8:00 AM ET
Matthew BerryESPN Senior Writer
- • Senior Fantasy analyst for ESPN
• Member, FSWA and FSTA Halls of Fame
• Best-selling author of “Fantasy Life”
Matthew Berry’s Love/Hate for the 2021 fantasy football season is a collection of the players he thinks will be the best draft-day values and those you should probably allow someone else to roster. As has been tradition for the past 15 years, Matthew begins by sharing a story that, we swear, has more to do with fantasy football than it might first seem.
The first thing you should know about Shirley Ruth Gold is that absolutely no one called her that.
Born in Colorado in 1927, she lived 93 years, and for all of them she was simply known as “Cookie.”
Given the nickname by a cousin as a young girl, it stuck. Now, if you were one of her 22(!) grandchildren or great-grandchildren, you called her “Gammy,” but to her friends, her family, her husband and me she was, always and forever, Cookie.
To be technical about it, she was my great-aunt. Married to my father’s mother’s brother (follow that?). I’ve written about her husband, my great-uncle Lester, before. Lester died at age 88 in March 2011, and it is often remarked that it was actually a good thing that Lester went before Cookie because there was no way Lester would have been able to live without her.
It’s a feeling all of us lucky enough to know her understand all too well. I mean, she died in March 2020 and it has taken everything I have to pull it together long enough to write this, 18 months later.
Cookie was majestic. Like real-life royalty. Not that she ever made you feel like that. Sweet, warm, down-to-earth. When you spoke to her she focused entirely on you and made you feel like you were the most important person in the world.
Cookie and Lester had three daughters. Those three daughters had seven kids between them, and those seven currently have 15 kids. And of course, there are husbands and wives and nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews who make up the never-ending sprawling family of which she was the matriarch for almost seven decades. She spoke to her kids and grandkids and great-grandkids every single day. The phone constantly rang and there was never one day I visited her that didn’t feature tons of family and kids running around her house, all while she sat in the living room, holding court.
Growing up in Golden, Colorado, Cookie was a farm girl and a die-hard Broncos fan. Like, the kind of farm girl who rode a horse to school. She was a teenager when she met my uncle Lester and they became friends. Lester went off to serve our country in World War II, and when he came back, he started courting Cookie. When Lester died, they had been together for 70 years.
With tremendous support from Cookie, my uncle did incredibly well in business. I remember one time, when I was 14 or so, having lunch with Lester and Cookie, and I asked him naively, “Uncle, you’re so successful. How do you do it? What’s the secret?”
“Matthew,” he said, “it’s very simple. I figured out a long time ago it was just easier for me to make more money than it was to stop your Aunt Cookie from spending it.”
My aunt cackled that great laugh of hers and nodded. “He’s right. I grew up on a farm. And on that farm, we had both work horses and show horses. I told your uncle on our very first date … I’m a show horse.” And they both laughed together. They did that a lot.
She wasn’t lying about being “a show horse,” by the way. Cookie was always, and I mean always, dressed to the nines. Morning, noon or late night she always had her hair done, makeup and jewelry on, nails polished. Even if you were just coming over for a quick bite in the morning she would greet you fully done up. She always wanted you to know that you were important to her, and that included how she presented herself.
And make no mistake. While Cookie had great taste and certainly liked nice things, the truth is when she spent money, she was almost always spending it on kids and grandkids and family and friends and charity and whoever needed it. She loved to laugh and enjoyed being self-deprecating.
I remember once hearing a story about my cousin Monica (Cookie’s granddaughter) walking with Cookie through a park one day when Cookie noticed a group of people. She turned to Monica and said with sympathy that she wanted to try to help them. “Look at that group,” she said, “they must be so poor. They’re all having to share that one cigarette.” Monica had to explain they weren’t poor and that wasn’t a cigarette. Cookie would roar as she told that story on herself.
When I tell you she was there for her family, I mean she was there for her family. Every play, game, doctor appointment, you name it, if it was important to you, it was important to Aunt Cookie.
She was at my bar mitzvah in College Station, Texas. It took three flights, but she got there. She was at my graduation from Syracuse University. She came to L.A. to visit often. She doesn’t know anything about fantasy football, but she still watched Fantasy Football Now every chance she got.
