Picking up where we left off, the list 2021 Fantasy’s Phinest Rookie Review concludes with 11-1. Without further ado, let’s get right to it. If you missed 12-25, make sure you pop in and take a look right here.
11. Justin Fields, QB Chicago Bears – Fields, like most of his rookie counterparts before and after this slot, struggled when on the field in 2021. He did not start immediately, sitting behind Andy Dalton until Week 3, where he was pounded by Myles Garrett and company for 9 sacks in a 26-6 loss to the Browns. (They were probably the D/ST stream of that week.) He also struggled with health, missing time with rib and ankle injuries and then missing the season finale with a COVID-19 stint. He does get a clean slate this year as Matt Nagy was fired and the team hired Colts Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus to lead them in 2022. The team will most likely continue to run the offense through David Montgomery and relegate Fields to the role of a game manager in the early goings and with the lack of established weapons outside of him, Fields won’t be an attractive backup to have on your team.
10. Javonte Williams, RB Denver Broncos – Williams held his own as a rookie in 2021 and just as I expected, he took over the lead back role from Melvin Gordon as the year progressed. While he didn’t exactly blow the doors off the league, he demonstrated nice sample sizes of how good he can be. With 903 rushing yards, 43 receptions, and 7 Total scores, Williams will be a popular breakout candidate, especially when the Broncos upgrade their quarterback situation. Seriously, this team is an above-average QB away from being major players in the AFC West and maybe even the AFC overall. The hiring of Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett will only fuel the rumors of his Hall of Fame Quarterback following him from Green Bay and if that happens, even with all the young talent Denver has, Williams could be the biggest beneficiary and will see his value skyrocket from very strong RB2 to surefire RB1 that will have a 3rd round draft price.
9. Kyle Pitts, TE Atlanta Falcons – Pitts came into the season as the best rookie Tight End in the draft, but some circles thought he might be the best player. For the Falcons, he was as advertised in his rookie year. 68 receptions, 1026 yards, and a pro bowl nod showed what he is capable of and what kind of career he will have. The only complaint anyone can have against him is his one score, but those will come. Pitts was a low-end TE1 all season and will only get better in 2022. His Quarterback, Matt Ryan has been in decline over the last few years but will still be good enough to get the ball to his best playmaker. Fantasy favorites Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce, and George Kittle are still around and will be for some time, but do not be surprised one bit if the uber-athletic Pitts quickly joins their table and maybe even challenges them for the spot of Tight End Supreme sometime next year.
8. Jaylen Waddle, WR Miami Dolphins – Waddle stepped in from Game 1 and showed everyone who the Dolphins’ lead receiver is. Tua Tagovailoa looked his way as much as possible in 2021 and he responded by breaking Anquan Boldin’s record for receptions by a rookie set back in 2003 with 104, to go with his 1015 yards and 6 Touchdowns. Tua and Waddle clearly picked up from where they left off during their Alabama days and could form a not-for-long underrated tandem in South Beach. As far as his fantasy value goes, I’m going to give him a high-end WR2 grade in standard leagues, but in PPR he is a low-end WR1 sleeping giant who will routinely awaken to 100+ catches throughout his career.
7. Terrace Marshall, WR Carolina Panthers – The Panthers likely had big plans for Marshall after drafting him in the second round to pair with #1 wideout DJ Moore. However, Marshall never got going and battled injuries, and ineffectiveness caused him to be benched as a healthy scratch for several games. I will give him a pass as the Quarterback situation flamed out and the team looks ready to bail on the Sam Darnold experiment and Cam Newton revival tour. Also, despite what we have seen over the last few years, there are rookie receivers that still need time to adjust to being a pro and facing NFL-level cornerbacks. Marshall still is a young player and should be much better than his (17-138) line and will have every opportunity to make a serious run at the #2 job come training camp.
6. Trey Lance, QB San Francisco 49ers – Conventional thinking would lead one to believe that the 49ers had drafted Lance 3rd overall to be their Quarterback of the Future, but Jimmy Garoppolo refused to go away. Despite a mostly mixed bag of a stint with the Niners, Garoppolo did have two deep postseason runs on his resume, including a Superbowl appearance. It’s not exactly Joe Montana and Steve Young, but it is similar in that one guy is waiting for his big shot while the other is keeping him at bay by winning games. That all changed in the NFC Championship, where Garoppolo and the 49ers could not hold off the Rams despite having a 10-point lead in the 4th quarter, and his final pass of the season resulted in one of the most disheartening interceptions you will ever see.
