Pianow's last-minute fantasy football draft advice

·13 min read

There's one more big draft weekend before the 2021 NFL and fantasy season gets under way. I've spent the last few months doing what most of you have been doing; thinking, evaluating, drafting, sketching out plans, ripping them up. 

Now it's time to empty the notebook, give you as many player comments as I can, and tack on some general strategy ideas at the bottom.

Consider any logical angle I present, but of course make your own final decisions. You know your league and opponents better than I ever could. Trust yourself. We'll all have a bunch of misses, but if you consistently make good decisions, I like your chances at a successful year. 

With that, empty the clipboard. Away we go.  

Bucs should dominate again

I’ll be shocked if the Buccaneers don’t roll through the NFC South easily, with all of their starters coming back. The depth chart is crowded with plus talent, so it’s not the easiest fantasy situation to decipher, but I’ve been fine drafting Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady, or the defense at ADP. I’m also slightly proactive towards Leonard Fournette, expecting plenty of leads for him to salt away.

Reason to worry about Jonathan Taylor

Frank Reich is the best man to take on the Fix Carson Wentz job, but I’m not confident it’s going to happen right away, or at all. Jonathan Taylor was a proactive pick for me when draft season opened, but I backed off over the last 4-6 weeks, not confident in his infrastructure.

Injury impact on Ravens 

Almost everything went wrong for the Baltimore offense this summer, but perhaps Mark Andrews is a fantasy winner. The team has no reason to keep him under 100 targets again, and Andrews surely will be the passing game priority around the goal line.

Gus Edwards is so underrated, he’s an eyelash overrated. The moment the J.K. Dobbins injury news hit, Edwards managers should have been quietly sniffing around for a trade. Edwards is unlikely to catch the ball much, and Baltimore will find a way to use other backs.

Can Pitts deliver on hype?

I struggled with Kyle Pitts all summer and ultimately came in a little underweight on my rosters. I’m not going to hold rookie tight end history against him — surely the Falcons will use him as a hybrid receiver regularly — but it’s not like every high-profile receiver instantly smashes in the NFL. I’m still afraid he could beat me.

Wayne Gallman was a smart add for the Falcons, but the Mike Davis “last man standing” argument remains. He’s going to be on the field as much as he can handle.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - AUGUST 29:  Kyle Pitts #8 of the Atlanta Falcons looks on during pregame warmups prior to facing the Cleveland Browns at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 29, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kyle Pitts is an amazing talent, but rookie tight ends don't have a great history of producing for fantasy. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Panthers passing game could have juice

My cupboard is mostly empty with D.J. Moore, mostly because I didn’t want to be blocked from the juicy Robby Anderson ADP later. I’m also not giving up on Sam Darnold; not only was he saddled with Adam Gase in New York, but his first offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, hasn’t worked in football since the Jets let him go. Darnold is still younger than Joe Burrow; it’s too early to say, definitively, that he can’t play. Dan Arnold is one of my favorite budget tight end targets.

So much to like in Washington

Washington should be the NFC East favorite, so grab that opportunity while you can. Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin, and Logan Thomas all reside in pricy ADP pockets, but I still want them on multiple rosters — especially McLaurin. Chase Young can be as great as he wants.

Script is right for Chubb to run wild

I certainly like Nick Chubb more than the market, in part because I see the gap between Chubb and Kareem Hunt as wider than the public does. Cleveland also has a dominant offensive line and a plus defense; running lanes and favorable game script won’t be a problem here.

Herbert, Chargers just getting started

Justin Herbert was a star immediately, despite a shoddy offensive line and questionable coaching. Now the Chargers have a revamped line and a new coaching staff. If they hired the right guys — and I’m optimistic about this staff — this team has unlimited upside. The Mina Kimes profile of Herbert was the best thing I read this summer.

