Thoughts on the 2021 rookie class

Let's fire off some takes

The NFL Draft kicks off one week from yesterday, and it feels like a good time to write. I’ve been enjoying a bit of a hiatus over the past couple months, and I gotta say, it’s been nice. I’ve always been in the same camp as writers who describe a love/hate relationship with the process, and I’ve both missed writing and enjoyed not thinking about it. But I can’t let the draft come and go without some thoughts on rookie evals generally and this class specifically.

For what it’s worth, I’ve still been around, doing live streams with the guys at Ship Chasing every Wednesday night at 9:15 ET that are always a good time. Next week, we won’t be live on Wednesday, because we’ll instead be streaming the entire first round of the draft Thursday night. You can follow the draft on a major network or online, or you can do the smart thing and come hang in the chat, root to hear some of our favorite prospects’ names called early, react to different landing spots, and hear some #actually #good takes as we break down what it will all mean for fantasy football in 2021 and beyond.

Because I haven’t written about football in a while, I have quite a bit I want to write about, and we’re going to start getting around to all of it. Free agency has always been one of my favorite things to react to, I have plenty of issues with early Average Draft Positions, and I have a handful of new concepts I’m excited to expand on this offseason. But the draft is most pressing, and it’s always an incredibly important event on the offseason calendar.

By now, most of the significant veteran roster moves have already been made, and this huge influx of rookie talent is essentially the last thing we’re waiting on. There will be a few more veteran additions, potential trades, and the unfortunate injury or two that will still shake things up, but the truth is most of that shouldn’t move the needle much. If post-draft moves mattered enough to teams, they would have made them earlier.

What’s so great about the draft is we get our final answer to what the offseason plan was for most of these teams; what they made a priority to address. How well they executed it will always be open for interpretation, but armed with the information from the last major acquisition benchmark of the offseason we can really start to dig into expectations for 2021 with earnest.

But before we reach that blissful post-draft period, I want to get my takes about the 2021 rookies documented. And to do that, I want to talk a bit about how I think we should talk about prospects. There’s always a film vs. analytics debate in this area, but that doesn’t interest me. Different strokes.

What’s far more interesting is the debate within the respective sides. Tons of analysts that care about the objective data have models to indicate potential future successes and build comp lists. Of course, a lot of the inputs for those models don’t differ much, and because even the best football models leave plenty of unexplained variance, there will always be room for debate about how to interpret the results. This is what interests me.

The best prospect discussions revolve not around whether to pay attention to the types of analytical evidence that have been shown to be predictive time and again, but rather how much we actually care about the specific elements of those profiles. If various models all mostly ignore athletic traits and love a wide receiver because of his age-adjusted production (typically Dominator Rating or other team volume-adjusted metrics), status as an early declare, or expected draft capital, then it’d be nice if we didn’t have to spend too much time on that. The real discussion to be had is about what elements we’re choosing to trust.

What makes this so fun are the known unknowns, which is to say things we are sure we can’t be sure about. We don’t necessarily know just how healthy or fit a player is relative to where he was when he produced different stats in college, what his work ethic and drive might mean for ability to develop at the next level, or whether usage at the college level was due to a deficiency in some way or a lack of creativity by a coaching staff. We’re not sure whether anonymous scout leaks about some of these things are fully accurate, mild concerns, or full on subterfuge. And we don’t know whether the successes or failures of similar prospects that make up comp lists were influenced by any of these things, or perhaps additional known unknowns like just how much their NFL situation impacted their results. Those comp lists of truly similar prospects with similar red flags or similar optimistic notes are vanishingly small sample sizes, anyway.

Of course, we can read between the lines and make educated guesses about a lot of this. The above starts to veer toward implying we really know nothing, and that’s not at all the point. The point is that if accuracy is the goal, the decisions we make about the analytical profiles — how much we’re willing to stray from the data to consider things like team context at the college level, player uniqueness, and how much we’re buying different reports — is what’s actually interesting. Hell, we can throw in silly stuff like how much brand equity an analyst can gain from having a My Guy, and how that and other biases will color our takes. Let’s be honest about what’s going on here.

Too often the pre-draft analytical discourse ignores the known unknowns, and acts like there are correct answers. But the lesson year after year is that there aren’t. We can improve our hit rates, but as long as you acknowledge — and maybe first understand — the objective factors that have been shown to be useful, there’s room for interpretation. We wade into that when we look back at misses, often speculating on the known unknowns, assigning credit or blame to one or more of things like health or work ethic or team fit/competence. Some don’t wade into that; some chalk up those misses to an understanding that no model is perfect, hit rates can’t be 100%, and known unknowns are what they are. They accept the error rate and keep making similar bets. But that, it’s important to note, is a decision, an interpretation, too.

