RB D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
A finish of running back No. 18 in PPR scoring last year suggests he may have already broken out in the eyes of some folks, but there is so much more potential growth to be had from Swift in 2021. He played only 13 games last year as a rookie in an unconventional offseason. Sharing carries with Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson resulted in only 114 attempts as he was being slowly brought along by the former coaching staff after early-season mixed play.
Swift will benefit from new head coach Dan Campbell’s commitment to pounding the rock and also the aligned philosophy from incoming offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. The former Los Angeles Chargers head coach has a history of throwing extensively to his backs, and this team will need the former Georgia star to step up his game after the upheaval at wide receiver in the offseason.
Jared Goff replaces Matthew Stafford, which is an obvious step backward at the quarterback position. It will cut both ways, in terms of defensive scrutiny paid to the backfield, but Swift is in line to see something close to 100 targets this year. RB Jamaal Williams comes over from Green Bay and will share touches with the dual-threat back, which helps keep the explosive Swift healthy and efficient. Toss in the upgraded offensive line as a major factor, and Detroit could present an elite fantasy offering from its blossoming young talent.
QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
“ACL, the injury just isn’t that daunting of a recovery for a quarterback, especially a young one who wasn’t particularly mobile to begin with. Sure, Burrow can move around and escape when needed, but we’re not talking about Michael Vick here. A torn MCL is even less concerning. Don’t take my word for it … Burrow was on the field throwing as early as May this year. That wouldn’t happen if the coaching staff and front office were in the slightest bit concerned over his recovery.
The Bengals — in theory — upgraded the offensive line with the addition of right tackle Riley Reiff and expected developmental gains from former first-rounder Jonah Williams at left tackle. Venerated LSU Tigers receiver Ja’Marr Chase was a top-five pick and is reunited with Burrow, creating one of the most dynamic top-three receiver corps in the game. Provided Joe Mixon can return to full strength after a season of his own that was lost to injury, the backfield should be no worse than competent.
Burrow was well ahead of the rookie learning curve in his first pro season, and a monster leap in production is right at his fingertips, especially if his team’s defense continues to struggle.
WR Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers
The NFL is a “produce now” entity for young players, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see several second-year names on this list. Mostly gone are the days of receivers practically requiring three or four years to break out. While it is easy to see how the Niners’ quarterback situation may turn off gamers, poor QB play has still resulted in strong showings from wideouts many times. For now, the presumption should be that Jimmy Garoppolo starts as long as he is healthy. While that’s a crapshoot based on his history, the front office is perfectly content with No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance learning for a year before getting his shot. Even if we see Lance this season, he was the third selection for a reason, and he’ll need to throw the ball to compete in today’s NFL.
There are other mouths to feed, including George Kittle at tight end and Deebo Samuel as a fellow receiver with the chops to succeed, but Aiyuk’s versatility is worth noting. The 2020 first-rounder was explosive in his limited rushing attempts, averaging 12.8 yards and finding the end zone twice. He snagged 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns from a hodgepodge of mostly ineffective quarterbacks.
Don’t expect a significant jump in targets (96) or receptions from last year if Kittle and Samuel stay healthy. It won’t matter, given Aiyuk’s vertical skills that were far from being on full display in 2020. He should increase his yards-per-reception average and has a legit shot at threatening double-digit aerial scores via mismatches and play-calling creativity near the end zone.
RB Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
Do you really trust James Conner? He is behind Edmonds in terms of knowing the offensive system after the latter has spent two years picking up its nuances. Conner has struggled with injuries in his career and recently underwent offseason surgery to repair an off-field injury compared to turf toe. Toe injuries can be tricky to overcome.
The third year for Edmonds saw a dramatic spike in his role as a receiver (53 catches on 67 targets) after combining for 32 grabs in his first 29 games. Is A.J. Green the answer? How about Christian Kirk’s inconsistent play, or Rondale Moore making a dent as a rookie? In many ways, Edmonds is the safest Arizona skill guy not named DeAndre Hopkins.
Although the backfield also gets a huge boost with center Rodney Hudson’s acquisition, there’s a reasonable concern Edmonds will lose meaningful work around the stripe. But should Conner fail to produce or get hurt yet again, this backfield has no one of consequence to threaten Edmonds for the starting workload.
WR Laviska Shenault Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Prized No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence should be in a great position to succeed out of the gates, and the Jaguars have surrounded him with weapons. One such asset is the versatility of a second-year talent in Shenault. He can line up all over the field and is dangerous in traffic. He will see ample single coverage with DJ Chark Jr. and Marvin Jones Jr. keeping defenders occupied. Shenault’s skills in space lend to creative play calls and easy pitches from his rookie quarterback.
The offensive line is respectable, and the backfield is among the most promising in the game. Jacksonville’s defense, on the other hand, is problematic and shall provide fantasy owners a voluminous passing offense by force of circumstance.
If all of those aspects aren’t alluring enough, Shenault offers the occasional bonus play as a rusher. The draft addition of RB Travis Etienne suggests we won’t see Shenault match his 2020 positional fourth-most 18 carries, but even half of that figure is still worth noting. The Colorado standout closed out 2020 with his three best efforts over the final five contests, displaying an increased understanding of the game and setting the tone for more gains in Year 2.
WR Marquise Brown, Baltimore Ravens
The third-year wideout has speed for days, and now he has experience to go with it. Brown also has upgrades around him at the position in Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins. The current and former first-round choices bolster the receiving corps and alleviate pressure from the diminuative target.
Baltimore should make strides as a whole from the passing attack. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has endured ups and downs, but we’ve seen what he is capable of with modest weaponry. Brown has had his share of drops and failed to live up to his potential, understandably driving down his fantasy stock. Playing predominantly at flanker and from the slot should help create more separation as he can be moved around the field after struggling at split end.
Going as the 47th receiver overall, at the turn of Rounds 10-11, on average, there is limited risk in selecting Brown. He’s effectively a WR4 in most formats. A new receivers coach could help advance his frequency of productive play, though natural maturation found by the game slowing for him and having less stress are stronger arguments for an uptick in fantasy worth.