At this time of the offseason, the NFL Draft buzz begins to pick up as pro days conclude. With those time marks recorded and team intentions exposed by free agency or rumors, the outlook for rookies begins to take shape. Blending all these different factors into a draft strategy for attack best balls can be highly profitable.
With the help of Benjamin Robinson's Grinding The Mocks expected draft position data, we'll discuss each rookie skill position grouping for best ball drafts on Underdog Fantasy (promo code “FTN”). The EDP values represented will be a player's overall expected draft position in the NFL Draft. I'll highlight how to approach each position and how ADPs could shift once the NFL Draft occurs.
ADPs (Positional, Overall) referenced below are per Underdog Fantasy.
Drafting rookie quarterbacks on Underdog Fantasy
Trevor Lawrence, EDP: 1 (QB15, 115.6)
Justin Fields, EDP: 5 (QB20, 146.9)
Zach Wilson, EDP: 2 (QB27, 179.4)
Trey Lance, EDP: 4 (QB29, 195.0)
Mac Jones, EDP: 13 (QB34, 212.9)
Over the last two seasons, Justin Herbert (QB10) and Kyler Murray (QB12) have each finished their rookie season among the top 12 quarterbacks in fantasy points per game. One of these projected first-round signal-callers has a fantastic shot at making that three years in a row. The obvious choice is Trevor Lawrence, who I highlighted in my best value stacks on Underdog Fantasy article. The skill players around him, coupled with an offense that will chuck the ball deep, could vault him into the top 12.
Justin Fields is the best threat to accomplish this feat if it's not Lawrence. Fields flashed 4.4 speed at his pro day and averaged 39.4 rushing yards per game over his final two collegiate seasons. Without knowing the context of the offense or skill players surrounding the one trait that we know will translate is his rushing ability. Don't believe the smoke you hear on social media. Fields is also a big-time arm talent and can sling the football with the best of them. If we're targeting one trait to covet late that adds to the floor and ceiling in fantasy, it's rushing.
Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Mac Jones all have multiple questions around them. Despite their appealing draft positions, the likelihood of them paying off in 2021 is slim. Wilson has been touted as a rushing quarterback, but don't believe all the press you hear. Wilson never rushed for more than 254 yards in any collegiate season, and while his 10 rushing scores last year are impressive, good luck banking on that translating to the NFL with any certainty. After enjoying the fourth-lowest pressure rate (21.5%) among all collegiate quarterbacks with 50 or more dropbacks last season, Wilson will need to have his head on a swivel in (presumably) New York. The Jets allowed the fourth-highest adjusted sack rate (8.1%) last season and currently don't project much improvement along the offensive line. Lance has questions with his small starting resume in college and he’ll possibly sit behind a veteran starter this season. With Jones, the problem is the fact that he's a pocket passer. Say what you will regarding his status as a top prospect or not, but not having that rushing component to his game makes it extremely hard for him to make the cut as a QB1. Even in the best-case scenario of landing in San Francisco, the deck is stacked against Jones. The 49ers ranked 15th in red-zone passing rate (54%), so Jones' touchdown upside is likely capped, rendering him a mid QB2 in the best of circumstances.
The best approach when targeting these quarterbacks in best ball is as upside QB2s. None of these passers should be counted on as your top option or primary at the position, but shoot for the moon with one as your second or third option drafted, sure.
Drafting rookie running backs on Underdog Fantasy
Najee Harris, EDP: 27 (RB19, 31.6)
Travis Etienne, EDP: 35 (RB21, 37.6)
Javonte Williams, EDP: 29.6 (RB24, 51.0)
Kenneth Gainwell, EDP: 63.1 (RB36, 101.1)
Michael Carter, EDP: 72.1 (RB44, 131.1)
Trey Sermon, EDP: 79.4 (RB48, 149.8)
With running backs, the path to fantasy fortune is paved by volume. The road to accessing that type of league-winning ceiling is reflected in draft capital. The clearest insight we are given of a team’s thoughts or plans is during free agency and the NFL Draft. For this exercise, the draft capital is one we’ll focus on. All the six running back prospects above have an EDP currently placing them inside the top three rounds of the NFL Draft. With that type of equity tied to their rookie season, each runner has a shot of entering camp as the clear starter or competing for that role.
Najee Harris, Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams all currently have top-24 draft positions, but there is equity to take advantage of even at those spots. We could easily see those ADPs climb higher when they are selected in the first round or at the top of the second round in the NFL Draft. Miles Sanders (RB16) and James Robinson (RB18) specifically could see their draft stock fall if their teams further address their positional depth chart inside the top three rounds. If that happens, this aids these rookie runners in climbing up the ranks. Targeting Harris, Etienne and Williams at their current draft positions is a twofold approach banking on talent but also factoring in that this could be a low point or median draft spot and not a high watermark. Each of these rushers also possesses some pass game prowess and, with that, have a workhorse or bell-cow upside. For my deeper dives into Harris, Etienne and Williams’ skill sets, check out their prospect profiles at our FTN 2021 NFL Draft Hub.