You still have to make your bets and decide what you believe. I’m going to do that here, mostly to remember how wrong I was after the fact. Draft capital will always be the biggest driver of success — an old mentor who went by the moniker Fantasy Douche used to love to say the people making the picks for these teams are also the ones doling out playing time — so everything has to be viewed through that lens. Teams make decisions in the draft and they immediately have an incentive to validate that investment. For players that fall past expectation, we get crucial information that various teams didn’t view the player as positively as thought.

So getting these things down now is important. I did a lot more writing and talking about the 2020 class last year at CBS, and one of my favorite ways to frame it all was this idea of a Hype Squad that RotoViz’s Curtis Patrick floated a few days before last year’s draft.

You can see how draft capital hurt some of these players. Hodgins had one of my favorite deep WR profiles last year, but he went in the sixth round, and the Bills took him only after they’d prioritized selecting another interesting deep WR in Gabriel Davis. Bryant went undrafted as my favorite TE option in a bad class, and that says a lot about his potential to ever see meaningful NFL snaps.

Meanwhile, what I was saying here was I was stoked about Jonathan Taylor, even given the considerable hype he was receiving, and of course anyone who has followed me knows I fell hard for Viska early. When those two went back-to-back in the early part of the second round, I was thrilled. Dillon was another whose second-round draft capital was exciting to see, if his landing spot was not.

Those are the types of adjustments we’ll need to make next week, but you have to have a base to operate from. So here are my top-25 predraft rookie ranks, arranged in a SuperFlex/TE Premium dynasty format. I’ll add some quick notes about how I’m interpreting their profiles, and what about them does or does not interest me. The length of the comments is a pretty good barometer for how interesting I think the prospect is, which could be either good or bad. In other words, the longer the comment, the more I think there’s room for interpretation around the profile. I’m also going to tier these guys.

All references to Dominator Rating come from RotoViz’s great Box Score Scout tool.

Tier 1

  1. Trevor Lawrence, QB — Other QBs in this class are more mobile, but Lawrence isn’t a statue, and he’s been the locked-in 1.01 for some time.

    Tier 2

  2. Kyle Pitts, TE — This is a bit crazy, and honestly when I started writing this I had him fourth on a rough list. There are legitimate concerns about how TEs have assimilated. But Pitts is legitimately different, and when you don’t recognize differences, you can miss truly generational players. Pitts doesn’t just have different athleticism and look and play like a WR — his production profile is also more similar to a good wide receiver’s than most other highly-drafted tight ends. He’s likely to go in the top five to become the first tight end to go that high since 1972. He’s a three-year early declare with a legitimate breakout season (a 30% Dominator Rating or better) as a true junior (he was at 32%), something that can’t be said for other recent highly-drafted tight ends he’s often discussed alongside like Eric Ebron (best Dominator Rating season was 19%), O.J. Howard (15%), or T.J. Hockenson (24%). Tight ends typically just aren’t this productive at the college level, though I should note that Noah Fant did have a 31% Dominator Rating and was an early declare, so that’s one reasonable first-round draft pick comp. But the best comp for Pitts is probably Vernon Davis, who had a similar three-year college career with a breakout junior season and then went No. 6 overall in the draft. Davis wasn’t very good right off the bat in the NFL — though he smashed in his fourth season — but this is where I’m going to apply context. Davis came into the league in 2006, a wildly different passing era, and to a terrible 49ers offense that played slow even for then. Tight ends were not split out wide with frequency back then. Shotgun formations were still very lightly used (this 2017 article details how only one team’s shotgun rate in 2006, Miami’s 44%, would have been higher than any team in 2016, and we’ve only moved further down that path since 2017). There’s not a single offense in 2021 that can be compared to the mid-2000s 49ers. League-wide formational and schematic shifts have changed things, and in a way where move tight ends could theoretically benefit. While we haven’t necessarily seen the results, the sample of comparable TEs to Pitts from an athletic and production standpoint is essentially zero, and even the number who are vaguely similar isn’t enough for me to meaningfully discount Pitts’ potential. The ceiling for Pitts is Travis Kelce-like WR production from a TE, year in and year out, in a way that could make him an insanely valuable TE Premium asset.

  3. Justin Fields, QB — Accuracy is a hugely important trait, and Fields has garnered praise for his. Pair that with very strong QB athleticism and the concerns he could fall a bit in the draft aren’t enough to mask the ceiling.