I managed to get out to Denver about once a year to visit and I was thrilled she got to meet my daughters a few years ago. And we talked on the phone, but if I am being honest, not often enough. I couldn’t tell you the last time we spoke prior to her death, but I’m embarrassed to say it was months earlier.
You get busy with work and kids and you think, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Which turns into next week, which turns into a month, and before you know it you’re writing a column filled with regret.
She had been sick for a while, so a planned visit had to be called off, and there was a period of time when it wasn’t a good day for her to talk on the phone — but whatever. I should have tried harder than I did.
The family had been told by the doctor that the end was near, so her daughters, sons-in-law, grandkids, their spouses, great-grandkids and others gathered around her bed to say goodbye and tell her what she meant to them. Thirty-six people in all, and there’s no amount of money I wouldn’t pay to be able to go back in time and be there. Or at least have been on the phone.
But I didn’t find out about her final few days or her death until it was too late.
As I reflected about it, I wondered if that was my fault. I just told you … 36 people were by her bedside when she passed away. That’s a lot. Many of them were kids and I’m sure emotions were high and people were running around and it’s a difficult time and well, it clearly just slipped everyone’s mind. And that’s probably my fault. Maybe I should have been more present. Called more. Visited more. Talked and texted with my cousins more. Because then I’d have been more aware the end was that close.
As you might know, I am huge Jimmy Buffett fan. He has a song literally called “Life Short Call Now.” Jimmy’s a smart guy. I’ve spent a lot of time this past year thinking about regret. About what I want to do with my life, my career, my family. About time left. About my Aunt Cookie.
The past 17 months or so have been the hardest year and a half that most of us have ever experienced, as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are horrific, far-reaching and devastating. And with the delta variant continuing to spread, we are not out of the woods yet.
The future, more than ever, feels completely unknown.
When I described the scene at my aunt’s deathbed, I made it about me because, well, that’s what I do. That’s the column. But think about it again. Thirty-six people surrounded her. Thirty-six. Cookie got to tell every single one of them how she felt. And one by one, 36 family members got to individually tell her how much they loved her. What she meant to them. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s a life filled with love. That’s a life we should all aspire to.
You know, in some dumb way, I thought my aunt would live forever. Or, if nothing else, that I had more time than it turns out I actually did. But I know that my aunt knew I loved her. I told her that multiple times, every time we spoke. I know I made her happy. After I wrote about my Uncle Lester’s death, Aunt Cookie would often tell me how much the column meant to her. That she read it often and it made her smile, thinking about her husband and how much she missed him. I know all these things, and yet I am still sad.
I’ve thought about a quote from the author Victoria Holt. “Never regret. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.”
Well then, Victoria, if experience has recently taught me anything it’s that when you get a chance to tell those who mean a lot to you that, well, you should tell them they mean a lot to you.
I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth. I don’t know how many more times I will write this column; nothing sinister, all good things come to an end. But the fact you’ve chosen to spend some of your time with me means a great deal to me. I am so incredibly thankful for you. You have no idea.
Which brings us, meandering slowly, into football, where, as with everything else in life, much is unknown.
A year ago at this time we weren’t fully sure we would even have a fantasy football season. A year ago at this time we had never even considered the idea of Wednesday afternoon football.
A year ago at this time we thought Tyrod Taylor would be starting for the Chargers. And had no idea his backup would score more fantasy points than Lamar Jackson.
A year ago at this time none of us could predict that Jared Goff and Philip Rivers would wind up with more total fantasy points than Drew Brees.
At this time last year, Leonard Fournette was a Jaguar and undrafted rookie James Robinson was buried on the depth chart. Christian McCaffrey had never even missed a practice in his life due to injury, let alone a game.
No one expected Nyheim Hines to finish with more total fantasy points than Kenyan Drake (though I tried to warn you guys on Drake last year). No one outside Buffalo really paid attention when the Bills got Stefon Diggs.
Among rookie wide receivers last year, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III were being drafted well ahead of Justin Jefferson. Jace Sternberger, not Robert Tonyan, was the sleeper TE on the Packers people were targeting late. And so on and so on and so on.