Kenneth Gainwell, Michael Carter and Trey Sermon are all projected right now to possibly be selected inside the top three rounds of the NFL Draft, but their ADPs aren’t reflecting that on Underdog. Gainwell and Carter specifically have shown that they have the pass-catching chops to operate on all three downs, so their upside is immense. Sermon is a bulldozing zone scheme dancing bear. Wherever he lands, he could factor into the red zone offense from Day 1, with the ceiling being a 15-20 touch per week rusher. Each of these players could see their stock rise considerably once landing spots are attached to their names. Now is the time to pounce on their soft ADPs before the NFL Draft. These three players specifically are all ideal zero RB draft targets.
Drafting rookie wide receivers on Underdog Fantasy
Ja'Marr Chase, EDP: 6.5 (WR31, 67.2)
Jaylen Waddle, EDP: 10.7 (WR48, 106.5)
DeVonta Smith, EDP: 11.7 (WR44, 94.0)
Rashod Bateman, EDP: 32.7 (WR50, 114.6)
Kadarius Toney, EDP: 33.8 (WR79, 193.4)
Rondale Moore, EDP: 44.3 (WR58, 137.4)
Terrace Marshall, EDP: 36.9 (WR69, 170.7)
Amon-Ra St. Brown, EDP: 70.9 (WR94, 213.8)
On average since 2017, two rookie wide receivers per season (actually 2.5 or 10 total players) have finished inside the top 36 receivers yearly in fantasy points per game. The 10 rookie wide receivers that have made up this sample have also flashed a high weekly ceiling. Those wideouts have averaged 5.5 games per season of weekly top 20 PPR scoring production. This is all to say that rookies have shown that they can be productive and provide us week winning upside for best-ball formats. All eight of the rookies listed above are projected to be selected inside the top three rounds of the NFL Draft, with six of them possibly landing in the first round.
Ja'Marr Chase and his 96th percentile collegiate yards per reception (21.2) and 78th percentile breakout age (19.5) deserve all the hype. Chase’s skill set is that of an alpha wide receiver. He could easily take the league by storm in 2021, much like his former teammate Justin Jefferson did last season. Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, and Rashod Bateman are all well-rounded wide receiving prospects that win in different ways. These players will likely be top 20 selections in the NFL Draft and could walk into 100 plus target roles as rookies. Waddle, Smith, and Bateman are all values as they’re currently being selected as the WR4 or WR5 for your best ball squad.
The next tier of rookie receivers being drafted that could sneak into the backend of Day 1 of the NFL Draft are Kadarius Toney, Rondale Moore and Terrace Marshall. Toney and Moore each have questions in their analytical profile or injury concerns, but their raw talent and explosive abilities are present. Considering that they are both being drafted outside the top 130 players on Underdog, even three ceiling games in 2021 make them an excellent draft selection this season. Marshall is the X-factor here that, if everything breaks right, could operate as the No. 1 option for an NFL team. His ability to excel in the slot and win outside versus man sets him apart from these other receivers. At WR69 overall, Marshall is a home run swing worth taking. He has the talent and ADP that evokes Chase Claypool from last season.
Amon-Ra St. Brown is a player to target as well who is projected as a possible Day 2 pick. St. Brown is a fantastic selection, especially when discussing how to differentiate your stacks in large-field tournaments like the War Room that is already live on Underdog. St. Brown is going undrafted in many instances. If he falls into a situation like the Detroit Lions where he could garner his heavy usage over the middle of the field, he could be the lightly rostered player that helps you take down one of these larger contests.
Drafting rookie tight ends on Underdog Fantasy
Kyle Pitts, EDP: 7.6 (TE8, 83.6)
Pat Freiermuth, EDP: 40.7 (TE36, 215.1)
Since 2017, only Evan Engram has finished as a top-five fantasy tight end in his rookie season in fantasy points per game. That season was a perfect storm for Engram, as all the other receiving options around him were either injured or ineffective. This helped clear the way for him to finish the year with 115 targets. Since 1992 only Jeremy Shockey saw more targets (128) in his rookie season. Engram’s first-year blastoff is an outlier and difficult to repeat for any rookie tight end. This leads us to Kyle Pitts and what we could foresee in his rookie season. Pitts is a unicorn no matter how you slice it. Pitts is better described as a wide receiver. Last season, he lined up outside or in the slot on 36.1% of his snaps. He finished 13th in yards per reception (20.4) and 32nd in yards per route run (2.98) against man coverage among all wide receivers or tight ends with at least 10 targets. Against other tight ends, these values are even more blistering. He ranked first in yards per reception and second in yards per route run against man. Pitts could easily explode in 2021 and pay off on his current draft cost as the TE8, but also tempering your exposure betting on an outlier is wise as well.
Pat Freiermuth is a more traditional tight-end prospect. He lands with an EDP projecting him in the early second round. With that projected draft capital and his current draft position outside the top 200 players selected, he’s worth landing as your TE3. This is especially true for squads drafted that take the late-round shotgun approach with drafting three tight ends. This strategy is deployed in the hopes of catching lightning in a bottle with one or more of the selections.