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.
For running backs, nothing matters more to the position than invested draft capital. Over the past decade, draft capital among drafted running backs has an r^2 of .3105 to fantasy points scored years 1-3. While that correlation is also leaving a lot of room on the table for variance, it is by far and away the most predictive measure for backs and early career fantasy output. Post-draft we’ll have the added influence of draft investment and landing spot to add to the layout.
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.
When discussing player breakout age in production, I use the first season in which a wideout accounted for a 20% dominator rating (the percentage of the team’s receiving production that player accounted for). I’ve longed worked with dominator rating from my days at RotoViz, but if you want to read a few more pieces on the importance of it, Ben Gretch at CBS has a post on age-adjusted production with multiple links to other pieces of work covering the subject. I also wrote a piece here a year ago examining the relevance of early-declare wide receiver prospects, which coincides with production at a younger age. With that in hand, I will be bringing things up surrounding production within the context of age and if a player was an early declare or not.
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. Post-draft, we’ll have the added influence of draft investment and landing spot to add to the layout.
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. Last season, the wideout model had Justin Jefferson as the top wide receiver prospect. All Jefferson did was post the most receiving yardage for a player in his first season since 1960 and the fifth most PPR points for any rookie wide receiver. The model was also extremely high on Gabriel Davis, who led all rookies in yards per catch. But there were misses as well from both me and the model.
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. Davis was a strong example of that last season in the third round of rookie drafts.
- Ja’Marr Chase, LSU, Final Year Age: 20.8 (Model Rank: WR1)
After turning in a massive 84-1,780-20 season in 2019 at age-19 that saw him outproduce Justin Jefferson — who just had a historic rookie season — Chase sat out the 2020 season due to COVID concerns. While we would have liked to seen Chase play outside of the 2019 LSU juggernaut, his physicality and production have him as the top wideout on the board and it is hard to push back on that.
In 2019, Chase had 24 catches on throws over 20 yards downfield while also being a bully after the catch, breaking 22 tackles per Pro Football Focus. Showing up for big games, Chase posted 6-140-1 against Alabama and then 9-221-2 in the Championship Game versus Clemson. We have a limited sample on Chase, but that sample was dominant. At his Pro Day, Chase did nothing but cement his status as the WR1 by checking out in the 91st percentile at his position athletically.
- Rashod Bateman, Minnesota, FY Age: 21.1 (MR: WR2)
There is a wide gap from Chase and the rest of this class. After Chase as the clear WR1, Bateman gives me all of the same feelings as Justin Jefferson last year and I believe he is the safest wide receiver in this class. A former four-star recruit, Bateman has outside and inside experience. In 2020, he accounted for 47.4% of the Minnesota receptions and 45.7% of the yardage in his games played while playing 61.2% of his snaps in the slot. In just five games played, Bateman cleared 100 yards in three of them.
In 2019, he racked up 37.0% of the receiving yards and 28.3% of the receptions playing alongside Tyler Johnson while playing outside (just a 12.7% slot rate).
His 3.69 yards per team pass attempt are third in this class, while his 3.77 yards per attempt in 2019 would have been second among prospects a year ago. While we can shade Bateman’s 4.39 40-yard dash at the EXOS combine, remember that Jefferson tested out as a higher measurable athlete than both CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy last season at the combine and many shrugged that off as to non-applicable to what they had seen from him on the field.
At 6’0″ and 190 pounds at his Pro Day, Bateman checked in smaller than his listed size to give off strong future WR1 vibes and likely profiles as a high floor player if wanting to shoot for the moon on some subsequent prospects at the position.
- DeVonta Smith, Alabama, FY Age: 22.1 (MR: WR3)
The 2020 Heisman Trophy Winner turned in a massive 117-1,856-23 line in 2020, becoming the first wideout to win the award since Desmond Howard in 1991. Smith benefitted from the absence of Jaylen Waddle in elevating his production to that award. Through four full games with Waddle, Smith had fewer receiving yards (483) and the same amount of receiving scores as Waddle (four). Over that span, Smith was still the alpha target (34.1% of the team targets), but over the next eight weeks as the primary wideout, Smith saw his share of the team receiving yardage go from 30.7% over those opening four games to 44.2% and his touchdown share go from 33.3% up to 64.0%.
You can make the case that Smith would not have won the Heisman without Waddle’s injury, but two things with those splits paint a big picture case for Smith. One, his production alongside Waddle was still impressive. Second, everyone knew he was the primary target weekly from that point on and nobody could still stop him. There was an influx of schemed production as Smith led the nation last year in screen receptions (35) and yardage (304), but all he did was turn in big games.
