It’s all NFL draft, all the time right now. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to predict the draft in its entirety as trades and crazy front offices of different scouting will shake things up. So for fun more than anything, let’s try to predict rookie performance for the upcoming draft case. It’s a talented class, so there might be more contributing rookies than usual. Players need two things for fantasy success, talent and opportunity. Let’s see who’s got it.
I’ll be using the latest CBS Mock Draft, sticking to first round offensive players. Of course, lots of players in later rounds can do well, see Chase Claypool or D.K. Metcalf, but after the first round especially mock drafts tend to fly out of the window. Why the CBS one? Well it’s the first one that came up when I typed in “latest mock draft” so there you go.
Pick 1: Trevor Lawrence to the Jacksonville Jaguars
Trevor Lawrence is the assumed number one pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars and could have a Burrows-esque impact day one. James Robinson, D.J. Chark Jr, Marvin Jones Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. (wow lot of Jrs) aren’t a bad group at all. Burrows was playable while he was healthy, but he wasn’t the best QB of the class in terms of fantasy. That’s where I think Lawrence lands as well. The line is average at best (PFF rated them 22/32 and they didn’t add any tackles) and this will be Urban Meyer’s first NFL job so I expect some growing pains.
Lawrence can run, but it isn’t his main game which doesn’t give him that nice cushion some other QBs have. He’s plenty talented though, and his supporting cast isn’t bad. This team is picking first for a reason however. They probably aren’t going to win a ton of games, and being a fantasy starting QB on a 4-13 team isn’t easy. In addition, I don’t think Meyer is going to have Lawrence sling it 40 times a game either. Maybe Lawrence and Meyer blow it out the park in their first year and Lawrence is a fantasy stud, but I think a more conservative season is likely. Somewhere in the QB 13-18 range, enough to be stream-able because of byes but not an every week starter.
Pick 2: Zach Wilson to the New York Jets
Whoever gets drafted by the New York Jets won’t be quite as lucky, and at this point it seems a foregone conclusion for it to be Zach Wilson of BYU. A dismal offensive line and a poor running game won’t help, and the receivers are deep in the fact they have a lot of average guys but none of them are true star material. Jamison Crowder had a nice season and Denzel Mims has potential, but this team isn’t very good. Combined with a first year, defensive-minded head coach in Robert Saleh and the outlook for Wilson’s rookie year seems rather bleak fantasy-wise.
He could be talented enough to overcome, and the total lack of a run game can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Regardless, I wouldn’t hold out much hope for Wilson being a fantasy contributor year one.
Pick 3: Mac Jones to the San Francisco 49ers
Jones could be a success for the 49ers and win games while not being a fantasy option. I think that’s the likely scenario for Mac Jones. The 49ers are a good team in win-now mode, but they love to run the ball and that will take precedence over Mac’s fantasy numbers. Jones has solid targets in George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk along with a good offensive line but the volume will let him down. Under Kyle Shanahan they’ve been 2nd (outlier, and they didn’t win games) 20th, 29th (Super Bowl runners up) and 16th in passing attempts. They’ll want to get back to the game-plan that got them to the Championship which means play defense and run the ball.
Jones also won’t add much rushing the ball, which combined with his likely below-average passing volume won’t let him put up the numbers he needs to be a top-15 quarterback in fantasy. Oh, by the way Jimmy Garoppolo is still here too. While the 49ers probably didn’t move up to three to grab someone to sit on the bench, is Jones going to be a clear enough improvement over Garoppolo for him to start day one?
Pick 4: Kyle Pitts to the Atlanta Falcons
Our first really juicy one, Kyle Pitts should be a starting fantasy TE right away. First off, that’s not terribly difficult to do considering how bad the TE position is outside of three people. Combined with the fact that the Falcons throw a lot, will be down a lot and have Matt Ryan who every few years will have a 30+ touchdown season along with Pitts being a generational pass catcher means really good things. The Falcons haven’t always had relevant tight end pass catchers, but when Ryan has had one (Tony Gonzalez back in the day and Austin Hooper in 2018 and 2019) he’s found them, so Kyle Pitts should be well-utilized. Even though it’s unbelievably rare to have a rookie tight end do well in fantasy, Pitts is a once-in-a-generation prospect going into a great situation. To the moon with this one.
