Talent. Scheme fit. Opportunity. These are the roots that sustain results in fantasy football.
There are only so many playoff articles you can read before you overthink your postseason roster moves and ruin a good thing. This week, let's return to the roots of the game with a 2021 Talent Watchlist: 50 Risers, Teasers, Fallers, and Underdogs of note.
This list consists of prominent free agents, marquee rookie talents, and unproven players who you should know about for dynasty, keeper, and re-draft formats.
I expect these players to build on what they've done thus far in their careers.
Sustaining Excellence with a Shot of Greater Heights
Chris Godwin: The Buccaneers would be wise to re-sign Godwin. Mike Evans is an excellent player, but Godwin wins in more ways and at a near-equal or greater level of ability than Evans, and Antonio Brown's stability as a professional remains a serious question. Year Two with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay should be similar to the Broncos receiving corps' Year Two with Peyton Manning in Denver.
Yet, even if we entertain the insane possibility that the Buccaneers let Godwin walk in 2021, imagine this versatile option replacing D'Andre Hopkins in Houston. After all, there are few receivers with the talent to "replace" Hopkins and the Texans didn't find a suitable option in 2020. And if the Texans make the mistake of not targeting Godwin, the Lions and Bengals are two teams with the quarterback talent that could supersize their offenses with Godwin on board as its primary option. Although unlikely to happen, Godwin would also be an upgrade to JuJu Smith-Schuster in Pittsburgh if the Steelers went nuts.
Heck, even if the Packers decided to stop piddling around with young talents that haven't fully matured into expectations, Godwin and Davante Adams could coexist at a high level with Aaron Rodgers. The same is true of Godwin replacing Sammy Watkins in Kansas City. Patrick Mahomes II could raise the standard of excellence for passing yardage in a season to 5,500 yards with Godwin added to that crew.
Returning to Excellence
A.J. Green: No, Green hasn't been excellent for the past three years and he's only been intermittently excellent as a fantasy producer between 2014-17 because of injuries, but Green is about to get out of football jail. Yes, Joe Burrow looks like a potential reformer of this downtrodden offense, but the rookie quarterback has a noodle arm for what Green does best, and that's running precise timing routes in the intermediate range of the field.
Most fantasy analysts will tell you that A.J. Green is washed-up. That may prove to be the case, but I stopped listening to other's untrained eyes for a while now. There's enough evidence that the Burrow-Green fit was bad enough stylistically that it generated a false reading among football media about Green's viability as an NFL starter.
At the right place, I could imagine Green reuniting with his old Georgia quarterback Stafford in Detroit and delivering production commensurate to his talent for another year or two. And if Green has slowed down a bit, he'd be one heck of a big slot receiver at a bargain price for the likes of Pittsburgh, Atlanta, or Green Bay,
J.K. Dobbins: Mark Ingram II will either be a backup in Baltimore next year or playing a bit-part elsewhere. Dobbins has shown enough that he'll be expected to be the primary back in Baltimore and that gives him top-15 fantasy upside at his position in 2021.
Antonio Gibson: Washington's rookie back is the best example of unrefined talent delivering at a high level that I have seen since Tyreek Hill arrived in the NFL. Gibson's footwork, understanding of downhill running, and how to set up zone runs are all conspicuously absent from his game and he's still delivering for fantasy GMs. Expect Gibson to develop enough over the offseason that even a moderate improvement with these techniques and concepts could make him a consistent top-12 starter at his position. If he improves the way Hill improved as a wide receiver, Gibson could become the Hill of running backs.
Jonathan Taylor: The No.13 running back in PPR formats after five weeks, there were few questions about Taylor. The rookie's decision-making flaws and bouts of pressing too hard for big plays—a common rookie reaction—led to declining production that dropped Taylor to No.32 between Weeks 6-9.
However, Taylor has had a resurgence during the past three weeks, delivering as the No.16 PPR back since Week 10 and he's playing wiser. His receiving skills are also coming to the forefront. There's a possibility that Taylor could prove a tease in 2021 if the Colts quarterback situation lacks stability, but I expect Rivers to remain in Indianapolis in 2021.
Denzel Mims: The subject of last week's Gut Check, Mims has the goods to become a primary receiver in the NFL—even on a bad offense. Breshad Perriman is a free agent in 2021. Although the Jets could re-sign Perriman, Mims has more potential and youth on his side. He'd be a great fit with Trevor Lawrence.
