What 2021's biggest fantasy football difference-makers teach us

·7 min read

The fantasy regular season is in the books. It makes for a nice time to look back at some of the heavy-lifters who gave fantasy managers the biggest advantages over the competition this year.

The following 13 players saw at least 70 percent of the teams who rostered them clinch the playoffs this season:

Greater than 70% of rosters clinched the playoffs

  1. Cooper Kupp - 85.9%

  2. Jonathan Taylor - 83.0%

  3. Deebo Samuel - 77.6%

  4. Austin Ekeler - 76.1%

  5. Leonard Fournette - 72.9%

  6. Najee Harris - 71.8%

  7. Joe Mixon - 71.6%

  8. Justin Jefferson - 70.7%

  9. New England Patriots DEF - 70.7%

  10. James Conner - 70.5%

  11. Cordarrelle Patterson - 70.4%

  12. Nick Folk - 70.2%

  13. Diontae Johnson - 70.2%

This crop of players were some of the biggest difference-makers in fantasy football — especially Kupp and Taylor. In an incredibly stressful year for fantasy football, you had it relatively easy if you drafted either, or both of those guys (lucky you).

This group of 13 certainly comprises “the right answers” this season — now let’s bucket them (excluding the Patriots defense) into groups to try and learn some lessons for the future.

The early-round right answers

Jonathan Taylor

Najee Harris

Joe Mixon

Austin Ekeler

Justin Jefferson

You thought you were doing something with that top-five pick this season. Turns out, you were just taking the less valuable player at the higher ADP.

The best running back picks in fantasy this season were those at the Round 1 to 2 turn. Backs like Taylor, Ekeler, Mixon or Harris rarely pushed inside the top-seven picks in summer drafts. They easily out-paced guys who went ahead of them.

The biggest thing we can learn from this group is: It pays to draft the backs who stay healthy. For the most part, this quartet has been clean all year while backs drafted ahead of them like Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara and even Aaron Jones got hurt this year and/or played well south of 100 percent.

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Obviously, we can’t predict health. So it’s important to highlight the second-biggest connecting factor between these four hits: Nailing the evaluation.

Jonathan Taylor was indeed the figurehead of the Colts offense, a unit built to harvest a bountiful rushing ecosystem. If you believed in his mega-talent pushing aside backfield competition, you won.

Joe Mixon got the bump in opportunity many hoped for, both due to the absence of Gio Bernard and the Bengals skewing more run-focused to ease the load on a rehabbing Joe Burrow. Cincinnati’s offense also took the leap most in the industry forecasted. There were multiple paths for Mixon to hit this ceiling.

Austin Ekeler always has a set of weird detractors. If you hushed all of that noise and just bought into the fact he was head and shoulders above any competition in Los Angeles' backfield and was tethered to a high-end quarterback, you took him with vigor.

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30)
Austin Ekeler has been a top fantasy running back this season, much to his detractors' displeasure. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Najee Harris was in line to get an absurd amount of volume in the Steelers’ offense. If you shook off worries about Ben Roethlisberger’s decline and a shoddy offensive line, and just emphasized that projected workload, you won.

All that brings us to the unicorn of this group: The lone wide receiver, Justin Jefferson. The Vikings star was a consensus top-10 player at his position this summer and the lesson to take from him is simple. Draft target-hog wide receivers who are verifiably good at the game (Jefferson happens to be one of the three or four best) and tethered to proven quarterbacks — and of course, get a little lucky.

When you look at the receivers drafted in the same range as Jefferson, there’s just a series of bad breaks. They either got hurt (DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Brown), their quarterbacks got hurt/played below expectations (DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin) or they fall under the Calvin Ridley exception of unforeseen circumstances.

The only other guy who was taken in this range and been steady is Keenan Allen. Just like Jefferson, he’s a star tethered to a proven quarterback but Jefferson ranks third in weighted opportunity this year and Allen is 17th, the lowest of anyone in this group after Hopkins.

It pays to be a volume dominator.

Mid-round legends

Cooper Kupp

Deebo Samuel

Diontae Johnson

None of these receivers were drafted inside the top-15 at the position. Samuel and Kupp weren’t even the first receivers drafted from their own team and only two or three WR ADPs separated Johnson and Chase Claypool in the offseason. That’s part of my first lesson with this group.

I ranked Kupp ahead of Robert Woods in the offseason but was still — like everyone — too low on Kupp. On the other hand, I absolutely took the bait on ranking Brandon Aiyuk way ahead of Deebo Samuel. When there are two proven high-end wide receivers on a team, we shouldn’t be so quick to assume we know which one of them will drastically outperform the other. If you’re high on the offense, fine, but having five-plus gaps in your rankings between guys like this can be troubling and can make the player taken later among the biggest values in fantasy. Kupp and Samuel were those guys this year.

The other lesson I take from this crop: Injury chaos can benefit wide receivers just like it can for running backs. We all know that backup running backs can get a huge boost when a starter misses time. I think it’s time we come around to the idea that a wide receiver — and again, a player we know to be verifiably good at the game — can see a massive boost in their target share when chaos hits. Samuel and Johnson have been huge winners in this regard.

Johnson has always been a volume hog and was always a steal at ADP but now has reached new heights with JuJu Smith-Schuster on IR and Claypool not taking the next step. Samuel was absolutely dominating in any opportunity metric while George Kittle was on IR and Aiyuk was mysteriously in the doghouse. In Weeks 1-9 he averaged 10 targets per game. He’s seen seven targets total in his last three games. His rushing usage has been a big boost of late but there’s no question his role was far juicier when other players missed time.

Late-round league-winners

Leonard Fournette

James Conner

Running backs who go outside the top-eight rounds but turn in RB1 production bring league-winning upside every year; it’s just about picking the right ones. Leonard Fournette and James Conner were ideal running back selections this late because they had the pristine combination of standalone value and potential paths to taking over their backfield.

Conner had a three-down pedigree with the Steelers. He just needed a Chase Edmonds injury to own that workload. He got it.

Fournette earned goodwill after showing a three-down skill set with the Bucs during their Super Bowl run. He just needed to push aside middling talents like Gio Bernard and Ronald Jones. He did it … much easier than anyone expected.

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The main lesson with these two is to never completely write off players. Both of these backs, and especially Conner, were just completely cast aside by the fantasy community because they were “done” or way past their prime. What a miss. The fact that these guys had a pedigree was nice but even more important was their attachment to some of the best offenses in the NFL. You can have an opinion about a player but knowing when you might be wrong is essential.

Some backfields are hard to solve but when those backfields are shared with elite quarterbacks, you have to try.

Waiver Hero

Cordarrelle Patterson

On the theme of keeping an open mind, may I present you, Cordarrelle Patterson? Now, no one could have possibly seen Patterson’s role with the Falcons coming; don’t beat yourself up there. However, the lesson with Patterson is indeed to be flexible and sometimes aggressive when a possible league-flipping waiver player presents himself.

People took way too long to believe in Patterson. Those that did got a huge advantage over the field.

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