Fantasy Football: Biggest boom-or-bust players in first 10 rounds

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·11 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Any pick can be the one that wins — or loses — your fantasy league.

Some just have higher game-breaking probabilities than others.

Here, we will go round by round hunting for “hinge-point players,” ones with the widest range of potential outcomes. In cruder terms, we will be examining “risk/reward (boom-or-bust) players” and how these selections could send your team in either direction.

Taking a full season-long view, we will use Yahoo ADP as our source material. 

Round 1 Saquon Barkley at 9.0

“The Generational One” has appeared in just 15 games over the past two years. It isn’t entirely clear if he will make it 16 in three come Week 1. Reading between the lines, it appears so, but we won’t see Barkley in preseason action. Then, even if Week 1 becomes a reality, the Giants have spent the summer claiming he could be on an early-season snap count. It is an open question how disciplined they might stay with that approach seeing as Devontae Booker is the No. 2 back, but Barkley’s knee isn’t his only concern. There is also his bottom-barrel offensive line and the specter of season-long negative game flows.

Best-Case Scenario: With the Giants’ weapons-filled passing attack relieving pressure on the running game, the G-Men’s offense finally takes a step forward. Barkley stays healthy and is the top-three back we have expected him to be all along.  

Worst-Case Scenario: Barkley misses Week 1, is limited for 2-3 games upon his return, and Daniel Jones fails to progress, leaving Barkley in one hopeless game script after another even as he’s healthy. You begin planning a zero-RB approach for 2022 by October 1. 

Round 2 — Clyde Edwards-Helaire at 22.5

2020 fantasy drafters dared to touch the stove, making Edwards-Helaire the No. 6 overall player in end-of-summer ADP. They … got burned. Limited to 13 games and too frequently stood up near the goal line, CEH finished as the RB23 by average points in half-PPR leagues. Maybe he wasn’t technically the reason you lost your league. He most definitely was not the reason you won it. That’s no matter to 2021 fantasy drafters, who have gone back to the well after the Chiefs failed to add meaningful backfield competition as 2020 opt-out Damien Williams departed in free agency. The calculus remains the same: This is the lead back for the league’s most bankable offense, one who could prove to be a special talent as a pass-catcher. He’s also 5-foot-7, a mystery inside the five-yard line, and playing with a quarterback who doesn’t exactly need to check down. 

Best-Case Scenario: CEH meets his Maurice Jones-Drew destiny by scoring 10-plus touchdowns on the ground and clearing 50 catches through the air. 

Worst-Case Scenario: CEH isn’t trusted near the goal line and remains south of 40 receptions. RB23 feels like a good outcome compared to this season’s low-end FLEX status.  

Round 3 — David Montgomery at 32.4

Montgomery’s 2021 narrative is as straightforward as it gets: Fade last year’s hot finish because it was due solely to a soft schedule. There is some truth to that, but the Montgomery we saw before the final six games last season would have never finished hot. One of the baselines all good players must clear is putting up big performances in plus spots. We now know Montgomery can do it. Another “red flag” is that Montgomery’s 2020 pass-catching improvement was simply because Tarik Cohen missed 13 games. Again, there is some truth to that, but Cohen was awful in 2019 and playing a smaller role before going down last September. Montgomery ran the second-most routes of any running back during Cohen’s absence and was far more efficient.

Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery (32)
Will David Montgomery prove the naysayers wrong? (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Cohen, of course, is still hurt. Free-agent addition Damien Williams is now playing the role of Montgomery boogeyman, but D-Will is just as likely to serve as a pure breather-back as third-down specialist. Odds are, Montgomery isn’t as good as he was the final six games last season or as bad as he was the first 25 games of his career. Which side he leans toward in 2021 could very well decide leagues.   

Best-Case Scenario: Montgomery maintains a near-stranglehold on pass-catching duties and easily outplays his RB17-20 draft status. The RB2 you didn’t even want to draft is an RB1 more weeks than not. 

Worst-Case Scenario: Cohen not only returns to his pre-injury average of 5-6 weekly targets, Williams mixes in for 4-6 weekly carries, devastating Montgomery’s floor on all three downs. Last year’s fast finish was indeed a mirage and Montgomery is never again considered a bargain RB2.   

Round 4(ish) — CeeDee Lamb at 35.4

This is the ultimate “there is no in-between” pick. 2020 first-rounder Lamb will either rock the league as a sophomore alpha or badly burn fantasy drafters who decided he was better than Keenan Allen, Allen Robinson, Amari Cooper, etc. after one 896-yard season. The variables are nearly endless. Will last year’s early-season chemistry with Dak Prescott carry over? Will the Cowboys’ defense again be one of the worst in the league, necessitating endless pass attempts? Will Lamb’s 17.7 2020 target share get more in the 20-25 range as the Cowboys’ overall attempts likely decrease? Will Cooper be healthy? Will Prescott be healthy? Lamb is good enough that he could end up on the right side of all those question marks. But the asks remain heavy just the same.

Best-Case Scenario: Fantasy football is about predicting the future. Lamb’s dot-connecting sophomore breakout delivers as the Cowboys move him all over the formation — he spent 2020 exclusively in the slot — and unleash his full potential in a top-three offense.  

Worst-Case Scenario: There are too many mouths to feed as the Cowboys’ average pass attempts decrease from 40 to 33-35. Like Calvin Ridley in 2019, Lamb’s WR1 predictions are a year too early. 

