As we continue to lay the groundwork for 2021 fantasy rankings that will be updated throughout the offseason, we are digging into this incoming rookie class for dynasty rookie drafts, startups, and even the potential these young players can have on the 2021 seasonal formats. Even prior to the actual NFL Draft in April, rookies are available in Best Ball formats across all platforms.
2021 is a unique offseason for scouting rookies, no matter what approach you take. With the ongoing fight against COVID, the NFL combine, which would have been two weekends ago, was canceled. That event would have provided a plethora of official athletic data and access to prospects through interviews.
In place of the official combine, we are getting that data through supplemental events such as the EXOS combines and Pro Day events from each school. Pro Days are not a new development, but there is a grain of salt to be applied to treating those results as equal to what we would have gotten in Indianapolis. Still, that information can be applied to athletic models and used to shape out the full portfolio for prospects to go along with production profiles, which is a general overlay of what these players put on tape for NFL teams.
As we get more athletic testing data coming in, we will add notes in here to those prospects. However, overall, athletic testing has a low correlation to actual fantasy output and when it does, it is typically counted twice from a productive player in the first place. But when a prospect has subpar athletic testing paired with a limited or nonexistent production resume, then we are playing with fire when attempting to elevate or count on that player for NFL production.
Even from a film watching and production stance, this past college season provided some unique challenges. Some players chose to opt-out of the 2020 season altogether, giving us no new data points or game play, while the players that did play have a scattershot sample of games that range all the way as low as 1-2 games played all the way up to 10-plus games based on scheduling conflicts surrounding the season.
Alas, we press on with everything we have available. Here, we are laying out the positional rankings for each position pre-NFL Draft from a fantasy stance. For purposes of having the most information, these early ranks will cover only the players invited to the combine at each position.
Setting up some more of the process here, although I do prospect models for each of the skill positions and will share the ranks for the players in those models, my personal ranks do not strictly follow those models linearly. I use the prospect models in a similar fashion as I do projection models for the NFL season. We are looking for immediate market inefficiencies in leagues where we are drafting rookies prior to the actual NFL draft.
Since I am no scout — and have marginal faith in actual quarterback scouting in the first place — I do follow the model more closely at the quarterback position than the others. They say you cannot scout quarterbacks solely off production. While that may be true, the alternative hasn’t exactly been a foolproof measure, either.
The model has done me well in fantasy, too. I play in a lot of SuperFlex Dynasty leagues. Through recent seasons, the model has given me some solid hits. It had Patrick Mahomes as the QB1 in the 2017 class, Russell Wilson as the QB3 in 2012, Dak Prescott as the QB3 in the 2016 class. You can check out last season’s post here as well for cross reference and accountability.
The quarterback position for fantasy is also much different than that in real life. Scouting and analyzing how collegiate passers will translate to the next NFL has been a long-losing endeavor. For fantasy, we have been able to place the variance of prospects hitting at the position on the shelf because it has long-standing been the position we did not need to invest in, opposite of actual NFL teams. With SuperFlex and 2QB formats rising in popularity to add relevancy to the position, the top of the position has become more pertinent. But until those formats become industry standard, top-down the quarterback position still remains a supply and demand game that lends favor to suppressing incoming rookies at the position since so many leagues still start one quarterback formats.
Post-draft, we will have the added influence of draft investment and landing spot to add to the layout.
Quarterbacks are playing earlier and more than ever. Since 2008, we had 39 quarterbacks selected in the first round. 17 of them started immediately in Week 1. 26 of those players started for their organizations by Week 4 of the season. 29 of those players started more than half of the team games as a rookie. The only first-round rookie quarterbacks to actually not start a game in their rookie season out of those 39 players were Jake Locker in 2011 and Jordan Love this past season.
Scaling that down to quarterbacks selected in the top-10, there are 26 passers in that same sample of 39. Those 26 passers have averaged 12.4 starts as rookies with 22 of them starting double-digit games. Even last season with questions surrounding Tua Tagovailoa’s injury and the Chargers giving the offense to Tyrod Taylor to start, getting early draft capital quarterbacks on the field still managed to find a way.
