With the 2021 NFL Draft is in the books, now comes the time when the dust settles, and we start figuring out what these new NFL rosters look like and what that means for fantasy football. I mean, we just watched 259 new players enter the league, and that’s not including undrafted free agents. That’s a lot of change to process.
To help distill all this change and roster additions, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite rookies for fantasy this year based on the new team and situation they find themselves in.
WR Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
As more or less the consensus top receiver in this year’s draft, Ja’Marr Chase was going to be a top fantasy pick regardless where he was drafted. But it’s hard not to get overly excited at the idea of Chase being reunited with his college quarterback Joe Burrow with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The last time we saw Burrow and Chase play together, Chase caught 84 balls for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2019 at LSU. Now I’m not expecting those numbers for Chase his rookie year. The step from college to the NFL is a big one, especially for wide receivers, and there will of course be growing pains. However, I expect those pains to be somewhat diminished by the fact that Chase and Burrow already have a well established chemistry and that the Bengals offense implemented parts of LSU’s offense back in 2020 when the drafted Burrow.
The offense is also ripe for fantasy production at the receiver position. Before he tore his ACL, Burrow was on pace to throw 646 pass attempts last year, which would have thrust him well atop the NFL (2020’s attempts leader was Matt Ryan with 626). Naturally the more pass attempts a team has, the more targets and receptions for receivers to have. And there will be plenty of targets available in the Bengals offense this season with A.J. Green leaving in free agency.
Green last year accounted for 18% of the Bengals’ targets (104) and 30% of their air yards. In fact, Green’s 1,421 air yards last year ranked him 9th in the NFL and his 13.4 aDOT (average depth of target) was 6th among receivers with at least 65 targets. If the Bengals were this comfortable pushing the ball downfield to their 30-year-old receiver, imagine what they’ll do with a talent like Chase.
I have a hard time believing that, assuming Chase and Burrow play all 17 games, Chase doesn’t finish a top 15 receiver in fantasy this season. Can’t ask for much better production than that from a rookie wideout.
RB Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
I’m going to start with the positives here. Whenever the top running back in a draft class goes to an offense that has no competition at the position and gives the player a real shot at 300+ touches in a season, that’s a win. A big win. And that is the case with Najee Harris going to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers’ running back depth chart currently reads Harris, Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr., and Kalen Ballage. Not exactly oozing with competition there. With last year’s top back James Conner in Arizona, Harris is sitting very nicely in a backfield with no committee to be seen and in an offense that has a history of overloading their backs with touches. The Steelers tried to do it to Conner before his body started to break down—Conner averaged 18.9 touches in games he started in Pittsburgh—and Le’Veon Bell of course was a workhorse for the Steelers, averaging 19.1 touches per game, 307 per season, in his time there.
Like I said earlier, Harris has one of the best chances in the entire league at seeing 300+ touches in 2020. That is rightfully worth getting excited about.
A word of caution to this tale: The Steelers had literally the worst offensive line last year per DVOA and then lost their starting center Maurkice Pouncey to retirement and starting tackle Alejandro Villanueva in free agency (and to their rival Baltimore Ravens no less). They tried to address the position in the draft—taking Kendrick Green in the third and Dan Moore Jr. in the fourth—but don’t expect this line to suddenly be one of the best in the league. The volume Harris is likely going to see his rookie year alone endows him with RB1 potential, but he might not be the most efficient back to watch.
WR Terrace Marshall Jr., Carolina Panthers
Terrace Marshall Jr. is a tall, physical receiver who made his name at LSU winning 50/50 balls for Joe Burrow in and around the end zone. It’s why across the last two years of college football, only DeVonta Smith and Jaelon Darden had more receiving touchdowns than Marshall—37 and 31 respectively to Marshall’s 23. For a Carolina Panthers’ team that only managed to throw 16 passing touchdowns last year (T-31st in the NFL), with only 9 of those in the red zone (T-18th in the NFL), adding a weapon like Marshall instantly gives him fantasy appeal.
