Preseason football has kicked off, ushering in the heart of fantasy football draft season. Drew DeLuca’s Five Bold Predictions for 2021 will help you expect the unexpected. Follow him on Twitter at @DrewDeLaware for more tips and predictions as the regular season approaches.
George Kittle will not be a Top 5 TE
George Kittle is a consensus top-three tight end, so this may smell like a “hot take” at first sniff. However, is it really a stretch to say that Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, T. J. Hockenson, Mark Andrews, and Kyle Pitts all have the ability to finish in the top five?
Sure, the odds might seem high for all five to beat out Kittle, but let’s also consider the field: Robert Tonyan and Logan Thomas both entered that stratosphere last year, so even “the field” outside of the five elite tight ends listed above offers a reasonable chance of producing at least one top-five finish.
More importantly, let’s roll up our sleeves and analyze the San Francisco 49ers offensive situation. For starters, there is a quarterback controversy brewing, and lack of continuity at the position presents at least a small degree of inherent risk. Also, while rookie Trey Lance (we hope) will ultimately win that job, he is a threat to run often and call his own number inside the red zone, potentially capping Kittle’s touchdown tally.
Furthermore, with budding star wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk both healthy, Kittle will face more competition for targets than he ever has in the past. That is, of course, when the 49ers actually decide to pass. The 49ers were unable to run as much as they like to during a lost 2020 season; let’s not forget that only the Baltimore Ravens finished with a higher run/pass ratio than the 49ers in 2019.
With the Draft Day additions of Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell, not to mention steady veteran Wayne Gallman, the 49ers are entering the 2021 season with a full running back stable behind the swift and mobile Lance. A run-heavier approach in 2021, coupled with the presence of healthy Samuel and Aiyuk, should give Kittle a lower ceiling than most fantasy football analysts believe. Kittle will absolutely finish as a TE1 (Top 12), but there’s a good chance he’ll finish outside of the top five. I’ll pass on him at his current ADP and take my chances a few rounds later with Hockenson, Andrews, or Pitts.
Terrace Marshall, Jr. will be a WR3 (Top 36) or Better
Terrace Marshall, Jr. will be a top 36 wide receiver in 2021, yet he doesn’t appear at WR36 or better on my rankings. Why? It’s a reflection of where I believe he can be obtained in drafts right now. According to FantasyPros (as of August 16), Marshall is being drafted as WR71 at 205 overall. Why spend a relatively high draft pick on a player we can draft several rounds later? The question doesn’t need an answer, just like his exceptional talent doesn’t require elaboration. We’ll do so anyway.
According to PlayerProfiler.com, Marshall posted an above-average Dominator Rating, (6’2″, 205 lbs) at LSU, meaning he commanded more than his fair share of targets on a deep and talented team. His Breakout Age of 19.2 (84th percentile) tells us that his dominance in college football’s most competitive conference began as a sophomore, when he caught an impressive 75.4% of his 61 targets for 671 yards and an astonishing 13 touchdowns.
Marshall continued to take up residence in the end zone after Joe Burrow left for the NFL, logging 10 trips in just 7 games in a COVID-shortened 2020 season. The Carolina Panthers’ Round 2 selection picked up where he left off in training camp, astonishing fellow teammates and beat writers with his athleticism and skill–traits he put on display in the first week of the preseason:
Terrace Marshall Jr. in Week 1 of NFL preseason
💥 2 catches of 20+ yards (1st)
💥 45 yards after catch (2nd) pic.twitter.com/e399azr3xf
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) August 16, 2021
Most analysts recognize Marshall’s talents, but they’re fading him because of the presence of incumbent wide receivers Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore; let’s remember, though, that Moore has played as many games with new QB Sam Darnold as the phenomenal rookie out of LSU. Head coach Matt Rhule said he intends to “force-feed” Marshall, who should spend a lot of time in the slot matched up against cornerbacks of inferior size and talent.
With Darnold operating behind a suspect offensive line, Marshall could be on the receiving end of a high volume of quick, high percentage gains. The rookie has the talent to take quite a few of those to the house, and his size/speed combination should likewise create glaring mismatch opportunities inside the red zone as defenses are forced to account for Christian McCaffrey, Moore, and Anderson.
