Fantasy Football: 5 players who could get off to slow 2021 starts

Last year Patrick Mahomes got off to a slow start. Derrick Henry fell outside of the top-15 for the first two weeks. And Keenan Allen didn’t post WR1 numbers until Week 3. Their starts weren’t as sluggish as Jonathan Taylor’s or Justin Jefferson’s, and they ended up producing high-end numbers for FF managers overall, but getting off to a fast start is imperative in fantasy.

Therefore, so is identifying players who might struggle early.

As Yahoo’s own Scott Pianowski regularly reminds us, “Fantasy is a much easier game when you have leverage, and you get leverage by being near the top of the standings.” Keeping that in mind, I’ve identified five players who might falter early. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to draft them, but it does mean managing your expectations and tweaking your roster accordingly.

Because as Scott also likes to say: “Win Week 1. Win September. Deal with the playoffs later.”

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

With +220 odds to win Comeback Player of the Year, Dak is expected to rebound in 2021. But that doesn’t mean he’s gonna post a Snap Back like Kim K after Saint. Returning from a season-ending ankle injury, Dak has rust to shake off. Unfortunately, a shoulder strain — which Adam Schefter remarked Dak was not “fully back” from and could be an issue throughout the season — has forced Dak to miss important preseason reps. I’m confident that he’ll get up to speed, but it’s going to take a minute, especially when noting his opening schedule.

On September 9, Dak kicks off his sixth pro-campaign at Tampa Bay. Last I looked, the Bucs’ defense was hella stout, keeping Patrick Mahomes out of the end zone in the Super Bowl and racking up 58 sacks on the squad’s way to hoisting the Lombardi. Per BetMGM, Tampa Bay is favored by 7.5 points and the over/under is 50.5 points. That should mean a lot of passing for a guy with a sore throwing arm.

Dak’ll have ten days to rest, but the Boys are on the road again in Week 2, as they’ll face the Chargers at SoFi. The expectations for Brandon Staley and the preseason buzz surrounding the Chargers are directly proportionate, with many believing the Bolts defense to be a top-five operation. Led by All-Pro talents Joey Bosa and Derwin James and including the addition of second-round pick Asante Samuel Jr., Dak figures to battle more than just early season jitters.

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

The hype videos give us hope that the explosiveness is still there, but Barkley is going to need burst AND volume to produce league-winning fantasy numbers. The Giants have been easing in their stud RB throughout the offseason. He’s expected to receive team reps later this week in joint practices with the Patriots, ahead of the Giants' third preseason game. That’s progress, but I anticipate New York will continue to slow-play Barkley’s return well into the regular season.

His opening schedule is brutal; he faces Denver, Washington, and New Orleans in three of the year’s first four matchups. Given that he’s a marquee player carrying an insane amount of draft capital, it would make sense that the franchise would try to protect him and avoid any sort of setback. It’s an issue the team is likely to contend with for the bulk of 2021, given that Barkley has the toughest schedule of any starting RB in the league. Whether he’s shaking off rust or seeing limited opportunities (I’ll take the under on 50 grabs), the Barkley that’s being drafted in the first round probably won’t appear until after September.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley
It could be tough sledding for Saquon Barkley to start the season. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos

New things are fun. Williams is exciting. But that doesn't mean that Melvin Gordon is going to just evaporate into the ether. The former Charger was the RB12 overall (15 games) in fantasy last year, recording over 1,100 scrimmage yards and 10 total TDs in 2020. He improved his efficiency (4.6 YPC) while staying active in the red area of the field, averaging 2.0 rz touches/gm. He’s consistently owned the goal line, flirting with or exceeding double-digit scores over the entirety of his career.

He’s also entering the final year of his deal. From an investment standpoint, Denver should want to lean on their proven vet while easing the rookie into his first pro effort. Last year, Phillip Lindsay (toe) and Gordon didn’t share the backfield until the end of October. From Weeks 7 through 15, when both RBs were active, Gordon averaged 12.3 carries per contest.

To start the season, a 60/40 split between Gordon and Williams, wherein Gordon records 14 attempts per game to Williams’ 10, is a highly probable outcome. Factor in a Week 11 bye and late-season matchups against Detroit, Cincy, and Vegas … and Williams is looking a lot like this year’s Cam Akers.

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

The parallels being drawn between Chase and Justin Jefferson are equal parts apt and endless. From the summertime struggles to the Bisi Johnson/Auden Tate comps, the déjà vu vibes are real. Based on Chase’s fifth-round ADP (WR27), fantasy managers are anticipating a breakout similar to Jefferson’s from his former teammate. But I’m not sure they’re also accounting for a corresponding autumn lag from the rookie.

The reports about struggling to create separation and the drops against Washington in Week 2 of the preseason may add up to nothing. Right now, though, they’re a reminder that this is a young player who — until a month ago — hadn’t played a down of organized football for 18 months. Of course, there will be rust to shake off.

Plus, he’s sharing the field with two other beasts. Tyler Boyd is as reliable as they come, recording a single drop last season. Given the state of the Bengals' offensive line, Boyd figures to emerge as a regular checkdown option for Joe Burrow. Tee Higgins, on the other hand, should continue to flourish as the team’s downfield threat (24 deep targets in 2020, WR10) and red-zone weapon. Burrow has options. He doesn’t need to force Chase the ball. That’s actually good for the rookie, as it means he won’t feel all of the defensive heat and he’ll also have time to develop. But evolution takes time and progress requires patience … so let’s make space for Chase’s pace.

Darnell Mooney, WR, Chicago Bears

Three of my fantasy squads are named To The Mooney. I believe in the breakout. And you should too.

The then-rookie was second in team receptions to Alpha Robinson (meant to do it) in 2020. With 4.38 speed, the Tulane product emerged as Chicago’s lid-lifter, recording 23 deep targets (WR10) and eight catches over 20 yards. Anthony Miller’s exit frees up 76 looks, with the bulk of those opportunities coming out of the slot. It’s a limited sample size, but over preseason play, four of Mooney’s five total snaps have come from the slot, illustrating his likely presence in two- and three-receiver sets.

So what’s the problem?

Andy Dalton is still the QB. And he’s going to be until probably Week 4 when the Bears schedule softens and the team hosts their division rival Lions. At that point — after the Red Rifle duels the Rams, Bengals (revenge game), and Browns — Justin Fields will be named the starter and give all of these fantasy-relevant skill position players a boost.

In the meantime, however, the current statuesque starter will likely not have sufficient time to set his feet behind a crumbling offensive line versus a pair of fierce d-lines (and lockdown secondaries) and find the speedster, capping Mooney’s sky-high ceiling.

Who do you think will get a slow start to 2021? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF