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NFL draft: One analyst's favorite fantasy football landing spots

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Location. Location. Location.

It’s the mantra for real estate developers and fantasy football managers alike.

While talent, scheme, and draft capital contribute to a player’s overall profile, their destination is key to unlocking fantasy value. Here are landing spots I love for five incoming rookies.

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Arguably the most complete back in the 2021 class, Harris lands in a prime position to produce. A tackle-breaking beast and ace pass-catcher, the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading rusher has been a consistent producer since his days at Antioch High. He’ll have an opportunity to show off his do-it-all skill set with the Steelers after the team used its 24th-overall pick to bring the 23-year-old to Pittsburgh.

Incredibly, the last time the Steelers used a first-round pick to select an offensive skill position player was 13 years ago. The player they chose? Rashard Mendenhall, running back out of the University of Illinois. From 2009 through 2011, before tearing his ACL, Mendenhall averaged at least 16 touches per game and posted top-24 fantasy numbers (RB13 overall in 2009 and RB10 overall in 2010) during his time as the Steelers RB1.

Since then, Mike Tomlin (who became the team’s head coach in 2007) has continued to favor a single-RB backfield, regularly leaning on James Conner (who averaged between 15 and 16 touches per game in 2019 and 2020) and Le’Veon Bell (who never averaged fewer than 22 touches per game over his five years in the Steel City).

The offensive line and an aging Ben Roethlisberger won’t allow for abundant or uncongested running lanes, but Harris’ volume (and fresh legs) should translate into top-15 fantasy numbers. He’s going to touch the ball between 16 and 20 times per week.

For ADP purposes, he’s likely to come off FF boards slightly after Joe Mixon but before J.K. Dobbins.

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

The 2021 Bengals are giving off serious Tiger vibes, reuniting Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. It’s been two years since this duo connected 84 times to break numerous records and win LSU a championship — but as any grown person who’s maintained a long-term committed relationship will tell you, the real-real doesn’t start until Year Two.

I wish my dear friend Chris Wesseling could see what Cincy has done since January because it’s been uncharacteristically smart (and I think he’d be stubbornly pleased). According to reports, Burrow’s rehab (knee) is ahead of schedule and he’s expected to start in the season opener. While he’s understandably likely to have a case of the yips, providing the 24-year-old signal caller with improved protection and a productive target whom he already trusts should certainly help to calm his nerves.

Said target, by the way, earned his QB’s trust with sizable talent, utilizing advanced ball-tracking skills and polished route technique to regularly win at the catch point and post YAC.

In 2020, each of the Bengals starting WRs — A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins — drew over 100 looks. With Green now in Arizona, Chase should take on the X-receiver role and maintain a similar (if not larger) volume of opportunities. He’s a solid bet to clear 75 catches/1,000 yards and should be ranked inside of the top-30 players at the position.

DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

Making a trade with a division rival to move up two spots and give the team’s new QB a proven weapon demonstrates Philly’s belief in Smith. While there are plenty of questions about his size and viability on the outside, there’s no doubting his route savvy, which the Eagles clearly placed above discussions regarding his stature.

Did you know that in 2020, Greg Ward — the converted college QB — led the team in targets (79) and scores (6)?

Blarg.

With Hurts as the starter Ward averaged 4 looks per contest, Jalen Reagor drew 5 targets per week, and Zach Ertz (whose future with the franchise remains unclear) managed 5.75 opportunities per game. None of this is *great* but it all points to Smith having ample opportunity to contribute immediately.

A versatile talent — who has history with Eagles QB, Jalen Hurts — the Alabama product figures to lead the Eagles’ passing attack. It’s reasonable to expect an average of 6+ looks per outing, placing him firmly among the glut of WR3 options for fantasy. He’s currently the WR33 in ECR.

Trey Sermon, RB, San Francisco 49ers

It’s probably just a coincidence but it’s hard not to smile when considering Sermon’s landing spot.

His mother, Natoshia Mitchell, tells a story about watching Super Bowl 33 from her hospital bed after having given birth to Trey just the day before. Twenty-two years later, her baby boy will play for the son of the man who hoisted the Lombardi trophy in that championship effort.

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. While the depth chart remains undeniably crowded, it’s hard to imagine a better (*realistic*) landing spot for the Ohio State product.

In a position-friendly scheme that regularly churns out fantasy assets (both Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert closed out 2020 inside of the top-30 in fantasy points per game), Sermon’s three-down skill set should be put to good use. Since 2018, Kyle Shanahan has regularly leaned on an electric ground game, averaging over 450 rushing attempts over the last three seasons.

Additionally, the investment in Sermon indicates a path to immediate work. Jeff Wilson won’t go down without a fight, but this whole backfield is a training-camp battle to stay focused on. It’s also one that fantasy analysts believe Sermon will win, as he was the RB30 selected (ahead of Javonte Williams, RB32, and just behind the incumbent Mostert, RB27) in a recent Yahoo Fantasy mock.

If he can stay healthy (which shouldn’t be assumed given his running style and injury history) there’s a path to a 1,000 rushing-yard season for Sermon. For now, keep him on your watch list and monitor his ADP, as Shanny backs tend to climb quickly.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions

You’re probably not drafting Brown. After all, he’s the Yahoo consensus WR88. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know his name.

Selected in the fourth round, Brown was the only receiver added by the Lions. Noting the offseason exits of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola, it’s a bit surprising to see Detroit ignore the position (and the needs of their new QB, Jared Goff) but St. Brown brings an overlooked amount of refinement and athleticism to the corps.

Younger brother to Packers wideout Equanimeous, Brown was an immediate (60-750-3 as a true freshman in 2018) and regular producer at USC. He’s a crisp route runner with natural hands, excellent body control, and an uncanny ability to slip past defenders after the catch. Lacking ideal size (5-foot-11 and 197 pounds) and top-end long speed, he projects to thrive as a short-to-intermediate slot option at the next level.

Given Goff’s history with slot receivers and the dearth of pass-catching options in Detroit, the rookie WR could very well lead the Lions in looks. To borrow (and butcher) a phrase from Matt Harmon, the pie may not be tasty ... but the slice is gonna be super-sized.

It wouldn't surprise me to see Brown end up on a mid-late season list of PPR-friendly sleepers. File his name away for the double-digit weeks when FAB gets lean.

Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF

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