This 2021 class lives up to all of the hype objectively, too. With all that set up out of the way, let’s dive into some of the prospects.
2021 Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Quarterback Rankings
- Trevor Lawrence, Clemson, Final Year Age: 21.3 (Model Rank QB2):
Three years of buildup and fanbases calling for their teams to “tank for Trevor” have finally reached their crescendo. Lawrence has followed Deshaun Watson, breaking all of Watson’s records at Cartersville High School and then leading Clemson to multiple Championship appearances.
Lawrence started 15 games as a freshman in 2018, completing 65.2% of his passes for 8.3 yards per attempt with a 30-to-4 touchdown to interception ratio, closing that age-19 season down by throwing for 347 yards (10.8 Y/A) and three touchdowns against Alabama.
From that point on, Lawrence raised his completion rate, yards per pass attempt, and adjusted Y/A (which factors in TD/INT rate) in each of the following two seasons. For his career in the red zone, Lawrence connected on 51 touchdowns to just three interceptions.
No stranger to playing in big games, Lawrence appeared in five college playoffs games in three seasons, throwing for 8.3 Y/A with 10 touchdowns and one interception in those games to go along with three rushing scores.
If you were making a quarterback in a lab, he would look like Lawrence. At his pro day this offseason, Lawrence checked in at 6’6” with 10” hands for you hand model scouts out there.
Not only paired with a stellar passing resume, but Lawrence is also no slouch in athleticism, either. While he does not have the rushing resume of other top players in this class, Lawrence is still in the 56th percentile in career rushing output for all prospects since 2000. Lawrence added 177, 563, and 203 rushing yards over his three seasons at Clemson with 18 touchdowns on the ground.
- Justin Fields, Ohio State, FY Age: 21.9 (MR: QB1)
Fields has been the quarterback that has been under the microscope the most through the draft process, but as was the case with Josh Allen and Justin Herbert in recent seasons, feel free to buy the dip if there is one in Dynasty formats.
The model loves Fields for his dual-asset production and for fantasy purposes, I have gone back and forth on having Fields as the QB1 over Lawrence, but because Lawrence’s floor is so high, that ultimately won out. If taking a quarterback, Lawrence is the safer pick. But that is how highly I think of Fields as a fantasy option and his ceiling is arguably the highest in this draft class due to the importance of pairing both passing and rushing acumen together for fantasy.
Fields enters the NFL ranking in the 97th percentile in career TD/INT rate (7.4:1), 94th percentile in career completion rating (68.4%), and 93rd percentile in career yards per pass attempt (9.2 Y/A) for all prospects since 2000 while also coming out in the 85th percentile in career rushing output among the same group.
That production came while facing by far the toughest schedule among the top quarterbacks in this class in terms of Bill Connelly’s defensive SP+ metric. Over the past two seasons, Fields has faced 11 defenses in the top-15 of that metric and in those games, completed 64.3% of his passes for 8.5 Y/A with a 27-to-6 TD-to-INT rate to go along with 40 rushing yards per game in those contests. Fields may have added some red to his ledger this season, but every quarterback has a game like that regardless of pedigree (see Lawrence in 2019 Title Game) to overlook the complete sample and where the ceiling outcome can lie.
If worried about the Ohio State stigma due to Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, and Dwayne Haskins struggling at the next level, Haskins was the only quarterback from that group that even had any real draft investment and expectations from an NFL organization and Haskins did not come with the added outs that Fields provides athletically and on the ground.
- Zach Wilson, BYU, FY Age: 21.4 (MR: QB4)
Where Fields has been under the microscope this offseason, Wilson has been the prospect that is surging with positive buzz. Listed anywhere from 6’2” or 6’3” from 200-210 pounds pending the source, Wilson isn’t built as sturdy as the other top quarterbacks in this class, but his off-script playmaking and arm strength playmaking are the traits that have boosted his draft stock this offseason.
