Speculation season has entered a new and more actionable phase with the end of the NFL Draft's first round, leaving fantasy managers to sort through what everything means, or doesn't mean, in the aftermath of the draft's first 32 selections.
Let's get into how veterans could be affected by Thursday night's picks.
Jaguars select RB Travis Etienne
Jacksonville head coach Urban Meyer has set his lofty sights on having a top-8 rushing attack, and has consequently burned first round draft capital on running back -- a curious decision, to put it as kindly as humanly possible.
Meyer on Thursday night said the team used a first rounder on Clemson’s Etienne so the wildly productive big play runner could serve as Jacksonville’s third-down back. James Robinson and Carlos Hyde, according to Meyer, will serve as the team’s early-down duo. Again, curious. It’s all very curious and not at all a big red flag for Jaguars fans.
Those drafting Robinson in best ball leagues flew too close to the sun, expecting the undrafted free agent with a new coach to maintain his death grip on the team’s backfield. No back saw a higher percentage of his team’s backfield touches (85.5 percent) than Robinson in 2020, thanks entirely to backfield injuries and a lack of decent options. He was, in short, a volume producer -- a compiler. Nothing more or less.
Etienne has now muddled the Jacksonville backfield, likely dropping Robinson’s ADP like it was Bitcoin. The rookie’s production history -- he racked up a stunning 6,107 total yards and 78 touchdowns in four years at Clemson and led all college backs in receiving yards and catches in 2020 -- says it’s only a matter of when, not if, he becomes the team’s primary running back -- even if Meyer insists they drafted him to play 20 snaps a game. The best case scenario for Robinson: He’s lost his role in the team’s passing attack after seeing a 12 percent target share in 2020, but might buoy his fantasy numbers with a hefty dose of goal line usage.
Bad teams aren’t usually in position to establish the proverbial run. Last year, no team had a lower percentage of run plays than the Jags (33.8 percent), and while some improvement could bump up that number toward the middle of the league, none of the team’s backs will see the sort of volume that could make them dependable fantasy producers. August hype around Etienne could push Robinson into Zero RB territory, where he’d be very much welcomed.
Potential uncertainty surrounding the Jacksonville backfield should offer fantasy managers value if they properly read the tea leaves headed into the season.
49ers select QB Trey Lance, Bears select QB Justin Fields
I’m grouping Lance and Fields together because I’m a structural drafting truther and these first-round studs add structural drafting intrigue to the quarterback position in a year where we’re going to see a marked shift away from the late-round QB approach.
The Andy Dalton era ended before it began, no matter what Bears coaches say for the next few months. The eminently pro-ready Fields is going to start Week 1 for Chicago and Dalton is going to serve as his backup. Set it and forget it. Though Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan -- who played the media better than anyone not named Donald J. Trump -- seems slightly more likely to sit Lance for a bit, the rookie is going to see significant playing time in 2021. Nothing in Jimmy Garappolo’s history says he can hold off Lance for long -- assuming Lance doesn’t force Shanahan to give him the Week 1 gig by August.
Fields and Trey Lance bring two more dual-threat quarterbacks to the fantasy mix in 2021. Fantasy managers now have the following choices if they’re bound and determined to land a QB who can provide oh-so-critical rushing production -- fantasy football’s Konami Code.
Yes, the ADPs for Lance and Fields will most certainly climb now that they’ve landed on rosters where they could easily emerge as Day One starters. Without confirmation that they’ll start the season under center for their respective teams, I’d guess their ADPs will land in the round 9-11 range. Confirmation that either QB will start Week 1 would send their ADPs into Wilson/Hurts territory -- maybe higher. Fields and Lance could make the mid-round QB strategy more viable in 2021. Fantasy managers will surely scramble to secure a rushing quarterback, sometimes at the cost of value at other positions. Fear of missing out is a powerful drug.
Shanhan helped engineer one of the most spectacular rookie quarterback fantasy seasons on record, in case you’re a zoomer and have no memories before 2015. Robert Griffin III -- operating Shanny’s offense in Washington nine years ago -- rushed 120 times for 815 yards and seven scores. That worked out to eight rushing attempts, 54.5 rushing yards, and .47 rushing scores per game, or 8.3 fantasy points on the ground. Forget that Griffin notched 214 passing yards and 1.3 passing touchdowns per contest. Lance is in prime position to be a key player -- maybe the key player -- in fantasy football this season.
Shanahan’s 2012 offense was the NFL’s second rush heaviest, running the ball on nearly 52 percent of their plays. This generated 365 carries for lead back Alfred Morris, who finished the year as fantasy’s eighth highest scoring running back. Whoever seizes lead back duties for the 49ers would become a priority pick for anyone interested in taking full advantage of Lance under center.
The same goes for whichever back takes hold of Chicago’s early-down role. Fields, like any effective rushing quarterback, will keep defenses guessing, opening holes for David Montgomery or whoever serves as the Bears’ primary ball carrier. Fields starting the season for Chicago would make Montgomery a far less odious pick.
Looks for Fields and Lance to be drafted absurdly early in superflex formats by aggressive managers who refuse to miss out on what could be explosive rookie campaigns. That aggressiveness may well be warranted.
Bengals select Ja’Marr Chase
Chase, who was pro-ready at the tender age of 18, is once again teammates with Joe Burrow, who may or may not start the season after suffering an ACL tear last winter. A healthy Burrow with Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd makes the second-year QB a potential value in the later rounds.
