A reflective Earl Campbell once quipped, “I did some good things as a rookie.”
Putting together a career — let alone a first-year fantasy effort — as storied as Campbell’s remains the exception, rather than the rule. That doesn’t stop fantasy heads from pinning championship hopes on each incoming class.
Najee Harris (14.8) and Kyle Pitts (47.8) were two of the highest-drafted rookies in 2021, both coming off boards in the first four rounds. Javonte Williams (66.3), Ja’Marr Chase (74.0), and Trey Sermon (76.5) were other popular picks, all selected before the halfway point of 12-team exercises.
Harris, Chase, and even Williams returned on investment. But what about the Year-1 wonders who may have been pinned, but certainly weren’t picked back in August? Or the players who failed to meet lofty expectations?
How will the market react to this past year’s biggest rookie hits and misses?
Quarterback: It’s messy
Like 2020 before it, 2021 continued to test the THIS IS THE WAY THINGS ARE tropes, in fantasy and IRL. Nothing showcased this more than the quarterback drama of April bleeding into August’s ADP. Despite sinking hefty draft capital on a new era QB, Trey Lance started just two games. Justin Fields logged 10 starts but was only thrown into action when Andy Dalton bruised a bone. Zach Wilson quickly discovered the meaning of a New York minute. And Trevor Lawrence … well … whew, welcome to the NFL, son.
Meanwhile Mac Jones — the least-hyped first-year player at the position — fared the best for fantasy. Jones averaged a paltry 13.8 fantasy points per game but closed out the year as the virtual game’s QB19 overall, ahead of Lawrence by 161 passing yards and 8 TDs (both played 17 games).
The coaching changes in Chicago and Jacksonville will add clarity. Right now, however, Fields is my highest-ranked QB of the spotlighted class. He’s not a precise passer, but his mobility (moreover, his agility) adds tangible upside to his stock. Fields was a top-10 producer in four of his last five games while averaging 35 rushing yards per contest (420 total, QB5).
With a full offseason under his belt in a system (hopefully) constructed around his specific skill set, the former Buckeye figures to land just inside of my top-15 players at the position heading into 2022.
RB: Najee is a beast, Javonte should be unleashed — but Trey did not slay
Najee Harris was the 24th overall pick in the NFL draft (and the first running back selected by the Steelers in the first round since Rashard Mendenhall back in 2008). He was the 16th overall pick in fantasy. While his rookie effort didn’t end on the brightest note, volume (381 total touches) in combination with pass-catching acumen (4.4 RPG, RB1), eagle-eye vision and athleticism (106 evaded tackles, RB2) propelled Harris into the top-five producers (15.5 fpts/gm) at the position. Change is coming to Pittsburgh, but Harris’ value as a workhorse isn’t going anywhere. I doubt he’ll fall to the second round of fantasy drafts next summer.
Javonte Williams was one of the most hyped rookies heading into 2021. Or rather, Melvin Gordon was one of the least respected vets heading into the season. While Williams successfully flashed the tackle-breaking ability that made him a start at North Carolina (32.9% juke rate, RB10), he was stuck in a frustratingly even timeshare.
Gordon has been upfront about wanting to renew his deal with the Broncos and stay in Denver. If, however, the team feels differently, then Williams’ should crush in orange AND for fantasy managers. With the right HC and QB, the 21-year-old has the potential to sneak into the first round come August.
And Twitter agrees:
Which (soon-to-be) second-year RB are you most excited to draft in fantasy 🏈 next year:
— Liz Loza (@LizLoza_FF) January 14, 2022
Michael Carter (RB28) and Rhamondre Stevenson (RB39) had their moments, each posting RB2 numbers a handful of times. Carter overcame negative game script via regular use in the passing game (55 targets, RB15). Meanwhile, Stevenson worked his way out of Bill Belichick’s dog house into a 1B role behind (the oft-injured) Damien Harris.
They’re both in offenses led by green signal callers, but that’s where the similarities end. Carter is agile (10.81). Stevenson is a bulldozer. The Jets backfield could add bodies this spring and that would obviously affect Carter’s stock. Stevenson’s situation, on the other hand, appears more static. For fantasy purposes, Carter is likely to exist in the dreaded RB dead zone while Stevenson makes for an intriguing zero-RB target.
Elijah Mitchell (RB24) and Trey Sermon were two of this year’s biggest rookie surprises … for totally different reasons. Mitchell — who flew completely under the radar through the bulk of the spring and summer — showcased his 97th percentile speed (4.4) in a scheme seemingly custom-tailored to his skill set. Meanwhile, Sermon inspired a glut of Shanahanagan-esque conspiracy theories.
