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AFC West Fantasy Football Deep-Dive: Best Picks, Sleepers, Draft Advice for 2021

A team-by-team deep dive, bringing you the best of the AFC West for 2021 fantasy football.

With the 2021 NFL season fast approaching, I’ve taken it upon myself to go division-by-division and breakdown each team for 2021 fantasy football. For each team, I’ve picked the best fantasy options and a few up-and-comers on the roster who could have sneaky fantasy value this coming season. I’ve also included Sharp Football’s Strength of Schedule Metrics for each team (1st = easiest, 32nd = hardest) and my own 2021 .5PPR rankings for the players were applicable.

Denver Broncos
Overall Strength of ScheduleOpposing Off. EfficiencyOpposing Def. EfficiencyOpposing Pass D EfficiencyOpposing Run D Efficiency
7th4th1st1st2nd

The 2021 Denver Broncos should have no issue imposing their offensive game plan on opponents for the majority of the season. By and large, their foes offer terribly inefficient offensive and defensive units. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur prefers a 50:50 run/pass ratio on 1st-half early-downs, per Sharp Football’s Situational Run:Pass Ratios metrics, with meat potatoes deep-shot passing game methods.

Broncos quarterbacks combined for 556 passing attempts last year (19th), 28 of which via run-pass options (T-16th), and 114 via play-action (19th). Although it’s fair to mention Drew Lock was banged up from time to time, his passing deficiencies were costly. His 9.1 intended air yards per attempt ranked fourth-highest in the NFL yet his Completion Percentage Above Expectation (CPAE) of -3.9% was third-worst in the league. Should Teddy Bridgewater steal the job from Lock, a sharp increase in overall offensive production should be expected.

Fantasy managers may be turned off by Teddy’s 7.3 intended air yards last year, but his 2.3 CPAE (13th in the NFL) is a night and day difference. Should Shurmur coax a bit more aggressiveness out of the conservative passer, we’ll have an extremely fantasy-friendly offense on our hands.

Early drafters may also strike gold were a trade for Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson come to fruition.

The Best” Fantasy Picks

WR Courtland Sutton (My 2021 rank: WR19)

Sutton suffered tears to his ACL and MCL in Week 2 of the 2020 season but he’s on track to play without restriction in 2021. Per Dr. Edwin Porras, the average time to return from an ACL repair is 11 to 12 months but there’s no difference in re-injury rate between months 9 (May in this case) and 12 (August). Soft-tissue injuries (ie. hamstring pull) resulting in missed time, post-ACL reconstruction, occur at a rate of just 10%. Sutton is not expected to start training camp on the PUP list.

Sutton’s 2019 sophomore campaign put the league on notice when he hung 2.08 yards per route run on opposing CBs (12th-highest/min. 100 targets) while catching 54.5% of his contested targets (10th), per PFF.com. Although not typically considered a sticky stat, one can’t help being impressed by the difference in his yards after catch per reception (5.2) vs. his expected yards after catch per reception (3.7) from 2019.

Given the cake walk of a schedule, Sutton should have no issue beating his impressive .5PPR WR19 finish in 2019. Per FF Calculator, Sutton is currently being drafted in the seventh round as the WR30. Draft him aggressively, a round ahead of his ADP.

WR Jerry Jeudy (WR40)

Jeudy had a decent 2020, finishing fifth in yards per route run (1.66) amongst the five rookie receivers with at least 100 targets and 29th in the NFL overall, per PFF. His on-target drop percentage (18.8%) was also fifth. The return of mentor/teammate, Courtland Sutton, should aid Jeudy’s development in 2021. The aforementioned strength of schedule metrics are also a boon to his outlook. Jeudy can be drafted as a high-floor/high-ceiling flex option across all formats.

TE Noah Fant (TE16)

Fant should have a much easier 2021 with the return of No. 1 WR Courtland Sutton and the possibility of an upgrade at quarterback. Fant’s slot snap percentage dipped roughly 12% from 2019 to 2020, as the developing tight end was forced to pick up some of Sutton’s slack on the perimeter. Fant’s 1.64 yards per route run were sixth at the position last year, helping him earn the first top-12 .5PPR finish of his career.

RB Javonte Williams (RB33)

Matt Waldman’s No. 3 and “safest” running back in the 2021 NFL Draft class, Javonte Williams is in line to take over as the Broncos’ lead back as early as Week 1. With the free agency departure of Phillip Lindsay, it’s a battle between the second-rounder Williams and the nearly washed up veteran Melvin Gordon. Gordon is still a decent pass catcher but his roster spot does not seem secure. The DUI Gordon earned in 2020 certainly doesn’t help his situation. Given the schedule and potential workload, Williams is looking like a league-altering pick at his current .5PPR RB38, eighth-round ADP.