Tua Tagovailoa: Although the Dolphins benched Tagovailoa during the Broncos game and gave him a week to ride the pine in Week 12, Miami is taking an old-school development approach with the rookie—and that's a great sign because the NFL is awful with rushing talent quarterbacks onto the field and placing them in situations that can ruin them. Miami is doing the opposite.
Although Joe Burrow is the more refined talent right now, Tagovailoa superior arm talent and has enough of what it takes conceptually to become the best starter of the 2020 quarterback class—or at least make it a valid debate.
A full offseason with DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, and Chan Gailey should lead to a leap in production. Don't expect a Kyler Murray-like rise to elite fantasy status, but top-15 production in 2021 and consistent top-12 numbers in 2022 are realistic.
Getting Their Due
Phillip Lindsay: A running back with great acceleration, short-area quickness, and vision, Lindsay is the object of John Elway's stink face when faced with the prospect of paying the two-time, 1,000-yard rusher. Lindsay the most talented runner on the Broncos, but the diminutive talent is not the safest style of running back for an old football man like Elway to feel comfortable leaning on as the alpha of Denver's ground game.
One man's trash...
There aren't many openings for a back like Lindsay but if he finds the right scheme fit, he could be a destroyer of worlds. If the Dolphins don't draft a back early, I'd love to see Lindsay show Miami fans what a turbo-boosted Myles Gaskin would look like in Chan Gailey's scheme. While unlikely, Lindsay as the primary back for Atlanta would also be a fun risk that I think could work far better than the Todd Gurley-Brian Hill-Ito Smith trio.
Keelan Cole: Seeking the next Robert Woods-like fantasy transformation where a talented receiver toiling in a bad situation finds new digs and becomes a fantasy starter? Cole belongs on the list of candidates. If you're a regular reader, you know why. If not, the short version: Cole can play the slot and the perimeter. He has shown the ability to win like a primary receiver against excellent man-to-man cornerbacks. Jacksonville has saddled its receivers with quarterback play that has been mediocre, at best.
Josh Reynolds: As mentioned in this week's Top 10, Reynolds is a high-flying, contested-catch, perimeter wonder that Sean McVay used as a route runner inside the hash marks. While forcing Reynolds to play away from his collegiate strengths may ultimately prove to be the best long-term development of his career, Reynolds will get an opportunity to start for a team that leverages his greatest assets. Once again, the Lions seem like a great fit for Reynolds who could fit into Marvin Jones Jr's old role if not re-signed or Kenny Golladay's primary spot if Detroit won't get a deal done.
Damien Harris: Sony Michel is old in the knees, Rex Burkhead should be allowed to walk, and the strength of the Patriots' offense is its run-blocking. Harris has been the No.14 PPR runner since Week 8 and the Patriots haven't leveraged his receiving skills. Look for Harris to build on his 2020 production in 2021 and get his due as a legitimate starter-caliber prospect that he was a couple of years ago when drafted out of Alabama.
Logan Thomas: The former Virginia Tech quarterback has bounced around from Arizona to Buffalo as he learned the tight end position. The No.8 PPR tight end after Week 13, Thomas hasn't been spectacular in the way Tyler Higbee looked at the end of 2019, but he could be in a more sustainable situation for 2021.
Keke Coutee: A talented open-field threat with untapped potential against man-to-man coverage, if Coutee can show that he can win from the perimeter or at least piece together strong performances from the slot for the rest of the year, the Texans might decide he's once again worth the emotional investment as a player they can count on.
JaMycal Hasty: Raheem Mostert is the best back on the 49ers, but Hasty has enough talent to overtake the rest of this depth chart in 2021. The 49ers coaching staff said they saw that Hasty had the goods to be on the field when they watched training camp practices but without a preseason, they took a cautious approach with him until injuries required them to elevate Hasty from the practice squad. Hasty earned the not ahead of Salvon Ahmed, an incomplete scatback who had some nice weeks for Miami but lacks Hasty's skills between the tackles.
Cam Akers: For the past two weeks, I've written about Akers as a player with the potential to develop into a consistent fantasy starter, but his current skill set is lacking and he's being forced into a bigger role despite the Rams having a Darrell Henderson, who is a better player right now. Tevin Coleman is a good example of a back who needed 2-3 years to become a decent zone runner and it never translated to the expectations some had for him. Akers is a better talent than Coleman, but his shortcomings and the presence of Henderson hold me back from placing Akers in the Risers Tier as much as I initially considered it.