As a true freshman at age-19 in 2018, Wilson took over as the starting quarterback just five games into the season. In that freshman year, he completed 65.9% of his passes for 8.7 Y/A with 12 touchdowns to three interceptions. The highlight of that freshman run came in the Idaho Potato Bowl when Wilson closed the season completing 18-of-18 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns.
Wilson regressed in 2019 and missed time with a shoulder injury. In his sophomore season, Wilson saw all of his rate stats regress from his freshman season before roaring back in 2020 with by far his best season, completing 73.5% of his passes for 11.0 Y/A and a 33-to-3 TD-to-INT rate. Out of all quarterback prospects since 2000, it was just the eighth time that a quarterback had completed over 70% of his passes to go along with over 10.0 yards per pass attempt and over 30 passing touchdowns in their final collegiate season (spoiler alert, he was not the only QB in this class to do it, too).
The biggest slight against Wilson was that playing at BYU, he did not face the level of opposition as his other cohorts at the top of this class outside of Trey Lance. Over the past two seasons, Wilson faced just four total defenses in the top-20 of the SP+ metric mentioned earlier and just seven in the top-50. In those four games against top-20 defenses, Wilson completed 64.7% of his passes for 7.1 Y/A and a 4-to-4 TD-to-INT rate as opposed to a 69.1% completion rate for 9.9 Y/A while throwing 40 touchdowns to eight interceptions in his other 17 games. To his credit, he did shred the best defense he faced in 2020, connecting on 26-of-35 passes for 303 yards and three scores against San Diego State.
Wilson has been compared to Patrick Mahomes this offseason due to his arm strength and creativity to press the defense from unique platforms, but objectively his career production through the air and on the ground looks similar to Alex Smith coming out of Utah in 2005. The primary difference is Wilson is aggressive down the field. Just this past season, Wilson was 20-of-27 on throws over 30 yards in the air.
Like most of this class, Wilson also comes with the additional bonus of having mobility in his arsenal to go along with passing upside. While his stature will not have him on as many designed runs at the next level as Fields or Lance, Wilson can still use legs, checking out in the 50th percentile in career rushing production among all quarterback prospects since 2000. Including sack yardage (because college football is still ridiculous in this regard), Wilson ran for double-digit yardage in 20 of his 28 starts to go along with 15 touchdowns.
- Trey Lance, North Dakota State, FY Age: 20.6 (MR: QB3)
You can make a case that Lance is the most physically gifted quarterback from the top of this class, even when you have to work with the rest of the projection. Listed at 6’4” and 225 pounds, Lance has the requisite build for a quarterback while paired with an absolute howitzer and being the most gifted runner among all these quarterbacks.
Coming into college, Lance was not really on anybody’s radar. He was a two-star prospect with an unimpressive list of collegiate offers. After sitting behind Easton Stick in 2018, Lance got a chance to start at North Dakota State in 2019 at just age-19 and turned in one of the most statistically bonkers seasons, completing 66.9% of his passes for 9.7 Y/A and throwing 28 touchdowns to zero interceptions. While that is impressive in itself, Lance also added 1,100 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.
This past season, North Dakota State and the Missouri Valley Conference pushed their season back until the spring. With a game scheduled against Oregon to open the season, we would have finally had an opportunity to see Lance against a Power-5 program, but the game was inevitably cancelled due to COVID. If there is shade to be thrown at the strength of competition that Zach Wilson faced, then that is magnified here.
With Lance entering the draft, 2020 appeared to be a lost cause, but North Dakota State hosted one game in October versus Central Arkansas as an opportunity for Lance to showcase his talents. With marginal preparation, that game did not help Lance overall as he completed 15-of-30 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns with an interception, but as a positive to dynamic Lance truly is, his offense still scored 39 points as he added 143 rushing yards and two scores on the ground. Lance takes a step of faith, but his fantasy ceiling is sky high while having floor potential based on his rushing ability in of itself.