Sandlot Up-and-Comers

WR K.J. Hamler

Hamler’s rookie campaign was derailed by recurring hamstring issues and a late-season concussion. Hamler’s on-field speed and downfield prowess was firmly on display when he was able to take the field though. Early offseason bestball drafters should consider Hamler with a late-round pick as Denver’s soft schedule and the potential for a serious upgrade at quarterback are likely to result in healthy doses of shot plays throughout 2021.

RB Mike Boone

The newly signed Mike Boone, he of outrageous Pro Day and preseason fame, has found himself in a backup battle with the once promising veteran running back, Royce Freeman. Freeman has seen ample opportunity in Denver but has never secured a prominent role for himself—same goes for Boone at his previous home in Minnesota. Boone’s elite athleticism, Denver’s delicious strength of schedule, and the outside chance that Melvin Gordon gets cut offer early off-season drafters a chance at selecting Denver’s No. 2 RB in Round 13 of .5PPR drafts, per FF Calculator.

Kansas City Chiefs
Overall Strength of ScheduleOpposing Off. EfficiencyOpposing Def. EfficiencyOpposing Pass D EfficiencyOpposing Run D Efficiency
20th7th7th8th3rd

Kansas City’s strength of schedule metrics are so soft that fantasy managers should seriously consider drafting three to four of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Patrick Mahomes, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire in their respective, corresponding rounds.

The Best” Fantasy Picks

QB Patrick Mahomes (My 2021 rank: QB1)

The most talented quarterback in the NFL, coached by one of the greatest offensive minds of our time. That KC’s opponent’s by and large can’t play defense locks Mahomes in as the fantasy QB1 for 2021.

WR Tyreek Hill (WR1)

Having only ever missed time due to an impact injury (sternum/shoulder), Hill’s biggest availability concern is his long history of off-field issues. When it comes to fantasy, Hill is well worth drafting as an elite WR1 in the first or second rounds of redraft leagues. It’s tough to beat the opportunity afforded as Patrick Mahomes’ No. 1 wide receiver.

TE Travis Kelce (TE1)

Since 2016, Kelce’s been the position’s top scorer in four of five seasons, surrendering the top spot in 2017 by just 0.8 .5PPR points to Rob Gronkowski. As evidenced by his 105 receptions, 1,416 receiving yards, and 11 receiving touchdowns—respectively fifth, second, and fifth in the NFL last year across all positions—Kelce is far more than just a good tight end. He’s an elite fantasy option who long ago earned Round 1 consideration.

RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB14)

From Week 12 on, CEH was battling illnesses and injuries, yet still managed to clear 1,000 yards from scrimmage and score 5 touchdowns in his rookie season. Both Le’Veon Bell and Damien Williams are gone, leaving the limited, if proficient receiving back Darrel Williams as the No. 2 and the young Darwin Thompson to duke it out with Elijah McGuire, who hasn’t played a regular season snap since 2018 for the No. 3 role. CEH seems a safe bet to see 20+ touches per week in the NFL’s best offense. Coupling thishttps://nerdballff.com/2021-fantasy-football-breakout-candidates-based-on-touchdown-dependency/ with KC’s strength of schedule metrics, and it’s easy to see why his early-third round ADP is an extremely reasonable place to draft him.

Related: 2021 Fantasy Football Breakout Candidates Based on Touchdown Dependency

Sandlot Up-and-Comers

WR Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman

With Sammy Watkins a recently signed to the Baltimore Ravens, a role that averaged 578 snaps per season over the last three years is now vacant. During that time frame, Watkins operated as an inside/outside receiver, lining up in the slot 670 times while working out wide 645 times, per PFF. For the duration of Mecole Hardman’s two NFL seasons, the speedster has been deployed much in the same way as Watkins, taking near equal snaps both in the slot and out wide.

The toolsy Demarcus Robinson, meanwhile, has been glued to the perimeter, rarely kicking inside pre-snap. The offseason has been abuzz with talk of more two-tight end sets in KC. But even if the hubbub is true, it’s unlikely 12 personnel is deployed at a rate higher than 20%. A scenario where Hardman takes over full-time slot duties while Robinson does the same on the perimeter is well within the duo’s range of outcomes for 2021. With both players coming off the board in the 12th Round or later, fantasy managers should plan on keeping a bench spot open for one of the two.

RB Darwin Thompson

Our own Clark Barnes has been singing the praises of Thompson’s potential since the Chiefs added him in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Although both his 40-yard time (4.55) and 10-yard split (1.58) leave a little to be desired, the explosiveness and cutting ability that Thompson demonstrated via the jumping and shuttle drills more than made up for it. Should Thompson see even 8-10 touches in Andy Reid’s scheme, he’d need to be rostered across all formats.