I’m gonna talk about a lot of football players here in a bit. Some I like more than their current draft position and some I like less. I can’t tell the future, but I can tell you that I will be right on some of them. And I’m gonna be wrong on some of them. And collectively, we are all gonna be wrong on a bunch of average draft positions.
So please consider what I write. Consider my rankings, the Fantasy Focus 06010 podcast and The Fantasy Show with Matthew Berry on ESPN+. Watch the Fantasy Football Marathon, starting tonight (Aug. 17) on ESPN. Consider all of the great analysis from all of my colleagues here at ESPN. Consider the thoughts of the many smart people who work elsewhere in the fantasy football industry and do strong work.
And then draft whom you want, when you want, how you want. #YOLO baby.
Hopefully you win, but if you don’t, at least you went down with your guys. Because there might not be a worse feeling than regret.
A quick refresher before we get into the players. First, for the new kids in class, this is not a sleepers and busts column.
I personally hate those terms. Any player can be a “sleeper” or a “bust” — it all just depends on what it costs to draft said player. This column is actually less about players and much more about ESPN average draft positions (ADP), which is a real-time report of where players are drafted in ESPN leagues. Obviously, ADP varies by site, so someone who I think is undervalued in ESPN drafts might be going four rounds earlier somewhere else. What can I tell you? I’m a company man, and we’re using ESPN’s ADP. Now, ADP is sure to rise or fall, as the case may be, but this is a snapshot of how players were being drafted in the first few weeks of August.
It’s an important distinction because “Love” and “Hate” refer entirely to a player’s ADP. I don’t actually “hate” Josh Jacobs, despite what you might have read on the interwebs. He’s a talented football player. I do, however, hate where he is being drafted as of this writing — ahead of Chris Carson and Darrell Henderson Jr. … what?! — given the current state of the Raiders’ backfield.
That’s what this column does: It highlights players I believe will outperform or fall short of their ESPN ADP. News and player value change all the time, so please check my frequently updated ranks, both positional and Top 200, to see exactly where I value a player in comparison to others.
This column assumes you are drafting in an ESPN 10-team league with PPR scoring, starting one quarterback and one flex. And, of course, there are always more “love” names than “hate” names, as you don’t need me to tell you players with lower ADPs are already poorly thought of and unlikely to return value. A huge thanks, as always, to Damian Dabrowski, “The Stat-a-pillar” from The Fantasy Show on ESPN+, for his help at various points in this column. And with that, here we go.
Quarterbacks I love in 2021
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: Someone remind me to talk to the people in charge of 30 for 30. Because we need a fantasy version of that. I already have the first one for next year.
(Deep voice) “What if told you … they actually let Russ cook?”
I feel like Wilson’s poor second half last season has made people forget just how good he was early on. Through the first eight weeks of the season, Wilson was averaging 28.5 points per game (ranking him as QB2, behind only Kyler Murray), and Russ in chef hat memes ruled the internet. It was a glorious time. But then Brian Schottenheimer’s offense fell apart down the stretch, which caused Wilson’s production to drop dramatically and Seahawks fan Mina Kimes’ blood pressure to rise. But that’s not going to be a problem in 2021. I’m a believer in new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, and I know we have heard this before, but I do actually think … they let Russ cook this year. I love that he has brought rushing back to his game — people might not realize he ran for 513 yards last season, his most since 2017 — but most importantly, Wilson not only has massive upside but also an extremely high floor. He is the only QB with 30-plus TD passes in each of the past four seasons, and he has finished top 10 at the position in total points every season since 2013 (and top six in three of the past four campaigns). Wilson is currently going in the seventh round as QB7 in ESPN drafts, but I have him firmly inside my top five.
Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles: Blind résumé time.
Player A: 19.4 fantasy PPG, 165.3 pass YPG, 72.8 rush YPG
Player B: 23.0 fantasy PPG, 229.8 pass YPG, 68.0 rush YPG
Fairly similar, right? You’d rather have Player B, obviously, but it’s within the same ballpark. Well, Player B is Jalen Hurts in the four games he was a starter as a rookie last season. Player A represents Lamar Jackson’s final four games he started as a rookie in 2018; you know, before he won the MVP (and everyone’s fantasy league for them) in 2019.