We also have a larger sample with Smith being a hyper-productive player. We can back to his 2019 season when notched a 68-1,256-14 line playing alongside and outproducing two top-15 NFL draft selections in Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy.
The primary discourse around Smith is his size. Listed at 170 pounds, Smith did not alleviate any potential concerns by declining to weigh in at the Senior Bowl. Since 2000, the only wideouts selected in the first round that were below 180 pounds were Marquise Brown, Tavon Austin, and Ted Ginn. Since 2000, there have been 20 top-24 fantasy seasons from wideouts below 180 pounds and seven of those belong to a Hall of Famer in Marvin Harrison. Placing Hall of Fame expectations on any prospect is lofty and a ceiling outcome, but Emmanuel Sanders and John Brown are more within reasonable outcomes with that potential upside.
- Terrace Marshall, LSU, FY Age: 20.6 (MR: WR6)
Marshall was a five-star recruit with 24 offers coming out of high school. Playing as the third wheel at wide receiver next to Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, Marshall did not break out to their levels in 2019, but he was still elevated by the machine that LSU offense was, catching 46 passes for 671 yards and 13 touchdowns. Injuring his foot in the fourth game of 2019, Marshall even had more touchdowns (six) than both Chase and Jefferson (five each) and as many receptions (20) as Chase prior to that injury. With Jefferson going pro and Chase opting out for the 2020 season, Marshall finally got his opportunity to shine and not only did he deliver, he delivered also through a quarterback change from Joe Burrow leaving and multiple quarterbacks playing for LSU in 2020.
In seven games played before he also opted out to prepare for the draft, Marshall tallied a 48-731-10 line, producing 27.5% of the receptions, 33.3% of the receiving yardage, and 58.8% of the team receiving touchdowns on 24.2% of the team targets. 21.7% of Marshall’s career receptions went for touchdowns, the highest rate in this class.
Really, the worst thing we can say about Marshall, is that he is not as good as Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. I am ok with that. That is because Marshall also looks the part better than a number of wideouts at the top here at 6’2” and 205 pounds. With that size advantage over a number of his peers, his pedigree as a recruit, and being a 21-year-old rookie, Marshall could be one of the best values in both the NFL Draft and rookie drafts. At his Pro Day, Marshall helped his stock with 81st percentile explosion scores (vert+broad) and a 85th speed score.
5. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama, FY Age: 22.1 (MR: WR16)
Here is where we have our first major discrepancy between ranks and the model. We were down this road just a year ago with Henry Ruggs and due to the talent vortex that is Alabama, Waddle won’t be the last Bama player to be considered highly above his production collegiate output by the NFL. While Waddle is never going to be a player that ignites a production model big picture, there are production data points that are positive signals.
Waddle came in and posted a 45-848-7 line as a freshman. That yardage was second on a team with Jeudy, Ruggs, and Smith. This past season, Waddle was set to explode as well. Injured on the opening kickoff of their fifth game of the season, Waddle had opened the season with games of 8-134-2, 5-142-1. 6-120-0, and 6-161-1. Over that span, Waddle had more receiving yardage than Smith while averaging 4.5 yards per team pass attempt, which would have been second in this class over a full season.
Waddle also comes with a solid return resume. He averaged 19.3 yards per punt return with two touchdowns on 38 career returns. Not kickoffs. Punts.
Waddle is larger than Smith (listed at 182 pounds) but also is not built as an alpha NFL wideout and on the smaller side, if splitting things.
6. Elijah Moore, Mississippi, FY Age: 20.8 (MR: WR4)
Moore has one of the most decorated production resumes in this class, finishing with second-most receiving yards (1,193) and second-most receptions (86) in the nation in 2020. Moore accounted for 36.1% of the Mississippi receptions, which was second in this class, and 34.6% of the receiving yardage, which ranked sixth. A prototypical slot wideout, Moore had 61 catches for 888 yards from inside in 2020.
At 5’9” and 178 pounds, Moore may be destined for a similar path in the NFL, but he can come in and do that a high level immediately. Moore also was tied for fifth in contested catches (11) and missed tackles forced (18) per Pro Football Focus. At his Pro Day, Moore came out in the 67th percentile athletically, with high marks in agility score, which was in the 73rd percentile at his position.
7. Rondale Moore, Purdue, FY Age: 20.6 (MR: WR5)
The YAC machine of this class, Moore had a stellar 114-1,258-12 line receiving as an 18-year-old freshman to go along with 213 yards and two scores on the ground. That includes putting up 12-170-2 receiving against on Ohio State defense that put half of that season’s defense into the NFL.