Curtis Samuel: The ultimate tease of the past three years at the wide receiver position, Samuel is a low-end fantasy WR3 who has just enough talent to contribute in a variety of roles but I'm betting no team wants to lean on him as a primary option. And as we've seen in the NFL, offensive coordinators may use gadget players but they are rarely top producers. Samuel would be a great fit in Baltimore, but the combination of the Ravens' young talent that the team remains invested in and the scheme isn't a better bet than what Samuel has achieved in Carolina. There will be a lot of talk about Samuel being free from the shackles of the Panthers' offensive limitations if he winds up elsewhere. While I see the potential, I'll believe in it happening when I see it.
Bryan Edwards: Derek Carr had an easy rapport with Edwards during training camp that Carr likened to his relationship with Davante Adams in Green Bay. A full offseason of work could be enough to keep Edwards on the field in 2021—and in a pivotal role that leads to consistent fantasy production. However, Jon Gruden is a fickle personality when it comes to personnel, and Nelson Agholor, Henry Ruggs III, and Hunter Renfrow have provided enough as secondary options to Darren Waller in a run-heavy offense that Edwards could have another year of summer promise that's empty in the fall.
Henry Ruggs III III: The big plays have been borderline spectacular, but fantasy players need volume. Until we see Ruggs in a high-volume role, he's going to tease in this Raiders offense.
Jerry Jeudy: A talented young receiver, Jeudy's role in the Denver offense has to evolve in order for him to deliver on his promise. Although he timed well in the 40-Yard Dash, he needs a longer runway than most perimeter threats to win against tight man coverage because his initial acceleration is not up to the standard of NFL vertical threats. It's why Jeudy relied so much on his stop-start quickness and footwork to dazzle opponents in college—methods that probably won't have the same impact in the NFL.
What we've seen from Jeudy thus far is quality work as an underneath zone receiver in the short and intermediate ranges of the field who can win over the middle in man-to-man scenarios. Sounds a little like Peter Warrick, a great college player who didn't sustain this level of performance in the NFL. If the Broncos' surrounding talent develops and gels, Jeudy has 1,000-yard potential in his current role, but I'm beginning to believe that his ceiling in Denver is lower than expected.
Darnell Mooney: Taylor Gabriel was a good wide receiver. Darnell Mooney reminds me of Gabriel. Neither appeal to a wide variety of NFL offensive coordinators as starters. If your expectation for Mooney is occasional weeks where he delivers as a great match-up option during bye weeks, you could come out the winner with Mooney. That is if you can predict what makes him a good match-up.
It sounds obvious on paper, but the reality of Reed's injury history makes him less reliable of an investment. What team will want to devote a large percentage of practice time on 12 personnel only for the reason they're using it to get hurt and they lack a quality replacement to make that practice time worthwhile?
It's also the reason why Reed may not have much appeal as a free agent. His best role these days might be the one he has now: A spot contributor and prized reserve.
Trey Burton: A flashier player with superior receiver skills than Logan Thomas, Burton is a poor man's Reed. If the Colts remain high on him throughout the offseason and Philip Rivers remains in town, Burton could surprise. Of course, Burton surprising as a fantasy commodity has been a quiet expectation in this hobby since he was an Eagle and that was two teams ago. It would be less of a surprise if we hear buzz and little comes of it.
Donovan Peoples-Jones: I like what this Browns' receiver could grow into and it's likely that one of Cleveland's' starters is sent packing at the end of the year. While Rashad Higgins has earned a new contract, it's unlikely he's a second-deal Robert Woods for his own team in terms of production. Peoples-Jones offers the size, deep speed, and YAC skills that could make him a fantasy starter if he earns the job in Cleveland. We'll hear about the possibility if Odell Beckham Jr, Jr. or Jarvis Landry are sent packing in 2021, but until they get a quarterback who can carry the team for stretches without the benefit of a run game, Peoples-Jones is little more than a late-round patience play for those who already have him.
Anthony McFarland Jr: He's a raw running back with great physical skills. However, unlike Antonio Gibson, McFarland lacks a feel for the position beyond gap runs, and he doesn't have Gibson's power and balance.