- Mac Jones, Alabama, FY Age: 22.3 (MR: QB5)
Jones was strong filling in through Tua Tagovailoa’s injury in 2019, completing 68.8% of his passes for 10.7 Y/A and a 14-to-3 TD-to-INT rate, but then just blew the doors off his 2020 campaign when fully locked in as the catalyst of the Alabama offense. Last year, Jones completed 77.4% of his passes for 11.2 Y/A to go with 41 touchdowns and just four interceptions, joining Zach Wilson in that group of statistical dominance discussed earlier. The only quarterbacks to hit those same thresholds of 70% completions and over 10.0 Y/A to go with 40-plus touchdowns in their final season were Joe Burrow a year ago and Baker Mayfield in 2017. And with Jones, he had that season playing SEC against top opponents.
If recency bias towards program stigma is something orbiting Justin Fields, then it is in play here as well. It is crazy how much Jones’s final season overlaps what we saw from Tagovailoa in terms of measured passing acumen. Both passers closed their collegiate careers in the 97th percentile or higher in completion rate, yards per attempt, and touchdown to interception rate. Given Tagovailoa’s rookie season outside of the Alabama talent vortex and not having to make many tight window throws, Jones will have to shed a similar narrative as a rookie.
While Jones has a clean passing resume, the one thing he lacks compared to the previous quarterbacks is the added rushing component. That is by no means a dealbreaker for what Jones can be as an NFL prospect, but it does force him to hit his passing ceiling with fewer outs as a fantasy quarterback. Among the 11 quarterbacks this past season to average at least 20 fantasy points per game, only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady had single-digit percentage of their fantasy production come via rushing while the average among those players was 20.1% even including those two veteran passers. Although he is not someone to count on for rushing performance like the top-four quarterbacks in this class, Jones did come out his Pro Day in the 71st percentile athletically at his position, showing he is a better athlete than his profile suggests.
- Kyle Trask, Florida, FY Age: 22.8 (MR: QB6)
Trask is not discussed in a similar tier as the quarterbacks above, but there is a lot of overlap between him and Jones as fantasy options. Both will be 23-year-old rookies and like Jones, Trask offers no rushing juice at all, turning in just 54 career yards on the ground at Florida. The difference is that Jones will likely be draft capital to signal starting right away in the NFL while Trask could go as early as late in Round 1 or slip into Day 2.
From a passing stance, Trask improved in each collegiate season, capping 2020 with 9.8 Y/A and 43 touchdowns (eight interceptions) while completing 68.9% of his passes. Off his strong 2018-2019 seasons as a starter, Trask enters the NFL in the 91st percentile in career yards per pass attempt (9.1 Y/A) and 92nd percentile in touchdown to interception ratio (4.6).
As was the case with Jones playing alongside multiple first round weaponry, Trask also had the bonus of throwing to arguably the best tight end prospect ever in Kyle Pitts, and senior wide receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevor Grimes, who each were invited to the combine, with Toney being a consensus top-50 player in draft circles.
- Jamie Newman, Wake Forest, FY Age: 23.1 (MR: QB8)
Newman sat out the 2020 season after transferring to Georgia from Wake Forest due to COVID, but when we last saw him on the field he threw 26 passing touchdowns while rushing for 574 yards and six touchdowns at Wake Forest in 2019.
Newman offers that rushing ability that can create a fantasy floor. He ran for 20-plus yards in 12 of his 17 career starts with 10 touchdowns. At 6’2” and 235 pounds at the Senior Bowl, Newman is plenty big enough to be an asset in the running game at the next level.
The downside is that Newman is a bit older than our previous prospects while lacking the measured passing profile of those options. He is going to be drafted in a spot where he is unlikely to start right away and will have to have a few doors opened for him. Even with a productive 2019 campaign, Newman enters the draft ranking in the 45th percentile or lower in career completion rate, yards per attempt, and TD/INT ratio for all prospects since 2000.
- Kellen Mond, Texas A&M, FY Age: 21.4 (MR: QB7)
Mond is a mid-round sleeper for many, but like Newman, will likely have to have some dominoes fall his way to get a real starting opportunity in the NFL. A three-year starter at Texas A&M, Mond has over 200 pass attempts in all four of his collegiate seasons. Mond never played alongside high-profile pass catchers, but also did not elevate those around him greatly, completing 59.0% of his career passes for 7.1 yards per pass attempt.
