Why Every First-Round Fantasy Pick Will Bust in 2021
A fantasy draft is so much more than the first pick but it’s the pick you hear every fantasy player in the office or at the bar talking about. The old adage is “You can’t win your league in the first round, but you can lose it.” While some people spend hours debating who to take with their first pick and others mostly trust ADP, everyone magically feels like they nailed it after the fact. If you like a player, you’ve probably sought out articles or podcasts on why he’s the right pick.
I’m here to lay out the downside of every player with a first-round ADP, according to Underdog, and why they might be the player that loses you your league. This isn’t meant to make you avoid any player but an exercise to help you consider ranges of outcomes in terms of downside.
1.01 RB Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
After missing most of last season due to a plethora of injuries, McCaffrey looks to be back at full strength. Health isn’t the concern for CMC this year, though. It’s the offense. Sam Darnold has been woeful as a starting quarterback, ranked 41st out of 42 qualified quarterbacks (minimum 500 attempts) in adjusted yards per attempt (A/YA) since entering the league—he’s the only quarterback besides Josh Rosen with an A/YA below 6.00 in that span.
That inefficiency from Darnold has resulted in the Jets ranking no better than 31st in yards per drive in each of the last three seasons. Offenses that bad rarely result in good running back production. Over the last five seasons, teams ranked in the bottom five in yards per drive have finished in the top 10 in total team running back points (half-PPR) just twice, with an average rank of 24th. Certainly, McCaffrey could and should account for a huge percentage of those points, but if Carolina is unable to maintain drives or score because of Darnold’s ineptitude, drafters could be left wishing they didn’t draw the top pick, especially with the second-toughest running back schedule.
1.02 RB Dalvin Cook, Vikings
The injury-prone tag is usually misplaced or downright erroneous but it’s hard not to have the moniker in the back of your mind when thinking about Cook. Since coming into the league, Cook has missed 21 games, almost a third of the Vikings’ regular-season contests. While he has only missed four games over the past two seasons, it always feels like fantasy teams with Cook are giving up a game or two to their competition, even though few running backs ever log 16 games, let alone 17 in 2021. Including the playoffs, Cook has amassed over 700 touches since the beginning of 2019, including a career-high 356 last season.
In addition to his injury concerns, there’s the real possibility that the Vikings offense regresses across the board. Few quarterbacks performed further above expectation than Kirk Cousins last year and if he sees major regression, that could have a trickle-down effect on everyone’s scoring potential in Minnesota.
1.03 RB Alvin Kamara, Saints
The concern with Kamara is two-fold—not having Drew Brees might impact both Kamara’s workload and the offense’s overall outlook and Kamara has mostly lived off of an unsustainable touchdown rate.
In five games without Drew Brees last season, Kamara saw his targets nearly cut in half and he averaged 15 touches per game—respectable but not what we want from a first-round running back. Of course, that sample was with Taysom Hill taking most of the snaps at quarterback. Jameis Winston has been named the Saints’ Week 1 starter. That still leaves some concern over Kamara’s receiving role as Winston-led offenses have typically ranked near the bottom of the league in running back target share.
Even if Kamara does approach his normal workload, he scored on nearly 8% of his touches last season, about nine scores over expectation. As a player who rarely eclipses the 20-touch mark in a game, if Kamara’s scoring rate tumbles, he may be closer to a fringe RB1, like he was in 2019, than a top-tier fantasy back as his ADP suggests.
1.04 RB Derrick Henry, Titans
The obvious knock on Derrick Henry, especially in point-per-reception leagues, is that he doesn’t catch passes, his 31 targets last season being a career-high. His insane yardage and touchdown totals have masked his reception downside in recent years but it’s still a concern.
As is the case with Dalvin Cook, we shouldn’t be trying to predict injuries but it’s impossible to ignore the workload that Henry has endured, accumulating over 1,000 touches since 2018 when we include the playoffs. That much work wears down running backs. Some have pointed to Adrian Peterson as an example of Henry’s health potential but Peterson missed four games in 2011 after a similar three-year stretch then played just two games in 2014.
Last season, Henry’s 397 touches put him in rarified air. A look back at recent running backs with similar seasons shows that the following year has not been promising.
1.05 RB Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
Most fantasy players know to mostly give Zeke a mulligan for 2020 after the injuries to Dak Prescott and multiple offensive linemen but that ignores the fact that Tony Pollard was more efficient than Elliott in the same offense when given the opportunity. While the Cowboys’ offense is back at full strength, there’s a real chance that Pollard is a factor in 2021—John Paulsen projects the Cowboys’ backup for nearly 150 touches.