While I understand why NFL teams clamor for these types of running back prospects, I would outlaw them on my team if I was a GM. McFarland will probably look better in training camp next year and there will be breathless reports about his speed and breaking through the line during scrimmages. When the lights come on, I doubt he'll know what to do. If you want to believe the buzz, wait until there are a preseason and some buzz-worthy situations to validate that he's figured out what running back is about.
Andy Isabella: Larry Fitzgerald will likely retire and Hakeem Butler never even got started, which leaves Isabella as the current beneficiary of the third receiver spot in 2021. Don't count on it. I call Isabella "Dance Fever" because his moves are flashy in practice but they don't translate to the field because he hasn't learned how to be efficient. His speed is enough to generate a big play from time to time but he has to re-work his entire route game to become a viable threat. If he has been doing this work for the past two years, we may see it come to fruition in 2021, but I'm not anticipating it.
Zack Moss: His decision-making has more flaws than I saw at Utah. While I think he'll improve because they aren't as bad as McFarland's game, Moss will remain in a split backfield with Devin Singletary that will prove frustrating for those invested in Moss.
Kalen Ballage: Most will write off Josh Kelley after he tailed off fast as a rookie. Ballage could earn buzz as the potential fantasy RB2 in the "1-2 Punch" this Chargers offense would like with Austin Ekeler as the No.1. Ballage looked pretty good this year, but will Anthony Lynn keep his job? How will the offense change if he doesn't? Could Kelley remain a factor? Would the Chargers draft or sign a starter talent to pair with Ekeler? Too many unknowns for my taste.
Jalen Hurts: Even if Hurts balls-out for the rest of the 2020 season, rookie quarterbacks tend to look better than they really are during their initial starts. Ask Marcus Mariota, Baker Mayfield, Gardner Minshew, Paxton Lynch, and the line of former NFL starting quarterbacks wrapped around the block waiting to be mentioned here.
Hurts reminds me of David Garrard, a player with enough passing skills to develop into a capable starter and perhaps do enough to make a team's decision to give him a second contract a difficult one but he'll need the same amount of surrounding talent and scheming to excel as Carson Wentz, who has proven to be a fantasy tease more often than not.
Baker Mayfield: Until he proves that he read leverage faster in the red zone, deliver accurate passes against tight man-to-man coverage, and climb the pocket more than a baby step, Mayfield is a game manager who can post occasionally huge weeks against weaker secondaries and defensive fronts that can't stop the run. Sell to the fantasy GM who subscribes to the original analysis that considered Mayfield the next coming of Brett Favre-Drew Brees-Russell Wilson.
Carson Wentz: Since his second year, I've been writing and making videos that illustrate why Wentz was successful because of his scheme that minimized his shortcomings. The surrounding talent in 2020 hasn't been healthy enough or good enough to minimize Wentz's flaws. And because of the injuries, the exacerbation of these flaws has caused Wentz to press as a decision-maker. Is he ruined after this year? I don't think so, but it may take a new start for him to regain his confidence. If Wentz earns another shot as the Eagles' starter in 2021, he'll need every bit of surrounding talent to stay healthy.
Kenny Golladay: Not many quarterbacks can fit the ball into spots that Matthew Stafford can. Even fewer can do it and buy time like Stafford. Golladay is an excellent free access receiver—a ball-winner who does his best work when facing zone or off-coverage. I'm not convinced he's a surefire primary option. If he winds up with a lesser quarterback than Stafford or a passer who doesn't make "trust throws," Golladay's best fantasy years could surprisingly be behind him.
James Conner: Expect Conner's career to go the way of the capable starter when asked to fill-in for a team's lead back, but never the lead back by design.
Gus Edwards: It would be wise for the Ravens to re-sign Edwards and pair him as the situational thumper to Dobbins. If not, Edwards' opportunities will be more limited elsewhere because the Baltimore scheme is the best possible fit for Edwards in the NFL.
Marvin Jones Jr: Jones could be a great fit with the Giants as its Z receiver opposite Darius Slayton, but Stafford is a superior quarterback to Daniel Jones and it lowers Jones' ceiling if New York signed him and if Jones stayed healthy. The same is true for Jones if he went to other teams that could use a receiver of his talents. The most promising might be the 49ers where he could be a veteran mentor to a young corps of athletic but raw receivers but it's not a high-ceiling location.