To Mond’s credit, he did improve on his completion rate all four seasons at A&M, while having his cleanest season in his final one, throwing for a career-high 7.7 Y/A with 19 touchdowns to three interceptions in 10 games played. Also, for having as much experience that Mond has, he is not an old prospect for being a four-year player. Mond also comes with some mobility of his own, rushing for 1,609 yards and 22 touchdowns over his career with 25 or more rushing yards in 25 of his 43 career starts.
- Ian Book, Notre Dame, FY Age: 22.8 (MR: QB9)
We are neck deep in our passers with a lot of collegiate experience, for better or worse. Book was a three-year starter at Notre Dame. On one hand, Book showed athleticism and was reported that he ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at the EXOS combine two weeks ago at 6’5” and 235 pounds. Book rushed for 1,517 yards and 17 scores over his collegiate career with 546 and 485 yards the past two seasons. But from a passing angle, Book takes a step back. While Book is an 83rd percentile prospect in career TD/INT rate, he drops down to 65th percentile in career completion rate (63.8%) and 47th percentile in yards per pass attempt (7.8 Y/A). Book is an intriguing Konami option if awarded the opportunity to play, but will be a later-round flyer.
- Sam Ehlinger, Texas, FY Age: 22.3 (MR: QB10)
Ehlinger is another seasoned four-year player, having the second-most career pass attempts in this draft class. Ehlinger’s biggest strengths outside of experience are that he does have an underrated rushing profile from an athlete you may not expect (ala Ryan Fitzpatrick) while he protected the football. Ehlinger ran for 1,903 yards and 33 touchdowns at Texas while he is an 80th percentile passer in TD/INT ratio since 2000, but checks in at the 41st percentile in yards per pass attempt and 54th percentile in completion rate.
- Shane Buechele, SMU, FY Age: 22.6 (MR: QB11)
Buechele is the most experienced passer in this draft class, having thrown 1,508 career passes in the pass-heavy SMU offense. A transfer from Texas, Buechele started 12 games as a true freshman for Texas in 2016 before losing the job to Ehlinger the following season. With five years of playing time under his belt, Buechele threw for 8.0 and 8.4 Y/A his final two seasons playing the Air Raid at SMU. Even with the added weight from those past two seasons, Buechele enters the league in the 40th percentile in career yards per attempt (7.7 Y/A) while in the 58th percentile in career completion rate (63.1%). Buechele is not a complete statue, rushing for 478 yards over his collegiate career, but is more of a traditional gunslinging backup that does not offer the rushing upside that the previous later-round quarterbacks do.
- Feleipe Franks, Arkansas, FY Age: 22.7 (MR: QB12)
Franks was a big-time prospect entering college, receiving offers from Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia among others before deciding to attend Florida. At 6’6” and 234 pounds at the Senior Bowl, Franks looks the part as well. But starting over his first two years at Florida, Franks struggled, however, completing 56.8% of his passes for 7.1 Y/A before inevitably being surpassed by Kyle Trask and transferring to Arkansas for his final collegiate season. Franks did improve in his final season, completing 68.5% of his passes for 8.9 Y/A with 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Like Buechele, Franks is not a complete zero in the rushing department (642 career yards) but that also is not a calling card, either.
- Davis Mills, Stanford, FY Age: 21.9 (MR: QB13)
While a number of our later-round backups were experienced collegiate players, Mills was forced to play behind K.J. Costello for his first two seasons at Stanford before getting an opportunity in 2019. With Stanford only playing six games in 2020, Mills has just 491 career dropbacks on his resume for a four-year player. In his limited game action, Mills completed 65.5% of his passes for 7.9 Y/A to go along with 18 touchdowns to eight interceptions. A traditional backup archetype, Mills does not bring much to the table on the rushing end with 86 career rushing yards.