I’m not saying Hurts is going to be the MVP of the NFL or fantasy this year, but I am saying that barring some monster trade, Hurts is gonna be a fantasy rock star this season. People will point to his brutal completion rate (51.9%) in those four starts, but you know what Josh Allen’s completion percentage was in his rookie season? 52.8%. Nearly one-quarter of Hurts’ passes in those four starts traveled 15-plus yards downfield, so given that plus a new coaching staff, improved pass-catchers and a preseason in which Hurts knows he’s the guy and will get the majority of first team reps, I’m all-in on Hurts this season. He is currently coming off the board as QB12, but I have him locked inside my top 10 and see him as a legitimate breakout candidate in 2021.
Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans: Since taking over as the starter in Week 7 of 2019, Tannehill is QB4 in total points, is QB7 in PPG, has the third-most TD passes over that stretch and is first in number of times people use him as an example Adam Gase can’t coach. (DeVante Parker is a close second). The arguments against Tannehill are that we will see some rushing regression from him (his seven rushing TDs in 2020 matched his total from the previous five seasons combined) and that he lost Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. I agree the rushing will regress, but I’m not worried about Arthur Smith. New OC Todd Downing has also been with the team since 2019, so this offense won’t look drastically different, and the addition of Julio Jones and Josh Reynolds (plus the presence of Anthony Firkser) mitigates the loss of Davis/Jonnu Smith. I might not be super high on Jones this season (spoiler alert), but it’s undeniable he makes every QB he has played with better. Just look at Matt Ryan’s splits last season with and without Jones if you don’t believe me. Or just wait until “QB hate.” Expect another top-10 season from Tannehill in 2021.
Others receiving votes: In his seven starts last season, Ryan Fitzpatrick averaged 19.9 PPG (would have been QB11 in PPG), and now he joins an offense with Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Logan Thomas and a creative playcaller in offensive coordinator Scott Turner. Fitzy likes to say, “It’s not magic if it happens every time.” But now surrounded by the best offensive weapons he has ever had in his career and a top-five defense that will often get him the ball in good field position, Fitzpatrick won’t need to create magic out of nothing anymore. With multiple rushing scores in each of the past three seasons, Fitzpatrick is currently going off the board at QB24, while I have him in the top 15. … Can you imagine a coach with his job on the line starting Andy Dalton over Justin Fields? I sure can’t. And not only does the Ohio State rookie have a rocket arm and 4.4 speed, but he would be stepping into an offense that last season finished eighth in pass attempts and 12th in offensive plays run. As of this writing, I don’t know when Fields is going to start, but he will at some point, and he has massive upside as soon as he gets in there. … Which is very similar to Trey Lance. I don’t know if he is going to start Week 1, but I’m confident it’s going to be sooner rather than later given how drastically he is outplaying Jimmy Garoppolo in camp. Between Kyle Shanahan’s system (which has produced some very good fantasy QB seasons) and Lance’s rushing ability, Lance is a potential league winner. Both Fields and Lance are worth stashing, and you can fill in with a waiver-wire guy who has a good early-season schedule. (As others also have pointed out, Kirk Cousins comes to mind.) … And for those in deep two-QB or superflex leagues, you know I am in on Tannehill and that I also buy the “escaping Adam Gase will be good for a QB” argument. So how about some Sam Darnold? Darnold threw deep at the seventh-highest rate in 2020, and he now will have DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Terrace Marshall Jr. and a guy named Christian McCaffrey to throw to in an offense that should be a lot more aggressive this season. … Finally, he needs to win the job outright, but if Taysom Hill is named the starter in New Orleans, his draft value is dirt cheap (being drafted as QB28, if he’s drafted at all), and from Weeks 11 to 14 last season when he started for the Saints, he was QB7 in total points and QB9 on a PPG basis.