  4. Ja’Marr Chase, WR — Elite athletic testing after opting out of the 2020 season backed up a fantastic production profile that includes outproducing 2020 NFL star Justin Jefferson in 2019 when both were at LSU. Doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be better than Jefferson at the next level, because that’s an absurd expectation, but the floor is very high. He’s my 1.01 in non-SuperFlex and non-TE Premium, and this ranking at four just feels wrong.

    Tier 3

  5. Trey Lance, QB — There are huge question marks for an FCS guy who didn’t play in 2020 from whether he’s good enough to how much — if at all — he’ll play in 2021. But he has the rushing ability we crave — in the one full season he played he rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 TDs while also notching a 28:0 TD:INT ratio through the air. You kind of have to rank him here, but he’s a pure ceiling bet, and I’d note while things are definitely shifting toward rookie first-round quarterbacks starting for their NFL teams earlier and earlier, we’re not that far removed from Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson mostly sitting their first seasons, and Jordan Love was a first rounder last year that didn’t play a snap. Both Jackson and Love were late first-round picks, and Mahomes can be argued as a unique case, so those aren’t perfect examples. And Lance could go as high as third overall, which would make it very unlikely he sits the full year no matter how much San Francisco says they are fine with Jimmy Garoppolo for 2021. I’ve long been on the side that people tend to undervalue expected Year 1 playing time for rookie QBs, and all I’m saying is Lance is a unique enough situation with the opt out that if you have the right default expectation that it’s likely he’ll play, you can make a counterpoint there’s at least a chance we only get a few games from him in 2021.

  6. Zach Wilson, QB — Seems locked into the No. 2 spot. Has a little mobility and a big arm. Concerns about how he’ll play under pressure after he threw from a ton of clean pockets at BYU. But barring health, you’re going to get a full season out of him in Year 1, and the Jets have a new coaching staff now and at least an improved receiving corps with Corey Davis and Keelan Cole joining Jamison Crowder and Denzel Mims.

  7. Travis Etienne, RB — The running back class isn’t great, but Etienne has the explosive play upside where you can imagine future top-five overall redraft pick type upside at the NFL level if he lands in a good spot. That’s what I’m looking for at RB.

  8. Javonte Williams, RB — Landing spot and capital matters a ton for RB, but for now I still have Williams ahead of Najee Harris because of some of the elusive metrics Williams was able to put up. I don’t believe the lack of receiving production is as much of a concern as it looks, because he played alongside a guy in Michael Carter who will be one of the highest-drafted passing-downs backs in this draft, and Williams was still efficient with the receiving work he did get.

  9. Najee Harris, RB — It’s sounding exceedingly likely he’ll land with the Steelers in Round 1, but nothing is certain in the NFL draft. My issue with Harris is the combination of clean running lanes thanks to plus blocking and yet a lack of explosive plays. In theory, he’s a big back with strong receiving credentials that could be a High-Value Touch stud, but if he’s not particularly dynamic, he will be dependent on a large workload (which he very well may get from Day 1), and even then might not have true top-five RB upside. Leonard Fournette’s Jacksonville years come to mind, where Fournette was productive with a big workload but not really ever a league-winner. I’m not saying that doesn’t have value, but at this point we still have to get the landing spot right, then he has to get the passing-downs work and not be typecast into more of a big back role like Josh Jacobs, and then Harris will have to be good. If those things happen, I will miss here, but I don’t expect I’ll miss in a Le’Veon Bell 2.0 way.

  10. Rashod Bateman, WR — A relatively easy eval, he’s a three-year early declare who had a career Dominator Rating above the breakout threshold at 34% after he backed up a strong 28% true freshman season with 36% as a sophomore and then 48% in five games last year. The concern is size after he came in a little smaller than reported, but at 190 pounds he’s not too small for it to be a concern for me, as I think the league is trending toward smaller receivers anyway.

    Bateman could sneak into the first round, but even in the second this type of production profile should offer a solid floor at worst.

  11. DeVonta Smith, WR

  12. Jaylen Waddle, WR — I don’t really know what to do with the two Alabama receivers, both of whom have obviously exciting elements to their profiles and should have draft capital in the first half of the first round, but also have some concerns. Smith wasn’t an early declare, and didn’t break out until his senior (Heisman-winning) season. Waddle’s a three-year early declare, but he didn’t break out, and his 26% Dominator Rating in five games in 2020 was by far his most production after 15% and 12% in his rookie and sophomore seasons. Both guys are undersized, with size being the bigger concern for Smith, and both have an “excuse” for poorer metrics, specifically prior to 2020, given Alabama had four wide receivers who will all go in the first round on the roster at once. The case for Smith is he still hit a 28% Dominator Rating in 2019, outproducing both Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs (as well as Waddle), then went on to post a ridiculous 47% as a senior.