Pick 5: Ja’Marr Chase to the Cincinnati Bengals
This pick also has a lot of hype, but I’m a bit more cautious. Chase is a beast, and reuniting with his college QB should be a slam dunk, but I’m not sure it’ll play out that way. Chase walks into a room with Tyler Boyd, a proven No. 1 receiver and Tee Higgins who had a great rookie year. Throw in a healthy C.J. Uzomah who looked promising until his injury and you got a crowded receiver room. Not only that, but the Bengals might seek to be a little more cautious and run the ball a lot more, and with Joe Mixon returning that will be easier. I don’t doubt Chase’s talent here, but the situation might not allow him to see a ton of targets.
That being said, Chase might just be THAT good and Burrows has a lot of experience looking for him. Not only that, but he will be on the field right away with how often three receiver sets are used. I could see anything from a near Justin Jefferson repeat to a WR 30+ performance due to low volume.
Pick 6: Jaylen Waddle to the Miami Dolphins
I’d be somewhat surprised to see the Dolphins go with Waddle here, but if they do I don’t think that Waddle will be a contributor in fantasy year one. There is going to be too much competition there, and while he is a great talent he might find himself in a similar situation as the last time he played with Tua Tagovailoa. Buried under too many other options.
Will Fuller IV if he stays healthy and not in trouble has the chops to be a number one receiver. DeVante Parker had a 1200-yard season in 2019, and Mike Gesicki was a fantasy starter when healthy. Myles Gaskin also gives them a solid run game if he’s available. I don’t think the Dolphins want Tua slinging it 35+ times per game either, so the volume for Waddle seems low. Waddle will have a few games where he gets a 70+ yard touchdown, but there will be no way to predict it.
Pick 7: Justin Fields to the Detroit Lions
Seven picks in and it’s still offensive skills positions! Unlike the first two QBs (and arguably Mac Jones) Fields road to starting isn’t clear. Jared Goff struggled at times for sure, but he also put together some good seasons. Combined with the fact that the Lions aren’t competing for anything and Fields needs some developmental time in reading and processing defenses, there’s not really a reason to rush Fields in there.
Not to mention this roster is not great. The Lions offensive line is actually pretty good, T.J. Hockenson is an ascending tight end and D’Andre Swift could be the best Lions running back since Reggie Bush. After that though it gets a lot worse. The receivers are middling at best and the worst group overall in the league at worst.
That being said, if Fields does get in he might be able to do some stuff. While Swift could easily be the focal point of the offense, Fields can run it himself, which always gives a lot of fantasy value. Not only that, but the Lions defense is putrid, meaning he will need to be in catchup mode a lot. That could be great or disastrous, but the potential is there. Fields might not see the field (heh) at all in 2021, or he could be like Lamar Jackson in his rookie year, a fantasy starter once he became the Baltimore Ravens’ starter. Fields’ combination of rushing ability and good outlets in Swift and Hockenson might be a winning one.
Pick 12: Devonta Smith to the Philadelphia Eagles
We skip ahead a few picks for the next fantasy relevant position player. Smith will walk into this roster as the WR 1, and Nick Sirianni was a WR coach in Indianapolis so you’d hope he knows how to coach receivers up. The Eagles are in a weird spot of possibly competing for the playoffs or being a bottom-five team and it basically all rides on Jalen Hurts. The line, when healthy, is amazing and Miles Sanders is a good running back. The only thing they are missing offensively is wide receivers, but if Smith is great and Jalen Reagor develops in year two the offense actually looks dangerous.
On the other hand, Hurts didn’t find receivers all that often in his few starts except against the Arizona Cardinals. He was also a rookie with no offseason though. Point is, Hurts and the Eagles can basically be anything, which means Smith will be hard to predict. I’d lean heavily on the lower side as the Eagles focus on running the ball with Sanders and Hurts but there’s sneakily a lot of potential here for Smith to make waves in year one.
Pick 15: Trey Lance to the New England Patriots
Bold pick, but this could be the Justin Herbert of 2021. There is data out there that shows one-year starters often struggle in the NFL, but the situation is just so good. Lance walks into a team with one of the best offensive lines and the greatest coach of all time in Bill Belichick. The Patriots got a few playable fantasy games with Cam Newton who basically cannot throw the ball, with one of the worst supporting casts in football.
Now the tight end room is one of the best in the league, with the coach that popularized two tight end sets. The wide receiver room isn’t great but it’s far from the worst in the league with the new additions and Damien Harris looked legit when available. Throw in one of the best receiving backs of the past few years in James White and baby, you got a stew going.