Seahawks set to bounce back

Keep gobbling up pieces of the Seattle offense. Russell Wilson is a HOF-ticketed quarterback still in his prime, and the passing tree is especially narrow, focusing on matchup monster D.K. Metcalf and mind-meld speedster Tyler Lockett. I’m overweight on all three, and I’ve also sprinkled in some Chris Carson. New OC Shane Waldron (from the Sean McVay tree) could be a breath of fresh air; surely no one will miss Brian Schottenheimer.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson gestures as he walks off the field after an NFL preseason football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 27-0. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
A more aggressive Seattle Seahawks passing game led by Russell Wilson could lead to a bevy of fantasy points. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Lions lack support for young talent

Detroit has two more players in that “love the talent, hate the situation” bucket. T.J. Hockenson will be every team’s priority off the bus, as the Lions have the worst receiving room in the league to support Hockenson. And Jared Goff, of course, is a major step down from Matthew Stafford. D’Andre Swift had a dinged summer and is going to share plenty with Jamaal Williams. I have not considered him inside the Top 3 rounds, and that means he’s not on my rosters.

Rams' path for success is clear

Although you can squint and see plausible upside for the secondary Rams receivers, I suspect this will ultimately play out as a concentrated passing game, heavily weighted to the primary guys. I’ll sign off on any Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, or even Tyler Higbee play you want to make. And I’m thrilled to see Stafford supported by a fun offense again.

Coaching concerns in Arizona

I still don’t trust Kliff Kingsbury, and while that doesn’t render the Arizona offense worthless, every time I needed to break a tie that included a Cardinals player, I took the other guy.

Most of the Giants are a hard pass

I’ve taken plenty of Sterling Shepard at ADP, but otherwise, you can have the Giants. Kenny Golladay is a low-separation wideout changing teams, off an injury-riddled summer, and now tied to a scattershot quarterback. The line is awful. OC Jason Garrett is a problem. I haven’t gone near Saquon Barkley at draft cost — understanding he’s still talented and maybe could beat me, although his medical file is also a concern — and there’s no round where I’d consider Evan Engram.

Make-or-break year for Tua

I still have no idea if Tua Tagovailoa is good, but given the riches Miami has surrounded him, we’ll find out this year. Jaylen Waddle is going to be a star sooner or later, no matter how good his quarterback is.

[2021 Draft Rankings: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | DST | Kickers]

Favorite target on the Bengals 

Tyler Boyd was my only proactive pick with Cincinnati, as I’m concerned about Joe Burrow’s comeback pace and the state of this offensive line. I didn’t consider Ja’Marr Chase once, though that’s mostly respect for the reasonable ADP on Tee Higgins and Boyd.

Market is correct on young Broncos

The ADP kept rising on Javonte Williams and Jerry Jeudy, but often times the wisdom of crowds is correct. I expect Williams to command this backfield in short order, and I don’t care about Jeudy’s drops from last year — I’m just thrilled at how easily he gets open. Denver is overloaded with skill talent, but Jeudy’s upside is the highest, at least until we see Courtland Sutton unquestionably back to 100 percent.

Josh Jacobs is a clear fade

Josh Jacobs basically isn’t on my draft board (and I'm not alone). The Raiders are expected to be well under .500, and Jacobs needs positive game script to produce — he’s ignored in the passing game. I don’t trust the offensive line, I don’t trust Jon Gruden, and Kenyan Drake is around to complicate things.

Big Ben limits upside of WRs in Pittsburgh

Distrust of Ben Roethlisberger this late in the dance — he’s not on the back nine, he’s on the 18th hole — pushed me off Diontae Johnson, no matter how much he commands targets. If I had to take a Pittsburgh wideout at ADP, give me Chase Claypool, with a player profile and body type that should equal touchdown equity. Najee Harris will be given as many touches as he can handle, and between that volume and talent, he can probably withstand a mediocre offensive line.

Complicated situation in Minnesota

Christian McCaffrey at No. 1 is the only no-brainer part of my draft board. I am nobody’s doctor and we’re all guessing on possible COVID-19 scenarios, but it’s obvious the Vikings are one of the lesser-vaccinated teams in the league. If I had the No. 2 pick tomorrow, I’m not sure who I would pick. I also backed off slightly with Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen as the draft season moved along. Again, let’s be clear, I don’t know that anything will trip up Minnesota this year, but it’s at least entered my thinking. You are welcome to ignore this graph, or any graph really — it’s your team, and you have to decide what you’re confident with.

