Seven of the first 11 picks in this year’s NFL Draft were offensive skill position players. Another quarterback, two wide receivers, and two running backs went before the first round was over. One of those running backs, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Travis Etienne, is now out for the season with a Lisfranc injury, but the point holds anyway: A lot of teams are planning to rely heavily on rookies to throw, catch, and run the ball. And that will have a big impact on fantasy football in 2021.
Rookies are tricky selections in fantasy football drafts. In addition to general uncertainty about how well they’ll perform at the pro level—nobody’s a guarantee—fantasy general managers don’t have a frame of reference for how their new teams will use them. As a result, rookies are rarely first-round fantasy selections, and fantasy GMs who prefer known quantities might stay away from them almost entirely. I don’t recommend that approach—though I speak with the authority of someone who has won their fantasy league exactly once.
Despite my less-than-stellar record, there is value to be had in picking up a first-year player or two. You’ll naturally want to consider every rookie who went in the first round, but a few later-rounders could show out this season, too. With that in mind, I’ve highlighted six NFL rookies worth serious consideration in your 2021 fantasy football drafts.
1. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers RB
Najee Harris is loose ?pic.twitter.com/rdR7h1nOMq
— PFF (@PFF) August 22, 2021
The Steelers are facing myriad problems this year, but their rookie running back won’t be one of them. Harris has been a consistent, productive superstar since his first year at Alabama in 2017, and he’s been one of the darlings of the NFL’s training camp circuit this summer.
He is the unquestioned No. 1 running back for a relatively effective offense with an aging quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, which suggests he’ll get plenty of opportunities in both the run and short pass games. Harris should get to 1,000 rushing yards (as a low-end estimate) and score around 10 touchdowns this season, and he’ll catch plenty of balls to add to fantasy totals as well. Bottom line: The No. 24 pick in the NFL Draft enters the year as the most valuable rookie in fantasy football.
2. Mac Jones, New England Patriots QB
Mac Jones on a frozen rope ?
— PFF (@PFF) August 20, 2021
It’s starting to seem like Jones might be the Patriots’ Week 1 starting quarterback over Cam Newton. Even if he isn’t, he’ll see action sooner rather than later. Jones is sliding into a pretty ideal situation. The Patriots spent a lot of money in the offseason to bolster their tight end and receiving corps, and they’ll give Jones one of the best offensive lines in the league once he plays. He’s worth pursuing as a solid backup fantasy QB with the potential to be a lot more.
3. Rondale Moore, Arizona Cardinals WR
Yep, Rondale Moore’s B-button definitely works
— SI College Football (@si_ncaafb) November 17, 2018
After an outrageously dominant freshman season, Moore cooled off a bit his last two seasons at Purdue due to a mix of injuries and pandemic interruptions. But he’s one of the most agile receivers to enter the league in years, and he has the hands to reliably get lots of receptions quickly. Importantly, he’s joining Kliff Kingsbury’s air raid-esque offense in Arizona: The Cardinals throw lots of short passes, and Moore will be in position to catch a bunch of them.
4. Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos RB
Javonte Williams is not playing around when it comes to blocking ? @Broncos
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) August 25, 2021
On its own, Williams’ pass-blocking tenaciousness won’t get him any fantasy points this year, but the toughness he shows in the video above will. He’s a terror of an inside runner who specializes in running over people as much as going around them. The Broncos, whose offensive line coach is inside-running maestro Mike Munchak, will provide a good environment for Williams. They also don’t have a good quarterback (they’re starting Teddy Bridgewater over Drew Lock), which augurs plenty of handoffs and dump-off passes that Williams could scoop up.
5. Michael Carter, New York Jets RB
Really like this play from Michael Carter, RB UNC
– Great balance & footwork pic.twitter.com/TRpFPn6pBX
— JWack (@JaredWackerlyFF) January 9, 2021
Carter was Williams’ backfield mate at North Carolina. A fourth-round pick, he’s not as powerful as Williams, who went in the early second round to Denver, but he’s really shifty. He’s also sliding into a valuable fantasy position, as he’s likely to get a starter’s workload even if the Jets opt for a committee approach at running back. The best asset in fantasy football is availability, and Carter should see plenty of carries.
6. Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers TE
Big Ben. Freermuth. Again. ?
This @steelers duo adds another TD!
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) August 22, 2021
A second-round tight end isn’t worth a ton in fantasy football under any circumstances, but consider Freiermuth as a late-round stash or low-budget auction pickup. He’s worth a flier because Ben Roethlisberger seems to be a big fan, and the Steelers have targeted him a lot in the preseason. There’s a chance he’ll be a worthwhile starting fantasy TE by the end of 2021, and that’s someone worth stashing on your bench if you’ve already got a dependable starter.
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