Quarterbacks I hate in 2021
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: Perhaps the first time in history two first names aren’t a crowd pleaser! I do actually think we will see some improvements from Ryan under Arthur Smith, but Ryan is just not going to end up on any of my teams in 2021. For one, the Julio Jones splits from last season are massive: 22.1 PPG in the seven games Jones played; 14.2 PPG in the nine games he missed or left early. Yes, Calvin Ridley is a star and Kyle Pitts could be a superstar, but Ridley was there last season, and a rookie TE won’t instantly negate the loss of a future Hall of Fame wide receiver. And if I’m going to be taking a QB in this range, it’s going to be one with some rushing upside like Lance or Fields. Remember, eight of the top 10 QBs last season finished with at least 200 rushing yards. Ryan adds nothing with his legs, and that matters a lot given Ryan had eight games last season with zero or one touchdown pass. So there’s downside, but not a ton of upside? Yeah, that’s a pass. But the kind that goes like 4 yards to Russell Gage. Blah.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: Last season, Roethlisberger led all QBs in pass attempts per game, and nearly 75% of Pittsburgh’s total yards came through the air. Yet despite all that, he finished as just QB13 in PPG. How is that possible, you ask? Well, aside from adding nothing as a runner, he ranked 27th or worse in yards per pass attempt, percentage of passes thrown 15-plus yards downfield and completion percentage on deep passes. The Steelers’ entire passing game essentially consisted of short dump-offs. I don’t know if Roethlisberger’s arm is completely shot, but I’m not sure it even matters. After drafting running back Najee Harris in the first round, it’s clear Pittsburgh will have a more balanced approach on offense in 2021, and at this stage of his career, I don’t think Roethlisberger can be efficient enough to be a consistent fantasy starter without extreme volume.
Note: I know, I know … not a ton of “QB hates.” The issue is that, as always, QB is really deep, and there are a lot of very viable options at the position this year.
Running backs I love in 2021
Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers: For some reason, Ekeler’s name doesn’t excite fantasy managers like it should. But what if I told you “Austin Ekeler” is an anagram for Ukraine Steel? And also Eureka Tinsel? Or A Sleeker Unit? Still no? Then fine, I’ll just have to convince you that Ekeler is legit with some awesome stats. For example, in the nine full games he played last season, he averaged 18.6 touches and 102.1 scrimmage yards. And starting in Week 12 when he returned from injury, he led all running backs in target share (19.9%!). Since the start of 2019, Ekeler ranks third among all backs in fantasy points per touch. When he gets touches, he produces. And he will get a ton of touches. Fine, you don’t want to take my word for it? Will you take Ekeler’s word for it? During his recent appearance on The Adam Schefter podcast, Austin told fantasy managers to draft him, referencing new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who came over from the Saints. I am paraphrasing here, but Ekeler basically said, in the offense they are installing this year, “I’m Kamara.” Is anyone worried about Alvin Kamara’s touchdown equity? Exactly. Stop it with the Justin Jackson/Joshua Kelley/Larry Rountree III vulture concerns. Ekeler is currently going as RB8 and in the middle of the second round on ESPN, but I have him as a top-six back and mid-first-round pick. He needs to be drafted as such. Don’t miss out on getting some Ukraine Steel.
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers: If there are two things I know about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ organization, it’s that the Steelers don’t like to change quarterbacks and Mike Tomlin doesn’t like to change running backs. (If there’s a third thing I know, it’s that Dwayne Haskins will become a Hall of Fame quarterback with the Steelers, because that’s just my luck.) But back to Tomlin’s love of three-down backs: In every season from 2013 through 2018, the Steelers’ lead back averaged more than 20 touches per game. Injuries to James Conner the past two seasons (and to Roethlisberger in 2019) killed the offense. Enter Harris, whom the Steelers did not draft in the first round to throw him into a rotation. A true three-down back (his 57 career rushing and receiving touchdowns at Alabama are tied for the most in SEC history), and he recorded 50 broken tackles last season, second most in the country. In other words, I don’t care if his offensive line isn’t any good. Big volume in a good offense, along with his own talent and versatility, makes him a borderline top-10 RB who is going at the Round 2-3 turn and should be drafted in the top 15. Just like Haskins was in the real NFL draft before the Washington Football Team needed to release him less than two seasons later. (Bangs head against the table)
Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks: (30 for 30 voice) What if told you … Matthew was wrong about them letting Russ cook and they once again just ran the crap out of the ball? Or … (30 for 30 voice) What if I told you … Matthew was right, they did let Russ cook, the offense exploded and they were in scoring position all the time and Chris Carson crushed it?