Follow the money and targets on the Jets

Corey Davis has the No. 1 receiver contract, and he quickly appeared to justify it in New York, already clicking with Zach Wilson. Davis was an ADP giveaway most of the summer.

A lot to like in Jacksonville

James Robinson was a bargain before Travis Etienne got hurt, and Robinson still has a reasonable ADP today. I am not sure Urban Meyer will work out as a coach, but Trevor Lawrence is easy to believe in, and the wide receiver room is fun. When it comes to drafting a Jacksonville wideout, I like D.J. Chark less than the other two options.

49ers great in reality, a conundrum for fantasy

I’m concerned the 49ers might have the largest gap between an NFL-dominant team and its fantasy return. Jimmy Garoppolo might hold onto the starting job for a while, supported by strong talent and attacking what’s an appealing out-of-division schedule. The Niners want to run the ball down everyone’s throat, and they have a team designed to do just that — but weekly touch projections could be dicey. Trey Lance was drafted for upside all summer, but it might take a while for the baton pass. The Niners playoff schedule is so cushy, you’d swear Kyle Shanahan was allowed to pick his opponents.

Like the player, not the situation in Philly

Dallas Goedert is another strong talent locked into a gridlocked and uncertain situation. Unless the ADP slides into giveaway range — and it likely won’t — I won’t call his name.

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General strategy takes for 2021 fantasy season

Load up on receivers early

If your league will have at least 40 receivers used every week, totaling up all rosters, you need to prioritize this position. My favorite roster build is to get one anchor back (and just one) in Round 1 or Round 2, then start working on dominating the WR room, winning the race to the flex. Although there are plenty of wideouts outside the WR40 who have appeal (Shepard is one, Jakobi Meyers is another), I want to grab wideouts so dynamic, they start themselves. I don’t want to play weekly guessing games with wideouts who are less consistent.

Chase lottery ticket RBs with upside

Everyone should know this by now, but running backs dominate your speculation spots. You want several backs on your bench, players who could explode if one simple break goes their way. And of course you’ll keep adding these players in-season as opportunities arise. More than the other core positions, backfield production is less about true talent level and more about opportunity and context (this it not to say opportunity and context don’t matter for everyone, but it’s practically everything for the backfields).

Make life easier on yourself

Get all of your free agent cadences loaded into your calendar or reminder-program. “Oh, I’ll remember that” is a losing strategy. The best competitors in every discipline are linked by one thing — attention to detail.

Two is better than one

Co-managing a team is a cheat code if you can find a partner with a similar world view and level of engagement. My most feared opponents are usually two-manager pairings.

How to navigate the QB landscape 

I’d like to try to find a Tier 1 quarterback who’s priced in the second or third tier. Russell Wilson, Justin Herbert, even old Tom Brady have been proactive punches for me. Trevor Lawrence. Some Matthew Stafford. I liked Jalen Hurts a lot more two months ago than I do right now.

Don't run toward trouble

I rarely draft into players who are already dealing with major injuries. A roster of hurt players will find you; I don't meet those guys halfway. Even if Michael Thomas were healthy, I'd have other reasons to fade him

Don't limit your backfield upside

Insurance running backs are usually a racket early in the year, but the strategy is worth considering when we get about halfway into the season. Grab the lottery tickets tied to star backs you don’t roster. Play for the big inning early, then work the specific winning scenario later in the year, when things are much more defined. I wrote this all up in a separate piece, earlier in the week.

Ultimately, it's your team, enjoy the ride

• Ultimately, it’s your team. Listen to everyone you respect, but make your own decisions. Have fun. You’re going to be wrong a lot (as anyone will in this crazy game), and don’t be tripped up by that. Don’t be so afraid to make a mistake that you stop trusting your instincts. Focus on what’s in front of you, savor the journey, find your way to the playoffs, and then try to run pure for 2-3 weeks at the end.

A piece like this could truly be bottomless, but at some point you have to hit send. Consider this an open conversation. You know where to find me.

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