Where Moore has age and production on his side, he also has injuries and size as potential thorns. Injuries limited Moore to just seven games his final two seasons at Purdue, but he enters this draft as the leader in receptions (8.9) and receiving yardage (95.8 yards) per game in this draft class over his collegiate career.
A physical player for his size (5’7”, 180 pounds) we are still going to have to rely on an NFL coaching staff to get Moore volume and use him correctly more so than other wide receivers in this class. There is just not a large sample of Moore winning as a downfield wide receiver. 78% of Moore’s career receptions were within 10 yards of the line scrimmage. The only other prospect close in that regard is Kadarius Toney at 67%. At his Pro Day, Moore verified everything we already knew about him. His size is always going to be question and his arm length (28 1/4) and hand size (8 3/4) do not signal someone who is going to be used downfield in the NFL, but was still a stellar athlete, registering a 59th percentile speed score, 83rd percentile explosion score, and 75th percentile agility score.
- Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State, FY Age: 21.6 (MR: WR8)
All Wallace has ever done is produce. He is fourth in this wide receiver class in career receptions (205) while his 5.5 receptions per game rank fifth. Turning in 92.8 yards per game for his career, Wallace ranks third in that department.
As a 19-year-old sophomore in 2018, Wallace broke out with an 86-1,491-12 season, averaging 17.3 yards per catch. Playing in just nine games following up in 2019 due to an ACL injury, Wallace was averaging 5.9 receptions and 100.3 yards per game with eight touchdowns. He arguably was set to declare for the NFL Draft, but coming off injury returned for his senior season where he then closed things down with a 59-922-6 line this past season in 10 games.
The downfield game is where Wallace has been at his best and was fifth in the nation last season in catches over 20 yards downfield (12) and has the most contested catches (43) over the past three seasons. A track background and long-jumping star, Wallace was disappointing at his Pro Day, coming out in the 19th percentile in overall athletic score, ranking in the 25th percentile in speed score (4.52), fifth percentile in explosion score, and 36th percentile in agility score.
- Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC, FY Age: 21.2 (MR: WR9)
Brother of Equanimeous St. Brown, Amon-Ra has a more decorated collegiate profile. As a true freshman at age-19, St. Brown led USC with 60 receptions and was second on the team with 758 yards playing alongside older prospects in Michael Pittman (selected 34th last year) and Tyler Vaughns, who is in this draft class. He then followed up that strong start with a 77-1,042-6 line as a sophomore before reeling in 41 catches for 478 yards and seven scores in just six games this past season. Among all prospects in this class, only Rondale Moore (8.9) and Elijah Moore (6.1) averaged more receptions per game than St. Brown’s 5.9 over their collegiate careers.
The rub is that when he finally got to be the full-fledged lead wideout with Pittman leaving for the NFL is that St. Brown struggled to make plays downfield and saw his yards per catch dip for 13.5 yards the year prior down to 11.7 yards last season. After playing 88.7% of his snaps in the slot in 2019, St. Brown played in the slot for just 27.9% of his snaps in 2020.
At 6’1” and 195 pounds, St. Brown may not have an upside position at the NFL level if he cannot win downfield, but as 2019 showed, he is best suited to play inside and use his ability after the catch. That can potentially force him to be more of a volume-driven asset in the NFL.
- Kadarius Toney, Florida, FY Age: 21.9 (MR: WR15)
Toney is a jack of all trades wideout as the only wide receiver in this draft class to account for over 10% of his team’s receiving yardage, receptions, touchdowns, rushing yardage, and yards from scrimmage. He also averaged 21.6 yards per kickoff return and 11.3 yards per punt return over his collegiate career. Over his past two seasons, Toney produced 44 missed tackles and 60 first downs on just 111 touches per Pro Football Focus.
Limited to just 510 snaps through three seasons at Florida due to injuries and not having a true role in the offense, Toney turned in a 70-984-10 line receiving in 2020 to go along with 19-161-1 on the ground. Toney only had one 100-yard receiving game through eight games this season, but then saved his best for last, going over 100 yards in each of the final three games, including massive 9-182-1 and 8-153-1 games versus LSU and Alabama to close the season.
Those big performances gave a glimpse of the upside Toney has and the potential for him to step in being a manufactured touch player, but he still takes some projection. At 5’11” and 193 pounds, Toney relied on 67% of his career receptions to come within the line of scrimmage and his average depth of target was just 7.7 yards in 2020. The NFL has overvalued Toney’s archetype in the past, but if a team invests the rumored first-round capital he is projected to have, Toney will be given multiple opportunities.
At his Pro Day, Toney helped his cause, coming out as a 75th percentile athlete on the strength of an impressive score in the 98th percentile with an 11’4″ broad jump paired with a 39.5-inch vertical.