Las Vegas Raiders
Overall Strength of ScheduleOpposing Off. EfficiencyOpposing Def. EfficiencyOpposing Pass D EfficiencyOpposing Run D Efficiency
30th1st26th27th6th

Las Vegas has a chance to win a few games this year. Although they face a number of frightening offenses like the division rival Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers, a bevy of unsettled signal caller situations are on tap this year. Although LV’s slate of opposing defenses is somewhat daunting, defensive play on a year-to-year basis is a tough thing to keep humming at a high level.

The Best” Fantasy Picks

TE Darren Waller (My 2021 rank: TE2)

Since becoming a full-time player for the Raiders in 2019, Waller has been a mismatch nightmare for opposing coverage units. The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder moves like that of a 210-pound wide receiver and per PFF, actually spent more time lining up as a wideout than he did in the slot. His 2020 season-long stat line of 107 catches/140 targets, 1,196 yards, and 9 touchdowns yielded 225.1 .5PPR fantasy points, good for second at the position behind Travis Kelce (260.3). Removing the TE designation, that 225.1 point total would’ve landed him as both the WR8 and the RB8. Accordingly, his late second round ADP in .5PPR scoring is unflinchingly warranted.

RB Josh Jacobs (RB25)

Jacobs barely makes the cut here as he’s potentially the most game-script dependent lead back in the league. Despite scoring 19 touchdowns in his two NFL seasons, a respectable total to be sure, only two of those scores came in Raiders losses. Head coach Jon Gruden has talked up Jacobs’ receiving ability ahead of each season, yet continues to invest serious cap space in a slew of pass catching backs.

Perhaps the “biggest name” receiving back of Jacobs’ tenure was signed this offseason in veteran Kenyan Drake. Without reliable weekly reception totals or touchdown opportunities, Jacobs fails to offer match-up-proof appeal. That said, when the Raiders are the favored team, Josh Jacobs is set to eat—like a top-5 fantasy RB type of eat.

2,619 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns while only operating as a two-down back is an impressive feat. Given the aforementioned concerns, his early third round ADP is a tough pill to swallow though. Definition of Low-Floor/High-Ceiling.

Sandlot Up-and-Comers

WR Henry Ruggs, John Brown

Henry Ruggs flopped in his 2020 rookie season, which led to a career year for veteran receiver Nelson Agholor. After using a first round NFL Draft pick on Ruggs, the plan surely included heaps of highlight reels. Instead, as evidenced by both Ruggs and Agholor being top 6 in average targeted air yards last year, when faith was lost in Ruggs, Agholor took over the downfield role with aplomb.

Hope rang anew for Henry when Agholor took his talents to New England. But shortly after, Vegas signed the talented, if oft-injured, John Brown to a one-year prove-it deal. Despite the muddied waters, the one thing we do know is that head coach Jon Gruden can scheme up deep a ball. With Ruggs and Brown coming off the 12th and 13th rounds of .5PPR drafts right now, a shot is warranted on either one of them. Someone is going to get the job done for Las Vegas.

Los Angeles Chargers
Overall Strength of ScheduleOpposing Off. EfficiencyOpposing Def. EfficiencyOpposing Pass D EfficiencyOpposing Run D Efficiency
11th5th4th13th1st

The 2021 Chargers are set to face a slew of defenses that largely can’t stop anything. In the instances where a competent defense is lining up on the opposite side of the ball, they’re accompanied by lights out offenses, in which case LAC is going to be forced to push the pace. A high pace means a high-volume of attempts, yards, scores, and fantasy points. So it’s a win-win all around.

The upheaval of Los Angeles’ coaching department is perhaps the most important off-season change that occurred this year. He of the three-yards-and-a-pile-of-losses ilk, former head coach Anthony Lynn spent four years running the Chargers’ offense into brick walls and out of Super Bowl contention. Thankfully he’s off to Detroit, helping the swift descent of Jared Goff’s career as the Lions’ new offensive coordinator.

College quarterback-turned-defensive mastermind, Brandon Staley, took over as LA’s new head coach a few months back. After doing so, Staley swiftly stole Joe Lombardi away from his five-year tenure as quarterbacks coach of the New Orleans Saints, promoting him to the role of offensive coordinator.

Notable New Orleans Saints accomplishments during Joe Lombardi’s tenure:

 

No one is making the case that Joe Lombardi is solely responsible for these records. His partner in crime during his NOLA era, Drew Brees, has a solid claim to that honor though. The wisdom that Lombardi gleaned, day after day, walking the halls of the Saints training facility with Brees is sure to be helpful in his next endeavor. The similarities between the Saints’ and Chargers’ core offensive personnel are striking; a smart, mobile quarterback working primarily with a big-bodied inside/outside alpha receiver and an exceptionally talented dual threat bellcow back. This transition was seemingly crafted for us by the football gods. Heed their sign!