This is a solid team, and I don’t think they are married to Newton as the quarterback. Cam may start a few games, but when and if this turns to Lance he can do some real damage. Lance ran for 1100 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. At this point, Lance should be a Cam Newton that can throw. Lance’s rushing will always give him a floor, which has immense value in fantasy. More than I trust Trey Lance though, I have utmost faith in Belichick.
Pick 24: Travis Etienne to the Pittsburgh Steelers
Traditionally, the running back spot is the one that sees the most rookie success. Etienne is also coming into a great situation, with the starter in James Conner gone leaving only the unproven 2019 4th round pick Benny Snell Jr. in his way. The opportunity will be there for Etienne to seize this job and produce. He can also do his damage on the ground and in the receiving game, and we’ve seen well-rounded backs excel in Pittsburgh (Le’veon Bell). My only concern is what’s around him.
This isn’t the same Pittsburgh offense of the past few years, they ranked just 24th in yards gained, although they were a better 12th in points for in 2020. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback he used to be, and last year they were basically the worst rushing team in the league. The offensive line graded horribly in the run game, which obviously didn’t help. Etienne is probably more talented than James Conner, but it might not matter.
That being said, Etienne theoretically hits the talent and opportunity crossroad that leads to fantasy success, but he’s not the obvious fantasy star of rookie RBs past. Still, the opportunity wins out here, and if Etienne goes to the Steelers he will undoubtedly cost a high fantasy draft pick. Will he be a Clyde-Edwards Helaire or a Saquon Barkley though? It’s all about cost in fantasy, and Etienne might be too rich for my blood. At the same time, with the volume he could get that puts him as a low RB 2 or flex at worst.
Pick 27: Kadarius Toney to the Baltimore Ravens
Another guy I think will help the team and could be a real life success without being a fantasy one. Toney is kind of a similar player to Marquise Brown. Both are explosive playmakers that rely on speed and athleticism more than size. That doesn’t bother me as much as the quarterback situation. Lamar Jackson is good, but he’s not going to light up the world throwing the ball.
Marquise Brown has not been a consistently fantasy relevant player in his two years in Baltimore. In his career he’s finished WR 44 and WR 37. That’s with Lamar Jackson having the best year he probably will ever have in 2019. Adding another wide receiver isn’t going to help him or Toney in terms of pure counting numbers. Mark Andrews is still around, and there just won’t be enough volume for multiple guys to eat on this passing offense. Similar to Waddle, both guys will have games where they popoff, but knowing which game that will be is nigh-impossible.
Pick 29: Rashod Bateman to the Green Bay Packers
This should be a slam dunk fantasy success. Talented first round receiver goes to an offense with one of the best QBs of all time. The past few years the Packers haven’t really been able to support two fantasy wide receivers, but that could be due to lack of talent. There have been multiple times in Aaron Rodgers’ career where two guys were able to perform exceedingly well. Greg Jennings and Donald Driver early in his career, then Jordy Nelson and Jennings, Nelson and Randall Cobb, a little James Jones here and there and finally Davante Adams and Nelson in 2016 as the last Packers pairing to make waves.
While it’s been the solo Adams show for four years now, the Packers have infamously not spent high draft capital on the wide receiver position. Since drafting Adams in the second in 2014, they haven’t used a pick higher than a fourth on a wide receiver (Ty Montgomery played running back for the Packers) since. Bateman should be better than any of those guys, which gives him real potential. The one issue is that historically rookie wide receivers haven’t done too much on the Packers, even when they do end up being great. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams were pretty much non-factors in their rookie years. Still, we know Rodgers is good enough to have two top fantasy wide receivers, and Bateman and Adams might just be the duo to bring it back.
The Numbers, What Do They Mean?
At the end of the day, these predictions taken at face-value might not mean anything, as the draft will probably be wildly different from this mock draft. Except for the first two picks. The things I said about the each pick were more about the team they are going to than the player themselves though. This means that as long as it’s the same position a lot of this will still apply, no matter which rookie they grab. I think any QB that goes to the Patriots and plays will have success, while I think any receiver that goes to the Ravens will struggle with the lack of opportunity. While this article is more for fun, there is some predictive value that can be gleaned based on the team’s situation, which should be the final takeaway.