*Special Offer: Get an edge on draft day with our 2021 Draft Guide that is packed with hundreds of player profiles, rankings for various formats, projections, tiers, mock drafts, custom scoring, our ADP Trend Report tool and more. And don't forget to use promo code PRESEASON15 to get 15% off annual subscriptions, but act fast because this offer ends Wednesday, September 8. Click here to learn more!* 

Round 5 — Kyle Pitts at 50.3

Just one rookie tight end — Evan Engram in 2017 — has finished as a TE1 by total half-PPR points over the past half-decade. That is one rookie in the top 12 over the past five years. Pitts is nevertheless coming off the board as the TE6 on Yahoo. Fantasy drafters agree with the Falcons that Pitts is a unicorn talent, one who will break the rookie tight end curse.      

Best-Case Scenario: Pitts finishes between Mike Ditka’s all-time tight end rookie yard record of 1,076 and Jeremy Shockey’s 21st-century high point of 894, signaling the arrival of a truly special talent and living up to his lofty ADP. 

Worst-Case Scenario: Pitts is a normal rookie tight end, bettering T.J. Hockenson’s 2019 total of 367 yards but finishing below Engram’s recent high-water mark of 722 from 2017.  

Round 6 — Justin Herbert at 60.0

Herbert is going directly ahead of 2020 MVP winner Aaron Rodgers. Herbert set six first-year passing records, but the Chargers failed to upgrade his supporting cast as they transition to a new offensive system. A sophomore lull is quite common following monster rookie passing campaigns, but there is nothing scientific there, of course. Ultimately, Herbert’s ADP is not unreasonable after he finished as the QB8 by average points last season, but fantasy drafters are banking on 2020 as his floor when some regression might be due. Basically, to draft a quarterback this high, you need to be certain they will be a weekly difference-maker. Herbert was that as a rookie. 

Best-Case Scenario: Herbert is indeed an MVP contender as he crashes the top-five fantasy quarterback party. You were right to go early QB in an early WR world.  

Worst-Case Scenario: Some of last season’s second-half growing pains carry over as Herbert fails to finish inside the top 10. You would have been better off finding “this year’s Herbert” in the final rounds than paying up for last year’s OROY. 

Round 7 — Kenny Golladay at 80.8

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln? Golladay’s multi-week hamstring injury is his latest flashing red light, which includes working for Jason Garrett and being a contested-catch wideout who must corral passes from an oxymoronic conservative-yet-erratic Daniel Jones. Did we mention Golladay has played five games since 2019? On the other side of the ledger: Golladay is awesome. What’s it gonna be? The fantasy community is baking in an appropriate amount of risk. “Reward” is not the most likely outcome. There is also a much greater than zero percent chance it happens.     

Best-Case Scenario: Although he is no Josh Allen, Jones takes a third-year leap and actually manages to support Golladay as a touchdown-scoring, if not compiling, WR2. WR1 remains on hold. 

Worst-Case Scenario: Golladay comes nowhere close to playing 17 games and falls down the pecking order in this crowded offense. Like former Giant Hakeem Nicks, Golladay’s body betrays him young and his contract is an immediate albatross.  

Round 8 — JuJu Smith-Schuster at 90.9 

Smith-Schuster caught 97 balls last season and is almost falling to the ninth round. It is the toughest of scenes in a deep passing offense that nevertheless wants to re-establish the run in 2021. Only four times in NFL history has a wide receiver caught at least 97 passes and averaged fewer than 10 yards per catch. Smith-Schuster's 8.57 on 97 last season was by far the lowest. Something has got to give. Either Smith-Schuster will require even more volume — not going to happen with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool around — or he needs to boost his efficiency as Ben Roethlisberger hopefully increases his arm strength a year removed from elbow surgery.  

Best-Case Scenario: Smith-Schuster re-emerges as the Steelers’ primary compiler over Johnson and is more Keenan Allen than late-career Jason Witten. He is back in the weekly WR2 mix. 

Worst-Case Scenario: Najee Harris establishes, Johnson’s chemistry with Big Ben refuses to fade, and Smith-Schuster is just another slot receiver who catches 70-75 passes.  

Round 9 — Michael Carter at 104.7

Carter has lit up Jets camp. He also failed to serve as the primary back in either of the Jets’ first two preseason games. As Hayden Winks asks, is the college committeeman already being typecast? That would be unfortunate. It also wouldn’t be the end of the world at this part of the board, where even a change-of-pace role could produce some FLEX juice for the juiced rookie. You just need to decide if you are ok with that over James Conner’s safer workloads or A.J. Dillon’s greater upside.   

Best-Case Scenario: Carter’s preseason usage is not telling. Tevin Coleman, as usual, flops his early-down opportunity. Fantasy managers spend September wondering how Carter’s ADP didn’t creep higher. 

Worst-Case Scenario: The role is too small on a team that is too bad. The May and June puff pieces feel a million miles away as Carter is one of your first September cuts.  

Round 10 — DeVonta Smith at 115.6

Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner is on the older side for a rookie (23 in November) and is sliding into one of the league’s most volatile offenses. He recently missed time with a knee injury. He is also a special player and primed to be the Eagles’ top target. Smith is as close to a finished first-year product as you will ever see. Maybe that dings his long-term projection. It also makes him uniquely suited to solve the Eagles’ longtime receiver woes and turn likely voluminous target totals into top-30 production at wideout.   

Best-Case Scenario: Smith is as he appears to be, an elite route runner and athlete ready to take the NFL by storm. The top 30 was too conservative and Smith crashes the top 18 right off the bat. 

Worst-Case Scenario: The negative dots connect and there is no ceiling to reach in this dysfunctional offense. Smith is lapped by several other rookies in production and struggles for WR4 appeal.  

*The App is Back! Don’t forget to download the NBC Sports EDGE app to receive real-time player news, mobile alerts and track your favorite players. Plus, now you can check out articles and player cards. Get it here!*