The Best” Fantasy Picks

QB Justin Herbert (My 2021 rank: QB5)

Thrust into action in Week 2 of the 2020 season after a team doctor accidentally punctured the lung of starting QB Tyrod Taylor during a routine injection, Herbert stormed his way to the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. In just 15 games as LA’s starter, Herbert set the rookie passing touchdown record (31 TDs), became the youngest player to throw at least 30 TDs, set the total TD rookie record (36 TDs), while falling just 39-yards short of the rookie passing record—and he did all of those without first-team prep in the COVID-19 offseason, playing for one of the worst head coaches in the league.

Herbert enters 2021 with a full training camp’s worth of first-team reps ahead of him and a vastly improved coaching staff.

WR Keenan Allen (WR5)

Perhaps the most talented pure route runner in the NFL, Keenan Allen is primed for a career year in 2021. Philip Rivers was an excellent quarterback but LA’s play-calling left a lot to be desired over the last decade. Brandon Staley’s here to change all of that.

Allen’s ability to lineup both on the perimeter and in the slot makes him a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses. Over the last three seasons, Allen’s lined up in the slot between 51-56% of the time, seeing no fewer than 137 total targets in a given season, per PFF. The only time he finished outside of the position’s top 12 during that time span was last year, when he spent two games on the COVID-19/Reserve list. Through those 14 games though, Allen was still able to produce overall WR14 numbers. The fact that this guy is projected to face the fifth-least efficient slate of opposing pass defenses this season is the cherry on top.

RB Austin Ekeler (RB4)

It took a hamstring injury that involved his muscle being ripped from the bone, resulting in six games missed (Week 5-Week 11), to keep Austin Ekeler from eclipsing 1,000 scrimmage yards last year (933). After returning from that gruesome injury, without ample offseason time to rest and recover, Ekeler racked up the eighth-most points at the position in .5PPR formats. Now fully healthy, Ekeler can be expected to see somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 touches this year. The young back saw 224 touches in 2019 but was forced to split time with nominal lead back Melvin Gordon. During that span, Ekeler (95.0) trailed the overall RB1, Christian McCaffrey (99.4), by just a handful of .5PPR points.

Two added bonuses for Ekeler’s 2021 outlook are the schedule—LAC is projected to face the softest slate of opposing run defense this year—and a vastly improved offensive line unit.

Per PFF, LAC’s offensive line was the third-worst pass blocking unit and the worst run blocking unit in the league in 2020. Injuries and COVID-19 derailed the seasons of LA’s two decent offensive linemen, stud right tackle Bryan Bulaga and right guard Trai Turner, while a combination of replacement-play and dreadful bodies made up the rest of the offensive line. Turner then departed in free agency.

The Chargers used the 13th overall pick this year on LT Rashawn Slater, a player some considered to be in contention for LT1 honors of the 2021 draft class. The Bolts further bolstered their line by adding veteran left guard Oday Aboushi. (A highlight reel of Aboushi’s 2020 play, crafted by noted offensive line guru Brandon Thorn can be found here.) To solidify the rest of the line, the team added long-time Steelers starter RG Matt Feiler and C Corey Linsley who took home 2020 All-Pro honors while also finishing as PFF’s No. 1 ranked Center. Austin Ekeler needs to be drafted as a top 5 pick this year.

WR Mike Williams

While “Big” Mike Williams has been the rare oft-injured player that routinely racks up impact-injuries rather than soft tissue strains/pulls, his highlight reel certainly isn’t lacking. As evidenced by his league-leading average targeted air yards in 2019 (17.4), followed by his near repeat performance in 2020 (15.1, T-8th), it’s clear that Williams offers dynamic, field tilting potential as his team’s primary downfield weapon.

Entering 2021, the fifth-year man has significant motivating factors at play; the shot to make a splash-signing in free agency and the need to outplay his competition. NFL newcomers Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson showed well on limited opportunities last year. The front office then drafted downfield receiver Josh Palmer in the third round of the NFL Draft after Palmer led the Tennessee Volunteers in receiving yards. Mike Williams gets first crack at the Chargers’ trough of lacking pass defenses this year though. Adding him in the 11th round of your season-long redraft league is a nice way to add chunk gains and long touchdowns to your flex spot.

Sandlot Up-and-Comers

WR Jalen Guyton, Tyron Johnson, Josh Palmer

All three of these players are good speculative adds. As mentioned above Mike Williams plays with reckless abandon—and we love him for it—but injuries occur when players don’t make good business decisions on the field.

RB Justin Jackson

Despite a hot start from then-rookie Joshua Kelley, Justin Jackson far outplayed the oncoming rookie for the majority of 2020 and ended up being PFF’s highest graded rusher in the Chargers’ backfield. Competition was added to the bunch via a sixth round NFL Draft pick, Larry Rountree, but Rountree’s athletic testing was closer to that of an offensive lineman than a running back.