Najee Harris will Finish as a Top Five RB
The Pittsburgh Steelers are synonymous with two things: a crushing defense and a formidable rushing attack. The latter has been missing from the franchise for the past few seasons. Enter first-round draft pick Najee Harris (6’1″, 232 lbs.), a do-it-all wunderkind from Alabama who should be the first rookie running back to post a top 5 season since Saquon Barkley‘s first overall finish in 2018.
Over the last five seasons, eight different running backs posted a RB1 (Top 12) season as first-year players. Highlighted below are four top 5 rookie finishes from this group (data per FantasyPros and Statmuse):
Harris checks all of the critical boxes in Ryan Heath’s outstanding League Winning Running Backs article: ADP before pick 27 overall, age 25 or under, first-round draft capital, above-average speed score, and a healthy target share (projected). Add to this the three most important words for any successful first-round running back:
Volume, Volume, and Volume.
Few running backs will be afforded as many opportunities on the ground or through the air. Harris’ detractors point to the Steelers’ poor offensive line as a primary reason to fade him. That sounds like a good theory, but Harris should see few stacked boxes due to a stellar WR core. Connect the dots, and Najee Harris is poised for a monster year in his rookie campaign.
At Least Three Second-Year WRs will Finish in the Top 12
While elite rookie running backs have an established track record of success, wide receivers are a different story: Justin Jefferson is the exception, not the norm. However, there is no shortage of second-year wide receivers who have enjoyed breakout campaigns, and 2021 should be a banner year for them.
Jefferson exploded on the scene in 2020, hauling in 88 passes for 1,400 yards and 7 touchdowns. Typically, wide receivers demonstrate growth from Year 1 to Year 2, but even with a slight regression, Jefferson will still enjoy a repeat appearance on the Top 12 wide receiver list at the season’s end. CeeDee Lamb, the consensus top wide receiver in last year’s draft class, will join Jefferson in the top tier; so will Cincinnatti Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins.
Lamb enjoyed a quiet rookie year by comparison to Jefferson’s. Yet, the former Oklahoma Sooner still turned heads during a 74 reception, 935 yard, 5 touchdown season–all while catching passes from the likes of Andy Dalton, Garrett Gilbert, and Ben DiNucci. Expect a major breakout from Lamb with Dak Prescott back in the fold; even if the Dallas Cowboys signal-caller is well shy of 100% healthy this season, he represents a massive improvement over what Lamb had to work with last year.
Higgins is the next best bet to finish the 2021 season as a Top 12 wide receiver. Like Lamb, the Clemson product showed off exceptional skills when his star quarterback went down with a catastrophic season-ending injury. Higgins corralled 67 passes, racked up 936 yards from scrimmage, and found paydirt six times. With Burrow back in the saddle, Higgins is well-positioned for a DK Metcalf-like second-year breakout.
Even if one of those three doesn’t hit, don’t count out Jerry Jeudy, Chase Claypool, or Brandon Aiyuk. The latter two flashed elite-level talent in multiple games last year. Meanwhile, Jeudy appears to have made great strides during the offseason, drawing several ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from teammates, beat reporters, and fans alike.
Dak Prescott will Barely Finish as a QB1
Many chili peppers were tossed in my direction recently for an apparent “hot take” in which I called the leader of the Dallas Cowboys’ huddle a “bust” for 2021. From my Five Busts for 2021 Drafts article:
“We absolutely acknowledge and recognize Dak’s incredible upside as the leader of a potentially potent offense. However, when analyzing the spectrum of potential outcomes, we don’t believe his Top 40 ADP appropriately represents the risk inherent in taking a player who has yet to prove he’s anywhere near 100 percent after a gruesome injury that required immediate surgery.“
I’m doubling down on that take, as Prescott has already missed time this preseason with what may be his first of multiple compensation injuries on the heels of a gruesome ankle fracture and dislocation that ended his 2020 season. Prescott is being drafted near his ceiling, and we don’t know how low his floor is until we see him on the field. A quarterback so reliant on mobility will be hard-pressed to create plays both inside and outside of the pocket, making it difficult for Prescott to replicate the elite level of efficiency he enjoyed prior to last season’s injury.
Smart money says a decline in rushing production and reduced mobility in the pocket will keep Prescott from finishing ahead of the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, and Justin Herbert; expect most of these quarterbacks to outproduce Prescott in 2021 fantasy football leagues, along with a few others from the field.
Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare (@bearydoesgfx on Twitter)