For years, the two big knocks on Carson were health and concerns about whether he was really “the guy.” Well, he’s played 41 games since 2018, more than Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, Saquon Barkley, Austin Ekeler and one fewer than Aaron Jones, all of whom are being drafted ahead of him. As for being “the guy,” his new contract extension proves he is. While other fantasy analysts can update their 2018 2019 2020 2021 “Rashaad Penny will take over for Chris Carson” articles, you can focus on the fact that the reason Carson got paid was a career-high 4.8 yards per carry and a career high in receiving touchdowns. He’s not quite Alvin Kamara or Ekeler, but he has improved his receptions per game every season, and when he gets work, he produces. Carson was top 10 last season (min. 100 touches) among RBs in fantasy points per touch, and in the eight games last season in which he had at least 14 touches, he averaged 16.7 PPG. He is currently going in the fifth round on ESPN, but I have the criminally underrated Carson as a third-rounder. Chris Carson Forever.
Darrell Henderson Jr., Los Angeles Rams: At the moment, the most famous Henderson is Henderson, Nevada. Did you know Henderson, Nevada, was known for its supply of magnesium during World War II? I’ll bet that sure makes for a fun T-shirt! Well, move over magnesium, because soon Henderson won’t be known for the hot temperatures in Nevada, but rather the hot fantasy points coming from Darrell Henderson’s feet. First off, Henderson is a good player with big-play ability. He is seventh among RBs in terms of percentage of carries gaining 10-plus yards (minimum 100 carries). When he gets work, he produces. In his six games last season with 12-plus touches, he averaged 14.3 PPG. That would have been good enough for RB17 last season, between Antonio Gibson (14.4) and Miles Sanders (14.2). And now you talk about opportunity: Cam Akers is out for the season; Malcolm Brown’s 124 touches from last season are in Miami; and the Rams like to run, especially when in close. Since Sean McVay became the head coach, the Rams are the eighth-heaviest run offense and third heaviest in the red zone. It’s an offense I expect to be in scoring position even more this season with Matthew Stafford being a big upgrade over Jared Goff. With not much competition on the depth chart, Henderson has top-five RB potential but somehow is still going outside the top 20 at RB at the Round 6-7 turn. I have him as a top-16 RB and a fourth-rounder with the kind of upside magnesium can only dream about.
Others receiving votes: As the great fantasy analyst Robert Frost once wrote: “The fantasy season is lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And Myles to draft before I sleep.” Ol’ Bob’s words ring true, even today. While Malcolm Brown will likely have more work than any of us want, Myles Gaskin is the superior talent, a big plus in the passing game (at least three receptions in nine of his 10 games in 2020), and he earned trust in the red zone (only Dalvin Cook and Josh Jacobs averaged more than Gaskin’s 3.9 red zone touches per game last season). … While I am still a vocal member of the #FreeAaronJones movement, Matt LaFleur clearly is not. So if you have Aaron Jones shares, AJ Dillon probably is on your personal hate list. But for the value he can provide, I’m throwing him on the Love list. Dillon will take on the Jamaal Williams role this season … but he has more upside. Last season, more than 45% of his carries went for at least 5 yards. He also went for 129 yards and two scores in his only game with double-digit touches. Considering Williams got a third of Green Bay’s RB red zone touches in 2020, Dillon’s talent could put up a lot of fantasy points with that usage. … Speaking of Jamaal Williams, I also like him in Detroit this season. Williams is an annoyingly good player (why do you think #FreeAaronJones had to start?) who is productive when he gets work — 13.1 PPG in his seven games last season with 10-plus touches — and now he goes to a Lions team that will have its plays called by Anthony Lynn. As in the former NFL running back who has always used a committee as a coach. Williams is a good pass-catcher, so he will get a lot more work than managers with D’Andre Swift on their team would like. … Through the first eight weeks of the 2020 season, James Conner was averaging 15.8 PPG on 18.3 touches per game. He can still produce with opportunity, and he will be running behind a better line in Arizona than the one Pittsburgh had in 2020. Considering the Cardinals had the fourth-highest red zone rush rate last season, Conner will get plenty of touchdown chances. … Zack Moss will be a touchdown monster in that high-powered Buffalo offense. Last year as a rookie, he led the team in both red zone and goal-to-go carries. And he has earned an even larger share of the load, getting more than 13 touches in three of his final four games. … San Francisco has ranked in the top four in running back fantasy points in each of the past two seasons. Now Trey Sermon is in town to make it three years in a row. Yes, there are a lot of running backs in San Fran, but many of them have had issues staying healthy. Sermon has less of a name but as much upside as any rookie RB this side of Najee Harris.