This will only fuel the rumors that Garoppolo will not be with the team in 2022 (GM John Lynch gave Garoppolo a big hug rather than dap him up the way he did his other players, not a good sign for Jimmy), and should that be the case, Trey Lance will see his value skyrocket in the same way that Jalen Hurts did this past year. He has big-time upside and with the creative mind of Kyle Shanahan, I could see him as a QB1 due to his rushing prowess and Shanahan molding the offense around his strengths.
5. Devonta Smith, WR Philadelphia Eagles – Smith was seen by many as the crown jewel of 2021’s wideout class and the returns were promising. His very first NFL catch was a touchdown, and it did not take long as he established himself as the #1 on an Eagles team that had been desperately searching for one this side of Terrell Owens and to a lesser extent, Desean Jackson. Smith’s slender frame was a concern for many, but he had no trouble staying healthy and finishing the season with a (64-916-5) line.
As an Eagles fan, I would still like him to at least get to 185-195 but that can be discussed at another time. Smith and Quarterback Jalen Hurts showed nice chemistry in leading the Eagles to an unlikely playoff berth and the expectations will only get bigger from here. With multiple national championships and a Heisman trophy, and pretty much every accolade available to wide receivers in his collection, Smith will only get better and will soon fully grow into the superstar that sprouted during his early years at Alabama. He’s a solid WR2 that is worth drafting as early as Round 5.
4. Jamarr Chase, WR Cincinnati Bengals – Despite sitting out the 2020 College Football season, Chase had his own legion of supporters that thought he was the best receiver in the draft. A dominant 2019 put Chase on the map and the Bengals wasted no time in pairing him with his LSU buddy Joe Burrow. If you had Chase on your fantasy team, you likely are reading this with a fresh 2021 championship win in your possession. Chase was phenomenal last year with 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 Touchdowns, the last two of which led all rookies. His season came to a head when he tore the Chiefs apart in championship week for 11 catches, 266 yards, and 3 Touchdowns, which only cemented his status as a top receiver (In one of my leagues I was opposite my opponent who had him that week, so I’m still quite bitter about that).
Chase didn’t miss a beat during the playoffs, recording 100+ yds. and/or a TD in three consecutive games vs. the Raiders, Titans, and the AFC Title game rematch against the Chiefs and playing a key part in the team’s surprising Super Bowl run before falling to the Rams but he even had a solid game then, finishing with 5 catches for 89 yards. Chase is the latest LSU receiver to light the NFL world on fire from the jump, much like Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., and Justin Jefferson before him and he was a key player in the Bengals’ Superbowl run in 2021. He’s an easy WR1 next year and beyond, so if you want his services for your fantasy team be prepared to grab him within the first 2 1/2 rounds.
3. Travis Etienne, RB Jacksonville Jaguars – Part of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ miserable campaign might very well be due to the absence of their second first-round pick in Etienne. He was drafted to be the explosive counterpart to the steady and power-oriented style of James Robinson, but a Lisfranc injury suffered in the pre-season play took him out for the remainder of the season. This set the Jaguars’ offense back drastically and made top selection Trevor Lawrence a bullseye for opposing defenses. (More on him in a bit.) The Jaguars will certainly be glad to have him healthy for 2022 and he will no doubt be a featured part of the offense, giving them the big play element that they have been lacking since the Maurice Jones-Drew era. Due to Robinson having more experience in playing than Etienne, he has a slightly higher value, but both are solid flex plays that are each worth a 5th-7th round price as of right now, and the presence of one will greatly benefit the other.
2. Trevor Lawrence, QB Jacksonville Jaguars – After being the darling of College Football for the better part of the last 3 years, Lawrence was predictably the #1 overall pick in 2021 to the worst team in the NFL; and predictably he struggled with an incomplete roster that seemingly got thinner as the year progressed. For starters, he lost his backfield mate at Clemson, the aforementioned Travis Etienne to a Lisfranc injury in the pre-season. Then he lost his pro-bowl receiver, DJ Chark, in Week 4 to a season-ending ankle injury. He lost other players for the year such as lead-back James Robinson, emerging do-it-all player Jamal Agnew, and safety blanket Dan Arnold. The schedule was not kind to the Jaguars, as they had to face the likes of the Rams, 49ers, Broncos, Patriots, and Bills, each of whom possessed high-profile defenses with pro-bowlers on all levels. To top it off, he was coached by the disaster that was Urban Meyer. It was just a bad situation all around for the Jaguars and Lawrence.