Chase’s 2019 dominance at LSU -- with Burrow throwing to him -- speaks to a wideout who could quickly become the unquestioned No. 1 wideout for the Bengals. In no universe should Higgins be drafted ahead of Chase in seasonal leagues. Higgins’ fourth round ADP was already mind boggling. With Chase on board, Higgins probably shouldn’t be drafted before the seventh round in 12-team leagues.
The rookie enters a decidedly friendly fantasy environment: Cincinnati in 2020 had the league's highest neutral pass rate before Burrow's season ending injury. No team averaged more offensive snaps from Week 1-10, per Establish The Run's Pat Thorman. It's all conducive to a volume-driven floor (and ceiling) for Chase.
Chase’s 2020 absence from the collective football consciousness may have obscured how fantastic a prospect he is. He’s in Megatron’s company, according to 18 seasoned NFL Draft evaluators.
Dolphins select WR Jaylen Waddle
The Dolphins are apparently determined to improve their pass-catching group following a 2020 season in which DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, and the rest of the team’s wideouts failed to create separation, making things tougher for Tua Tagovailoa. Parker, amazingly, was tied with A.J. Green for dead last in separation from defenders. Tua was forced into far too many contested throws in his occasionally cringe-inducing rookie campaign.
Enter Waddle and free agent pickup Will Fuller. Tua now has a slot receiver who creates matchup nightmares for enemy defenses and one of the league’s premiere downfield threats. That should open things up a bit for Parker, who will still rely on tough, contested catches, but won’t be the focal point of opposing secondaries in 2021.
Probably the best way for fantasy players to benefit from Waddle’s addition to Miami’s offense is to draft Tua in the later rounds in superflex formats. The second-year signal caller certainly has at least some upside with Waddle, Fuller, Parker, and Mike Gesecki catching passes for the Dolphins. It’s likely the Miami wideouts will have a frustrating target share split, capping each players’ upside. Fuller remains the most likely Miami receiver to serve as an every-week option in traditional fantasy formats. Lynn Bowden, by the way, was a figment of your fevered imagination.
Meanwhile, the draft capital spent on Waddle and the overwhelming power of narrative -- Tua and Waddle played together at Alabama, after all -- could mean the rookie wideout is overvalued in seasonal leagues by the summer.
Eagles select WR Devonta Smith
Smith’s landing spot leaves something -- maybe a lot -- to be desired. Jalen Hurts, with a 52 percent competition rate and an adjusted yards per attempt of 6.8 in 2020, doesn’t profile as the sort of quarterback who can produce a high-end fantasy wideout. Of course, you won’t be drafting Smith as a top receiver, but the point stands.
Smith and Jalen Reagor will be the Eagles’ top two receivers in 2021; in which order remains uncertain. Reagor’s 2020 struggles and Smith’s senior year domination would suggest the WR1 job is Smith’s to lose. The wirey pass catcher had nearly 700 more receiving yards and 31 more catches than anyone else in college football last year. Smith’s 23 touchdowns led the nation in receiving scores by a comfortable margin. He was dominant in every sense.
Meanwhile, Reagor, who led all pass catchers with 20 targets in Hurts’ four starts last season, didn’t eclipse 49 yards in any of those games and didn’t manage a TD. Hurts’ adjusted yards per attempt was slightly lower than his seasonal A/YA when targeting Reagor.
Lots of negative game script could change the calculus for Smith (and Reagor) though. An Eagles Offense chasing points for most of the 2021 season could boost weekly targets for both wideouts, offering some semblance of a fantasy floor.
Ravens select WR Rashod Bateman
Baltimore drafting the electric Bateman near the end of the first round could be a signal that the team wants to be slightly more aggressive in the passing game this year after two seasons of operating the NFL’s run-heaviest system. That certainly doesn’t mean the 2021 Ravens are going to mutate into the 2020 Bills. Baltimore, for all its offensive warts, has an elite rushing attack that offensive coordinator Greg Roman won’t abandon as long as he’s calling plays.
After averaging 5.4 receptions and 93.9 receiving yards over his final 18 games at Minnesota -- to go along with a gaudy 19 touchdowns -- Bateman is undoubtedly a candidate to overtake Marquise Brown as Baltimore’s No. 1 wideout in 2021. Brown neither profiles as a WR1 nor has he produced like one over his first two pro seasons. That Bateman didn’t post impressive combine numbers -- his burst score was in the 58th percentile -- doesn’t mean the rookie can’t serve as Lamar Jackson’s primary target this year (and going forward).
Bateman joining the Ravens Offense should ding Brown’s 25 percent target share, at best. Brown -- who was unusable for fantasy purposes for much of 2020 -- will continue to drive fantasy managers mad barring a complete transformation of Roman’s offense. Remember: Only the Patriots targeted their wideouts less frequently than the Ravens last year. In 2019, no team targeted their receivers less frequently than the Ravens.
Patriots select QB Mac Jones
New England landed a first round quarterback for the first time since the first Clinton administration. Head coach Bill Belichick was quick to say Thursday night that Cam Newton remains the Pats' starter. Jones played the good soldier and agreed wholeheartedly.
Newton's years-long struggles and his disastrous 2020 season means Jones has an avenue to grab the Week 1 starting job. New England's free agency splurge says the team will remain decidedly run heavy no matter who's taking snaps at season's start. Probably that means Jones has vanishing statistical upside, whereas Newton would still (presumably) give us rushing production, especially near the goal line. Jones profiles as nothing more than a desperation streamer in deeper leagues this year.