Running backs I hate in 2021
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants: Does putting Barkley on the Hate list mean I risk being one of the first lambasted when Barkley’s thighs inevitably take over the world? Sure, but fake football journalists have to be willing to risk it all for the truth. Now, to be clear, I don’t hate Barkley as a player. This is about hating where he is going in drafts (typically third to fifth overall). Considering the red flags around him, I’m hesitant to spend one of the first few picks on him. There have been whispers all offseason that the Giants might not have him in the lineup at the start of the season and, even if they do, might limit his snaps. Less than a year removed from tearing an ACL, will he have the big-play ability, or will that explosiveness be slow to come back? The reason I ask is, for his career, in games in which Barkley does NOT have a 25-plus-yard run, he averages just 3.3 yards per carry. Add to that the offensive line woes. In 2020, the Giants ranked 23rd in yards per carry before first contact. That line is a big reason Barkley had just 34 yards on 19 carries last season before he got hurt. He’s going in the top five, but I have him as just an early second-rounder, which means it’s highly likely I will not have him on any team this year.
David Montgomery, Chicago Bears: The sixth-best RB in fantasy last season on a points-per-game basis, Monty (as he is sometimes known because of people who think he is a 70-year-old man) can attribute that fantasy success to three factors: 1) huge workload; 2) passing-game usage; 3) a good schedule, especially down the stretch. (Six of his seven 20-plus-point games last season came against defenses that finished in the bottom six in fantasy points allowed to RBs.)
Now there is a very good chance this one blows up in my face. Montgomery is getting rave reviews at camp, and you know I am very high on Justin Fields. There’s a very good chance Fields takes over this team sooner than later and the offense explodes, Montgomery running along with it.
But … I have concerns.
First, the difficulty of any schedule is hard to predict until you get into the season, so that’s up in the air, but we can safely assume it’s unlikely the Bears get that cushy of a schedule again. And the addition of Damien Williams should certainly cut into his workload, including in the passing game. Williams can play (He got robbed of being the Super Bowl LIV MVP). So I believe Montgomery’s workload goes down and it will decrease even further if/when Tarik Cohen ever comes back. (In 2019, Montgomery averaged 2.3 targets per game. In 2020, post-Cohen injury, he averaged 4.9 targets per game.) And assuming Fields takes over, he is a mobile quarterback and a threat to run himself. Does Fields vulture a few gimme touchdowns this season from Monty when they are in close?
Montgomery is being drafted at the top of the fourth round, but I’m much more comfortable with him at the Round 5-6 turn.
Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders: Two years ago, Jacobs was my fantasy ride-or-die. Now? He’s on the preseason Hate list. Kenyan Drake’s arrival in Vegas ends Jacobs’ time as a “set it and forget it” fantasy starter. Among running backs with 100-plus touches, Jacobs ranked 46th in fantasy points per touch. Names such as Devontae Booker, Brian Hill and Kalen Ballage were ahead of Jacobs on that list (dry heaves). In 16 career games with fewer than 20 touches, Jacobs has averaged just 10.5 PPG. He needs volume to be effective, and with Drake in town, it’s unlikely Jacobs sees 20 touches in most games. (To give you some context, last season’s RB34, Rex Burkhead, averaged 10.8 PPG. Yeesh.) There are legit concerns on the Raiders’ remade offensive line, and considering he’s going as RB18, that’s way too rich for my taste. Josh, I’m sorry, but consider this my official fantasy breakup letter.