But wait, there’s more!
While being a big red zone target does comes with inherent fantasy value, it’s even better when your old college wide receivers and passing game coach is now your offensive coordinator. And it’s even better when the team with your old college coach spends a second round pick to ensure you’re on their team. You can bet OC Joe Brady has very clear plans for Marshall in his rookie year and the familiarity with the Panthers offense and terminology will likely help Marshall hit the ground running and be able to make an instant impact in Carolina.
What the Panthers’ passing attack will look like with Sam Darnold now at the helm is a little up in the air given that Darnold has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league since he was drafted third overall by the New York Jets. Still, could we see a Ryan Tannehill-esque second act when he’s finally out from under Adam Gase’s storm cloud? It’s entirely possible. Losing Curtis Samuel and Mike Davis in free agency also opens up 167 targets in the Panthers offense so there’s a sizable hole for the rookie to step into.
Marshall might not see the target share or yards that Chase or Smith will in Cincy and with the Philadelphia Eagles, but I could easily see him posting close to double digit touchdowns given his role at LSU and the Panthers need for just such a receiver.
WR Amari Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers and the NFL cognoscenti have been dying for the Green Bay Packers to draft a first round wide receiver for what’s felt like a decade. While that still didn’t happen this year, the Packers did at least invest in the position, trading up for Amari Rodgers in the third round. Not first round, but don’t let it dissuade you from Rodgers’ potential catching passes from Rodgers (that joke is going to get old fast).
In his senior year at Clemson, Rodgers was Trevor Lawrence’s favorite receiver, tallying 1,020 yards on 77 catches and 7 touchdowns. Rodgers isn’t a vertical, down-the-field receiver—which is good given that Green Bay has plenty of those in their offense—but rather a speedy, yards-after-catch slot receiver who’s built like a running back and is tough to bring down because of it. Think of how Deebo Samuel is used in Kyle Shanahan’s offense in San Francisco. That’s how I could see Matt LaFluer deploying Rodgers in Green Bay. That’s great news for fantasy because it means easy catches at or near the line of scrimmage (great for PPR) and then Rodgers utilizing his athleticism to make plays, something he does extremely well.
I don’t want to say Rodgers is Randall Cobb, but the Packers offense has certainly missed a Cobb like receiver in their offense for some time now and Rodgers has the clearest path to step into that gaping void.
RB Michael Carter, New York Jets
Unless the New York Jets had just completely ignored their backfield, I was going to be high on which ever running back they drafted. That’s what happens when your backfield is Tevin Coleman and Ty Johnson. That duo is just begging to be replaced by Week 3 and never see the field consistently again.
Picking Michael Carter in the fourth round though adds an even greater level of excitement for me.
While he doesn’t boast game wrecking speed, Carter does have elite explosion. His 10.81 Player Profiler agility score (player’s 20-yard short shuttle time plus their 3-cone drill time) puts him in the 98th percentile in the league. Carter’s ability to instantly accelerate with a propensity to hit the right hole and get up field, is a deadly pairing for defenses. His senior year at North Carolina he averaged 8.0 yards per carry (T-4th best in college football) on 156 carries along with 10.7 yards per reception on 25 catches. Oh yes, Carter is also a solid pass catcher out of the backfield.
Carter’s one-cut running style fits perfectly into the zone running scheme head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur—both coming from Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers—are likely to implement in New York. Add to that that the Jets invested once again into their offensive line, drafting guard Alijah Vera-Tucker in the 1st round after taking Mekhi Becton in the first round last year, and you can see the blueprint for an impressive ground game in New York, led by Carter.
Given that he’s wasn’t considered one of the top three backs in this class, Carter’s ADP might not climb to the heights of guys like Harris or Travis Etienne or even Trey Sermon, but he finds himself in a situation which he could easily put forward high-end RB2 numbers.