Marlon Mack: A far better gap runner than zone runner, his potential scheme fits are limited. Could be run the outside zone for a team? Probably, but there are better long-term choices. Mack could be a target for the Patriots, who only have Harris as a back with a legitimate NFL burst to the perimeter. A health Mack could be an upgrade to the depth chart, but health will be a major question.
Allen Lazard: I like what Lazard does as a big slot receiver who can do selected work along the perimeter but unless the Packers bring him back at a favorable price to the organization, it's unlikely there's a team that fits him better than Green Bay.
Jameis Winston: Sean Payton is all-in on Taysom Hill and the lack of interest Winston garnered prior to the Saints signing could be an indication that the NFL believes Winston is incapable of salvaging his flaws.
Travis Fulgham: Odds are likely that the Eagles will draft and/or acquire a top free-agent receiver in 2021, but Fulgham showed enough to earn the starting role in Philadelphia.
Tim Patrick: Physical, surehanded, and a better vertical option than some realize, Patrick, filled in admirably for Courtland Sutton. Most NFL teams will want a more complete option with blazing speed or higher draft capital. Patrick and Fulgham could earn second-tier free-agent deals that offer a prove-it starter scenario.
Quintez Cephus: The Lions could be parting ways with its starting corps, which means Cephus could be a favorite for a significant starting role in 2021. He's seen a steady amount of time this year and has made plays with limited targets. If he builds on 2020's excellent training camp, he could deliver as a fantasy WR2 next year.
Boston Scott: The Louisiana Tech star proved he's a dynamic and reliable scatback who can deliver in big moments. His fantasy ceiling will likely remain as a low-end RB3 because of his physical skills and low draft capital, but he's good enough to do more if made a bigger part of an offense.
Byron Pringle: A talented return specialist who also showed rapport with Patrick Mahomes II with limited targets, Pringle could earn a bigger opportunity elsewhere as part of an offensive rotation that he can grow with. He's skilled after the catch, runs good routes, and has enough speed to stretch the field.
Chad Hansen: The former Cal star has the goods to play outside and inside. The final month of games will be an extended audition for Hansen to show that he's consistently the reliable player that he showed the Texans last week against the Colts. Hansen makes tough plays at the catch point and his initial acceleration is better than advertised.
Austin Mack: The rookie from Ohio State impressed the Giants staff with his work ethic and responsiveness to hard coaching. IHe's a long shot to become the flanker opposite Darius Slayton but a strong training camp could keep him in the mix for a productive contributing role of that new starter gets hurt.
Ty'Son Williams: I wrote about him here two weeks ago.
D'Onta Foreman: It would be best for Foreman to remain in Tennessee as Derrick Henry's back up because he's not earning a starting role elsewhere when most teams will remain biased towards draft capital and the teams that would consider Foreman are thinking about him as a cheap option for a depth chart that will include an early pick at running back. If Foreman stays in Tennessee, he might have a shot to sub for Henry for an extended period and get a true audition for a bigger role elsewhere.
Dante Pettis: The Giants will be in the market for wide receivers after the season. If they roll with mid-tier and low-tier options, Pettis could have a real shot to redeem himself after his 2019 debacle in San Francisco. If they roll with marquee talents, including promising first and/or second-day picks, the odds of Pettis earning a real shot drop.
Penny Hart: David Moore, Doug Baldwin, and Jermaine Kearse are examples of developmental receivers who have made an impact in Seattle. With Moore's contract ending in 2020, Hart and Freddie Swain are the next in line. Swain is a rookie from Florida with speed but a limited game compared to Hart, who has the speed to work outside and the quickness and skill after the catch to play the slot. The Seahawks have given Hart some snaps with the offense and he was a special teams contributor this year. If Seattle likes what they see, they re-sign him cheap in 2021 and he could be in line for additional development within the offense. Think of Hart as a similar player to Andy Isabella although a better route runner and not as fast.
Juwann Winfree: A student of the game, Winfree could be the next in line of Packers' development projects who earns a start. Winfree impressed cornerback Chris Harris Jr as a rookie in Denver but didn't stick with the roster. Green Bay has been known to poach talent for its passing game. Robert Tonyan Jr and Allen Lazard are recent examples and Winfree is a better technician than Lazard with decent size and enough speed to play outside.