However, he might have saved his best performance for the very last week. He defeated the (allegedly) playoff-bound Colts and kept them out of the postseason. What’s more, he recorded his lone game with a passer rating above 100 and did not turn the ball over, so that is something to build on going into next year. His fantasy value remains minimal as of now but with several players returning and possible reinforcements coming by way of the draft, Lawrence warrants a reserve spot on benches and could be a matchup-based starter against weaker defenses based on 2021 finishes.
1. Najee Harris, RB Pittsburgh Steelers – Harris started the season off slow, failing to eclipse 45 yards rushing in each of his first three games, but he settled in by the time October came around and became the focal point of the Steelers ground attack as everyone expected, rushing for a healthy 1200 yards and 7 scores. His value was boosted heavily by his receiving chops, adding 74 receptions for 467 yards and 3 more scores. His best receiving game came in Week 3 against the Bengals when he caught 14 passes for 102 yards. Oh, and by the way, Harris didn’t fumble once during the regular season, a HUGE deal for a rookie tailback.
It was by far the best season for a Steelers back since Franco Harris in 1972. (Not bad company to be mentioned with and to share the same name with.) He quickly became the favorite option of Ben Roethlisberger, and with the recent retirement of the Future Hall of Famer, whoever steps in next will surely rely heavily on Harris’s dual-threat ability as well. Harris lived up to the hype in 2021 and gives the Steelers brass a big piece of the puzzle to build around for the future. For fantasy footballers, they should expect Harris’s draft price to be somewhere in the middle of the first round (picks 6-8), as he is likely to be off the board any time after that.
BEST OF THE REST:
RB Kenneth Gainwell, RB Philadelphia Eagles – Gainwell was able to carve out a serviceable role for himself in the Eagles backfield, and from a scoring perspective, he might have been the best back on the team. Gainwell scored 5 Rushing Touchdowns and added 33 catches with another score, showcasing his versatility and dependability when called on by Coach Nick Sirianni. At the very worst, he’s earned the right to be the direct backup to the underwhelming Miles Sanders (0 scores in 2021) and could even push for the starting job next year. Gainwell will start 2022 as an intriguing deep-league flex play.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson, RB New England Patriots – I was concerned about how Stevenson would hold up as a rookie playing for Bill Belichick, due to the volatility of the RB position under Belichick in years past. Stevenson proved to be a solid #2 to starter Damien Harris, rushing for over 600 yards and 5 Touchdowns. The Patriots backfield proved to be one of the most lucrative for fantasy purposes (something else I was wrong about) as Harris and Stevenson combined for 20 rushing Touchdowns. Harris will enter next year as a low-end RB1 while Stevenson will have flex-play appeal most weeks as the two should continue to split the carries about 60-40.
Davis Mills, QB Houston Texans – Mills was selected in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft to be the successor to Deshaun Watson. After taking over as the starter in Week 2, he played surprisingly well, given the fact the Texans had virtually no notable options on offense. Four times he posted a passer rating of over 100 and in three of those games, he finished with a rating of 128.5 or better. Mills has some upside as a late-round pick and he figures to be part of the Texans rebuild, but with Head Coach David Culley unfairly let go after just one season, it remains to be seen if the new regime will want to move forward with Mills as the guy.
Nico Collins, WR Houston Texans – The player that the Texans selected 22 picks after Mills, Collins won a starting receiver job in the pre-season. He finished the year with 33 catches for 446 yards and a score; Nothing to write home about but one thing that Collins has going for him is his size. At 6’4” and 215 lbs. Collins is the type of big, bodied player that could grow into a difference-maker with time. The Texans hit reset on just about all levels the last offseason, but Collins’ experience starting for a bad team could be a blessing in disguise and he could be counted on to be a significant contributor next year.
Tutu Atwell, WR Los Angeles Rams – Outside of some light work as a returner, Atwell had no fantasy value as a member of the Rams this season. Despite being a 2nd round pick, he remained buried on the depth chart behind Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Tyler Higbee, and Van Jefferson. He was placed on IR on November 2, which may have been the tipping point for the team to trade for Odell Beckham Jr. (Woods was also lost to a torn ACL). Atwell can be ignored for fantasy purposes next year.
Brevin Jordan, TE Houston Texans – The third Texans rookie to make this list, Jordan had modest contributions as a rookie, finishing with a 20-178-3 line. Tight End is usually the most difficult spot for rookies to make an instant impact and the Texans were all over the place both on and off the field so it can be forgiven if any young player did not make an impact right away. Jordan was part of the draft overhaul the Team made as it attempts to move on from the past so he could have a chance to grow next year and merits watching over the offseason and going into Training Camp.