OBJ or Landry, making a potential pick an intriguing option. Another mid to late-round receiver likely implies that the Browns are willing to ride with what they have in a relatively low-volume passing offense. A rookie receiver in Cleveland is likely more of a dynasty asset than redraft, but keep an eye on an early-round rookie as this situation could change quickly.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers: RB

 

The Steelers have a relatively narrow range of holes to fill in the 2021 draft, making them simple to project from a fantasy perspective. While they could certainly look to take their quarterback of the future as Ben Roethlisberger approaches the end of his career, any rookie taken is unlikely to have any fantasy relevance until 2022 at the earliest. With the re-signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have a full pass-catching corps, with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and James Washington rounding out a strong group. Smith-Schuster and Washington will be free agents in 2022 so there could be a long-term opportunity here, but a wide receiver taken this year would be buried on the depth chart. With Eric Ebron back for another year, a rookie tight end is unlikely to contribute off the bat.

Running back, however, is a glaring hole in the Steelers’ eyes, and one that they are likely to address early on in this week’s draft. In fact, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette all but guarantees that the Steelers will draft a running back within the first two rounds. Pittsburgh has been trying to replace Le’Veon Bell for years and has thrown substantial draft capital at the position. The recently departed James Conner was a third-round pick in 2017, Jaylen Samuels was a fifth-round pick in 2018, Benny Snell was taken in the fourth round in 2019, and Anthony McFarland was a fourth-round pick in 2020. While none of those running backs were taken exceptionally early, those picks add up, and the fact that the Steelers are ready to spend an early pick on a bell-cow running back doesn’t bode well for McFarland’s future after a rookie season with just 39 touches. We know what Samuels and Snell are at this point, and with Kalen Ballage and Trey Edmunds also on the roster, a first or second-round rookie running back would likely lead to the release of one or two of these running backs.

Head coach Mike Tomlin has preferred the bell-cow running back treatment during his career, and his recent extension keeps him in town through 2024. Alabama running back Najee Harris has been frequently mocked to the Steelers at pick 24, and his versatility would lock him into the early rounds of upcoming fantasy football drafts. Regardless of who is selected, any early-round running back has a massive opportunity in front of them, as this is one of the six best landing spots from a fantasy perspective. Be ready to draft the Steelers’ rookie running back early in drafts.

 

(Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire)

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