    Tier 4

  13. Mac Jones, QB — Another QB because these are SuperFlex rankings. There’s nothing exciting here for fantasy as he’s immobile, but he could be the third overall pick. If he’s not the third overall pick and falls a bit to where early playing time starts to be in question, he’ll fall even further for me.

  14. Elijah Moore, WR — Like Bateman, Moore’s a relatively easy eval. His 12% Dominator Rating as a true freshman came with both A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf on the roster, so the fact that he had some production isn’t too shabby. Then he went nuts as a sophomore at 46% and was at 37% in eight games last year. He’s a little undersized and is probably a slot at the NFL level, but is a three-year early declare with strong production that should translate, and is getting some first-round buzz.

  15. Terrace Marshall, WR — I had Marshall ahead of Moore at one point, and probably would have argued he belonged in the next tier up, but the medical stuff is at least a little concerning. At the same time, it sounds mostly like it’s talk about past injuries that should have been known. He still tested very well, running a reported 4.38 at his pro day. And he’s a three-year early declare who had a 47% Dominator Rating in seven games played last year. He hit 20% in 2019 alongside Jefferson (28%) and Chase (33%) and in an offense that produced at historic levels, which always makes it tough to have a truly monster share of the overall offense. Jefferson went pro and Chase opted out of the 2020 season, and Marshall was great in that setting. I’m pretty comfortable with the production profile, and Marshall has a nice size/speed combo, but how real the medical concerns are will be answered by whether he slips deeper into the second round or goes around the Round 1/Round 2 turn. If he still goes Round 1 as he was frequently mocked for a period of the pre-draft process, he moves up a tier.

  16. Rondale Moore, WR — I’ve had Moore ranked conservatively pre-draft because he’s an interesting test case, but he’s a guy I absolutely want to have some exposure to. I just don’t think the market is ever going to be particularly high on a 5-7 receiver, so I’m waiting to get my exposure post-draft after I learn his landing spot. While Moore is very short, he still comes in at 181 pounds, and the dude is jacked and is a workout warrior. I’m less concerned about his size than some of the very light wide receivers in this class. Moore’s usage was very interesting with a lot of quick hitters and jet motion tip passes, leading to a very low aDOT but on which he was very productive. He also barely played in either of the past two seasons (seven total games) due to injury and opting out, but is a three-year early declare who had a true freshman breakout with a Dominator Rating of 37% in a full 13-game season way back in 2018. What I want to see is a landing spot with an offense where I can talk myself into him being used on jet motion tip passes and racking up a lot of the easy catches he got at the college level, plus hopefully room for him to grow into downfield targets. He could be a Deebo Samuel-like producer, perhaps even better, if the fit is right, and what’s great for Moore is there are a ton of offenses utilizing more motion these days, and those tip passes especially are fantasy gold in PPR leagues, so he’s entering the league at the right time. I could see him racking up 80-plus catches as a rookie in the right offense. Consider him a player on my Hype Squad.

    Tier 5

  17. Tylan Wallace, WR — Wallace doesn’t check the early declare box, which is a concern. But as a true junior, he tore his ACL, and last year’s wide receiver class was incredibly deep, so you can pretty easily understand why the advice would have been for him to consider going back to school when he wasn’t going to be able to go through the pre-draft process in 2020. To that point, though, his profile was elite, with a 36% Dominator Rating as a sophomore and 50% in eight games as a junior. He came back and played nine games this past year, putting up another fantastic production number at 41% and allaying any concerns about his knee.

  18. Seth Williams, WR — The poster boy of my Hype Squad for 2021, the only concern with Williams’ profile is draft capital. If he goes on Day 2 — likely in Round 3, not Round 2, if he does get that high — there’s a ton of reason to like him. Auburn didn’t throw a lot while he was there, but Williams is a three-year early declare who dominated his offense. Unlike many of the wide receivers in this class, he has good size at 6-3, 211, and he reportedly ran a 4.49 which is good at that size. My hope is the size and athleticism helps his draft capital as it’s fairly unique in this class. As for production, Williams posted a 25% Dominator Rating as a true freshman while Darius Slayton was still there at Auburn. Williams then went on to post 38% and 32% in his ensuing two seasons, for a career 32% rate. His three-year career overlapped with another likely future NFL player in Anthony Schwartz, who is a speedster that should also get drafted next week. Both came into Auburn as four-star wide receivers out of high school, but Williams out-produced Schwartz all three years. The raw production doesn’t pop, and that might hurt Williams, but this is a strong team volume-adjusted production profile out of an SEC school for a guy who did have some target competition but just played in an offense that didn’t throw the ball enough. There are projections Williams could be completely undrafted, so his draft capital is very much up in the air, and if he does go late or not at all it will dramatically lower his potential to get on the field. Fingers crossed we hear his name Friday night.