After carrying the ball 27 times in the Niners' upset over the Cowboys, Mitchell appears to have secured his role as the team’s RB1 heading into 2022. With Raheem Mostert set to become a free agent in the spring, Sermon has the opportunity to work his way into the backfield mix next year … though the fact that he was a healthy scratch in Week 18 doesn’t bode well for his immediate involvement.
Right now, Mitchell is likely to land in RB20-ish territory while Sermon figures to spur on a glut of “buy-low” debates throughout the offseason. Given Mitchell’s durability concerns (he missed six regular-season games) I’d be willing to throw a dart at Sermon shortly after the aforementioned Stevenson was off the board.
WR: Chase was on the case, St. Brown looked heavenly and Moore left us wanting exactly that
I have already gushed about Ja'Marr Chase (WR5) — who went off for 139 total yards in his first postseason appearance — and his 2022 potential. He’s a top-15 pick next year.
Jaylen Waddle (WR16) may not have been used the way many initially expected (7.1 YPT), but he still slayed. The sixth overall pick was an absolute ball hog (104 receptions, WR7) who showed off his 4.3 speed after the catch (WR10). The Dolphins are in transition (again), but the experience Waddle gained — and the skill he demonstrated — should have him at the forefront of the team’s plans. His upside makes him a top-15/20 pick entering his sophomore effort.
DeVonta Smith (WR30) was a trendy pick (75.9 ADP) because of his expected volume. Yet it was the lack thereof that largely stunted his production. Smith averaged just 5.1 targets per game from Weeks 9 through 18, after Nick Sirianni tweaked the offense in late October. The adjustment was clearly made to better suit Jalen Hurts’ skill set but created a TD or bust situation for Smith. The former Heisman Trophy winner was underutilized in 2021, and until that changes his fantasy stock figures to remain unfairly depressed.
A quad injury prematurely ended Elijah Moore’s (WR48) season, but he still managed to wow from Weeks 7 through 13. Despite a true cast of characters under center, the Ole Miss product found the end zone six times over a seven-game span. As Matt Harmon recently pointed out, his ability to separate can’t be overlooked … though if it is, Moore could be the steal of 2022 drafts.
Amon-Ra St. Brown (WR25) was, hands down, the most pleasant rookie receiver surprise in 2021. (Though ya girl hyped him back in May.) The addition of St. Brown came via the subtraction of T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift, which culminated into five epic top-10 performances over the year’s final six games.
A crisp route-runner with sticky hands, St. Brown proved equal parts productive and efficient (75.6% catch rate, WR6). He also gifted Motor City with a new feeling: Hope. Supporters outside of Detroit are likely to want a piece of that aspirational stirring. As it stands right now (and with Anthony Lynn no longer calling the plays) St. Brown is a probable fourth-round target in PPR-friendly formats.
Which (soon-to-be) second-year WR (not named Ja'Marr Chase or Jaylen Waddle) are you most excited to draft in fantasy 🏈 next year:
— Liz Loza (@LizLoza_FF) January 17, 2022
TE: Pitts & Muth
Kyle Pitts (TE7) may not have returned on his fourth-round draft investment, but it’s not fair to call him a bust either. Per PFF, Pitts closed out 2021 as the highest-graded tight end since 2016 (96.2). He recorded a monster 163 yards in Week 7 before Calvin Ridley left the squad. Promptly after Ridley’s surprising exit, however, the rookie TE — who, as analysts suspected, was deployed like a WR — drew the primary ire of defenses and was taken away by double-teams.
Yet he still managed top-five numbers in routes run (27.5 p/gm, TE4), deep targets (12, TE3) and YPR (15.1, TE1). Recency bias figures to create a dip in Pitts’ 2022 market, which I would buy. The kid has top-three upside but he probably won’t come off the board much before Hockenson.
Pat Freiermuth (TE13), in many ways, was the Bizarro Pitts; low on volume (4.9 targets p/g, TE16) and yards (497, TE19) but high on TDs (7). The former Nittany Lion climbed his way up the depth chart, surpassing Eric Ebron (who landed on IR and will test the FA market come March) and eventually worked as Big Ben’s favorite red-zone target. In fact, Freiermuth drew just three fewer red-zone looks (20, TE1) than Diontae Johnson (23, WR8). He’ll likely be a top-10/12 TE selection in 2022, regardless of who is installed under center.
Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF