Fantasy Football: One analyst's top rookie fliers for 2021

·7 min read

One of the biggest keys to successful roster construction is balance. It’s important to insure high-ceiling players with solid floor options. But that’s not what this article is about.

This article ... is the All-Rookies Squad for 2021.

And because I know you’re been paying attention, I’m not going to bore you with regurgitated blurbs about known entities like Trevor Lawrence, Najee Harris, Ja’Marr Chase (who I’m anticipating will start slow anyway), or Kyle Pitts.

Instead, I’ve written about first-year players with upside who you’ll want to track.

So you can, as winners do, stay ahead.

Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets

While all of the other rookies have been engaged in (theoretical) QB competitions, Wilson has been starting. He’s made some mistakes, but (to the delight of Jets fans) he’s also owned them. Over two weeks of preseason play, Wilson completed 15 of 20 passes for 191 yards and 2 TDs … and he looked sharp doing it.

Per PFF, Wilson earned the best passer rating among rookie signal callers when given a clean pocket (147.3) and under pressure (94.4). The analytics site also awarded Wilson the second-highest grade (just behind Mac Jones) among first-round rookie QBs for his play over the preseason (85.7). All of this was enough for Tony Romo to crown the Cougar before September even started.

Whether he’s slinging it across his frame or eluding defenders with fast footwork, the 22-year-old is always sending it. Everything about his game — from his lighting-quick release to his eye-popping spin move — is fast and brash. That Big Leo energy figures to follow him into the regular season. A top-15 QB in dynasty formats and an acceptable QB2 target (particularly for managers hitting other positions during an inevitable QB run) in Superflex leagues, don’t sleep on the Jets’ new era.

Trey Sermon, RB, San Francisco 49ers

Sermon’s journey to the NFL has been far from linear, which might explain the surprising agility with which the power back runs. The fourth RB to come off the board, San Francisco made a deal with the Rams to move up and add Sermon with the No. 88 pick. That sort of investment from an HC who runs one of the most position-friendly schemes means big things for this big-time talent.

Since 2018, Kyle Shanahan has regularly leaned on an electric ground game, averaging over 450 rushing attempts over the last three seasons. In fact, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson closed out 2020 inside of the top-30 in fantasy points per game. Wilson, however, enters the year on the PUP with a torn meniscus, paving the way for Sermon to make an instant impact.

Mostert, who was initially added to San Fran as a special teamer, is still the RB1. Since climbing his way up the depth chart (and renegotiating his contract), however, the 29-year-old has battled numerous knee and ankle issues, playing in just eight games last year. The knee issues have already popped up over the summer, sidelining the vet during OTAs.

Sermon has, admittedly, struggled with his own injury issues, and his running style absolutely invites damage. But he’s got fresh legs and a play caller who knows how to use them. A 1,300-total-yard season is within his immediate reach.

San Francisco 49ers running back Trey Sermon
Don't sleep on Trey Sermon. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Rhamondre Stevenson, RB, New England Patriots

I swear I’m not a Sooners stan. There’s just no denying the running back talent that’s recently rumbled its way across Owen Field. Norman can’t take full credit for Sermon, but the university did OK with Stevenson plowing ahead in Trey’s stead.

At 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds, Stevenson is an imposing presence. His running style is decidedly less creative than his path to the pros, but the intensity with which he plays illustrates admirable strength and focus. Selected by New England in the fourth round, the rookie has flashed throughout the summer, closing out the preseason as the league leader in rushing yards and scores. Those stats will get thrown out after next Sunday, but they certainly contributed to Sony Michel’s arrival on the Rams.

Likely limited to a two-down role initially, Stevenson could see a fair amount of the goal line, especially with Cam Newton no longer vulturing TDs. He’s also the No. 2 to Damien Harris, who has dealt with durability issues, recording 11 games over two seasons. Volume won’t lean in Stevenson’s favor at the jump, but this tackle-breaking rookie will see plenty of high-value opportunities over the course of 2021.

DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

A Heisman Trophy winner is hardly an under-the-radar player, but when an undersized rookie sprains his MCL in training camp, the #taeks get wild. They’ve mellowed a bit since Smith saw preseason game action, even if it wasn’t with Jalen Hurts. But his ADP is still super depressed (just like Eagles fans when they hear trade rumors about Deshaun Watson — but not Zach Ertz).

It’s important to remember Philly initiated a trade with a division rival to move up two spots to get Smith. He may not be big, but his route savvy is fire, and the Eagles clearly believe he’ll be a difference-maker.

They also don’t have a lot of other options …

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Last year, Greg Ward — the converted college QB — led the team in targets (79) and scores (6). Yikes. Meanwhile, the receiving yard leader from 2020, Travis Fulgham, was just cut. That leaves two tight ends (one whom might be washed) and Smith.

A versatile talent — who has history with Hurts — the Alabama product is going to average at least six targets per game. That’s enough volume to firmly place him inside the top-35, making him a fantastic value in the seventh and eighth rounds of 12-team drafts.

Terrace Marshall, WR, Carolina Panthers

Drafted in the second round by his former college coach, Marshall is a long-strider with sneaky speed. In 2020 — with Justin Jefferson off to the pros — he gained valuable reps in the slot, taking 308 snaps inside and 96 out wide (compared to 173 snaps in the slot and 486 wide the previous year).

Building on that experience, Marshall has put together one of the buzziest summers amongst the incoming class. As a result, he’s expected to fill the role that Curtis Samuel occupied last year. Regularly playing with the ones and consistently connecting with Sam Darnold, the LSU product closed out the preseason with a 9-181-1 stat line.

He’s fourth in the Panthers’ pecking order (behind DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, and Christian McCaffrey) but his versatility as a player and familiarity with Joe Brady make him a prime waiver-wire candidate.

BONUS: Josh Palmer, WR, Los Angeles Chargers

The battle for WR3 has been lit at Chargers camp. Earlier this week, the Bolts released Tyron Johnson, suggesting that Palmer has secured the gig. A jump-ball specialist who posted numbers at Tennessee despite abysmal QB play (99-1,514-7 over 42 games/4 years), Palmer could quickly become Justin Herbert’s favorite outside target. With Hunter Henry leaving behind 90+ looks, Mike Williams regularly hurt, and Jared Cook in the twilight of his career, Palmer’s stock is trending UP.

Pat Freiermuth, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers

Kyle Pitts, he is not.

But the former Nittany Lion does have good speed and a knack for getting open. His ability to adjust to the ball was on full display when he recorded two spikes (one via the arm of Ben Roethlisberger) in the Steelers' third preseason showing. Red-zone usage is always a plus for a tight end, particularly when they’re attached to an aging QB looking for a security blanket while working behind a tattered offensive line.

Eric Ebron is still on the roster, but at 28-years-old and with a history of drops as well as nagging lower-body injuries, the vet is being phased out. In fact, Freiermuth played fewer snaps over the preseason, suggesting that the Steelers might be saving their second-round selection for regular game action. Whether the breakout happens in 2021 or he’s merely a streaming option this fall/winter, Freiermuth is a name you’ll want to remember.

Which rookies are you excited for in 2021? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF

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