  19. Dyami Brown, WR — Another pretty straightforward profile, Brown was a three-year early declare with back-to-back 31% Dominator Ratings in 2019 and 2020. He’s a downfield threat who checks in just over six feet and right around 190 pounds, and I’m only just slightly concerned about his ability to rack up PPR points given he averaged over 20 yards per reception over his two most productive seasons, with 2,100-plus receiving yards on just 106 total catches. Might never be a 90-catch guy, but you could also see him outplaying this ranking with his profile. He’s the end of a pretty significant tier in the WR rankings for me.

  20. Pat Freiermuth, TE — A three-year early declare who posted a 27% Dominator Rating as a true freshman, following it up with 23% as a sophomore and 20% in four games last year. Those are pretty strong TE numbers, and it sounds like Freiermuth should get solid capital.

    Tier 6

  21. Kenneth Gainwell, RB

  22. Chuba Hubbard, RB

  23. Michael Carter, RB

  24. Trey Sermon, RB — Call it my complete distrust of all running backs, but I’m pretty out on this class after the top three. Gainwell, Hubbard, Carter, and Sermon all offer different things. Gainwell and Carter are the smallest of this group at 5-8, 201, and while that’s not really feature back size, my Ship Chasing co-host Pat Kerrane swears Gainwell has that potential, noting several times that’s not far off in the weight department from where guys like Christian McCaffrey and LeSean McCoy came into the league. Gainwell does have a strong receiving profile with a 51-catch season in 2019 before opting out of 2020, and was the feature guy at Memphis while keeping Antonio Gibson in a gadget role. I could see ranking him as much higher in the second round, but I’m waiting for landing spot information. Carter meanwhile keeps drawing Giovani Bernard comparisons, which I frankly love because I’m a sucker for pass-catching backs. He did run for over 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons while sharing the UNC backfield with Javonte Williams. Sermon is the biggest of this quartet, but reportedly only clocked a 4.59 at 215 and didn’t do much as a receiver in college. Capital looks like it could be solid for him, though, and landing spot will be telling. I wonder what his upside truly is. Then Hubbard is a bit of a wild card as a guy who had a huge 2019, rushing for over 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. He caught over 20 passes in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, something Sermon never did in four years, but Hubbard had an injury-plagued third year and whether he can regain his explosiveness — and whether NFL teams will buy into that possibility, as his capital projects lowest of these four at Grinding the Mocks — is unknown.

  25. Brevin Jordan, TE — Jordan is an early declare who posted a very strong 36% Dominator Rating last year in eight games, and could arguably be viewed as the TE2 for fantasy over Freiermuth if capital is in his favor. As it stands, Freiermuth looks like a Round 2 pick while Jordan is being mocked more in Round 3. Prior to his big third season, Jordan had a solid 21% Dominator Rating as a freshman but just 16% as a sophomore. I’m pretty interested in his landing spot and took him in the third round of a pre-draft rookie draft.

Honorable mention — It’s weird to completely leave Kadarius Toney off this list, because he’s gotten significant Round 1 buzz, and could be a pick Thursday night. But I genuinely wouldn’t have taken him before any of the above in any of my pre-draft rookie drafts, and there are a few more interesting names after this point I might prefer. As a former high school quarterback, the case for Toney is he was never really a receiver until his senior season, at which point he was fairly effective. But even as a non-early declare, he only produced a Dominator Rating of 23% in his senior season (and was never over 10% prior to that). He did add some rushing production each college season and reportedly clocked in sub-4.4 in the 40-yard dash, but speed with little else in the profile should generally be faded at wide receiver. Toney might get some play as a gadget guy or be used in unique ways in the right offense, but he just looks like a guy who will underperform his draft capital for fantasy purposes.

Alright, that’s all I have for now. These ranks will be wrong in many ways, and many are dependent on projected draft capital. I try not to overreact to landing spot as much as the actual place in the draft a player goes, but there are certainly some favorable situations and others that look poor. We’ll have full reactions to everything in what should be a fun first round on the livestream Thursday night, so come hang at the Ship Chasing YouTube channel.