If this backfield is more of a 65/35 split like we saw down the stretch last year instead of the 75-80% backfield share that Zeke usually gets, Elliott may need to rely on touchdowns more than usual for his fantasy scoring. With arguably the best wide receiver trio in the league, scoring could be spread quite thin for the backfield at times. It doesn’t help that Dallas faces one of the tougher running back schedules in the league.
1.06 WR Davante Adams, Packers
There’s no denying that Davante Adams is a target hog and the primary option near the goal line in Green Bay but the numbers that Adams and Aaron Rodgers posted last season cannot be counted on. Rodgers converted a mind-numbing 60% of passes inside the 10-yard line into touchdowns, contributing to Adams’s ridiculous 12.1% touchdown rate on the season, and about six scores over expectation. That makes it easy to forget that Adams scored on just 3.9% of targets in 2019.
A return to a scoring rate around the league average likely keeps Adams around the top-five ranks in fantasy scoring at his position but that is less than appealing when using a draft pick in the top half of the draft. With five to six other receivers that could realistically lead the league in targets while in potentially high-scoring offenses, Adams’s 2021 range of outcomes might include more WR7 or WR8 finishes than some drafters realize.
1.07 TE Travis Kelce, Chiefs & 1.08 WR Tyreek Hill, Chiefs
Tyreek Hill probably has more downside relative to his position than Kelce since Hill typically relies on a huge scoring rate to stay near the top of the wide receiver ranks. These two are grouped together because they can, and have, cut into each others’ upside on the weekly level.
While there are instances where both players have exploded in the same game there are just as many examples of one going off while the other posts a mediocre fantasy score. In the right circumstances, we’ve seen multi-week stretches where one is hot while the other is cold. The fantasy manager on the wrong side of that could lose enough scoring over a three-to-four week stretch to cost themselves standing or even a playoff spot.
1.09 RB Aaron Jones, Packers
When spending a first-round pick on a running back, I want that player to have a stranglehold on his backfield and Aaron Jones isn’t that guy. Jones has finished as a top-six fantasy back in half-PPR leagues in each of the last two seasons so it’s easy to ignore the fact that he was given just 62% of backfield touches in 2019 and handled 53% of the running back work in 2020. On the weekly level, Jones had just four games last season where he saw at least two-thirds of the Packers’ running back touches.
Since this hasn’t caused fantasy owners headaches yet, Jones’s touch share has largely been swept under the rug but the fact is that any back in a timeshare is prone due to variance and huge scoring downside. After spending a second-round pick on A.J. Dillon last season, it appears that Jones will be in a similar split with Dillon as he was with Jamaal Williams in recent seasons.
1.10 WR Stefon Diggs, Bills
Diggs rode volume to a WR3 finish in 2020, leading the league with 168 targets bt did so with virtually no resistance from his teammates. John Brown had trouble suiting up last year and while Cole Beasley did see over 100 targets, he had seven games where the ball was thrown his way six or fewer times. No other player was targeted more than 62 times.
While Diggs will still be the clear number one this season, his path to double-digit targets every week might not be so easy. Beasley still remains as the primary slot man while Emmanuel Sanders, who can play inside and out, joined the Bills this offseason. After Gabriel Davis came on late in the year, he may be the best option to play outside opposite of Diggs, suggesting that Buffalo may be a team that favors 4-WR sets. If that’s the case, Diggs could find himself in the second tier of receivers in terms of target volume.
1.11 RB Saquon Barkley, Giants
Barkley’s return from injury is the most obvious concern here. It’s still not clear if the Giants’ star running back will suit up in Week 1 and there have been comments that suggest when Barkley does return that it could be on a pitch count. Beyond his health status, we can essentially copy everything we mentioned about McCaffrey with Sam Darnold and paste it here with Daniel Jones.
Jones took a huge step backward in his first year under Jason Garrett, leading a Giants offense that ranked 31st in points scored. If New York is as bad on offense as they were last year, Barkley could be in awful game scripts every week. While he catches enough passes to stay relevant, the Giants have one of the deeper pass-catching corps in the league, so there’s no guarantee that Barkley gets his fill in garbage time,
1.12 RB Austin Ekeler, Chargers
Fantasy footballers are enamored with Ekeler’s receiving prowess, and rightly so, but his lack of usage as a rusher keeps him from elite touch numbers. Ekeler has never rushed more than 132 times in a season and has eclipsed 200 touches just once. Many will point to his 2019 season where he finished as a top-six running back but those numbers were boosted by eight receiving touchdowns, the second-most ever by a running back.
Even with 100+ targets, if Ekeler doesn’t see a huge bump in volume on the ground, mediocre touchdown numbers would give him almost no room to outperform his RB8 ADP. Over his last 22 games, Ekeler has just one rushing touchdown.