James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars: Last year’s fantasy Cinderella had his glass football cleats shattered when Jacksonville used a first-round pick on Travis Etienne Jr. Don’t forget, more than 40% of Robinson’s fantasy points last season came from receiving — a role that will now swing heavily toward Etienne — while Jacksonville ranked 29th in running back rush attempts. Robinson now finds himself in a very crowded backfield that also includes Carlos Hyde, who has been reunited with his college coach. He’s being drafted as a flex play, so some of that is baked in, but there are other players in the range where he’s going that I’d prefer to take a flier on (like Mike Davis, who has much less competition).
Michael Carter, New York Jets: There’s a ton to like about the Jets’ rookie, it’s true. But the word “Jets” in that sentence gives me pause. This is a franchise that hasn’t had a running back hit even 850 rushing yards since Chris Ivory in 2015. Carter is getting a bunch of buzz and I’ve seen him go very early in drafts, which strikes me as super weird. This is a coaching staff that comes from San Francisco and the multiple-RB approach. They even brought in a former 49er in Tevin Coleman, who is sure to get some work. Along with Ty Johnson and La’Mical Perine, I worry Carter is in a four-headed committee on a bad team. As Mike Clay has pointed out, fourth-round backs are often drafted in the fourth round for a reason. The last fourth-rounder to finish as even a top-25 fantasy back was Roy Helu Jr. in 2011. So think twice before you reach in your draft for a player whose upside might be Helu 2: Fantasy Boogaloo.
Wide receivers I love in 2021
Terry McLaurin, Washington Football Team: Scary Terry … Terry McScorin’ … Terry “The Washington Football Team Player Matthew Berry Dreams About Every Night” McLaurin … I don’t care what you call him, just be sure to get a lot of McLaurin on your fantasy teams this year. Last season, McLaurin was WR20 in a points-per-game basis. But that was in a Washington offense that wasn’t nearly as pass-happy as the one we’ll see this year with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the controls. Last season’s Fitz-less McLaurin averaged 19.3 PPG in the nine games in which he had at least eight targets. I expect him to get eight targets in most every game this season. With, let’s say, inconsistent QB play last season, McLaurin was still 12th among WRs in receiving yards per game. He just got unlucky with touchdowns, scoring only four. I expect that number to go up on an offense that will be more aggressive and in scoring position more often. Fitz is not scared to throw deep or into traffic, making him a perfect QB for McLaurin. Remember, Fitzpatrick has produced a top-15 fantasy WR in each of the past three seasons in which he started at least 12 games. Put it all together, and I’ll be doing a lot more dreaming this year about McLaurin, whom I have inside my top 10 at WR. And you’ll be having nightmares if you don’t draft him.
CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys: In the carnage that was the 2020 Dallas Cowboys’ season — and there was a lot of carnage … carnage that I enjoyed quite immensely … yes, I AM a Washington Football Team fan, why do you ask? — a lot of people missed that Lamb had an exceptional rookie season. He went for 74 receptions, 935 yards and five touchdowns. And a lot of that was with the likes of Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert throwing him the ball. In the games in which Dak Prescott played and finished, Lamb had at least five receptions in each and averaged 16.3 PPG. And those four games were the first four of his NFL career! Now, with a year of growth under his belt and Prescott slated to return? And an increased route tree that will see him line up all over the field? Oh, yeah, Lamb is a big Love for me in 2021. And you know I wouldn’t be saying nice things about a Cowboys player if I didn’t really mean it.
Robert Woods and my little Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams: What do buying a new computer and drafting fantasy wide receivers in 2021 have in common? In both cases, you simply can’t have too much RAM! That’s right, folks, it’s the terrible jokes that keep you coming back every year. Anyway, unless this is your first year playing fantasy football, you know that Robert Woods and my little Cooper Kupp have long been productive fantasy receivers. Since the start of 2017, Woods is WR9 in total points and WR12 in PPG. And Kupp is a target monster: 11th among WRs in targets per game last season and tied for eighth in red zone target share. But I expect both to be even better in 2021, thanks to the arrival of QB Matthew Stafford. Doubt it? Then check out this stat:
Stafford (2019-20): Ninth in fantasy points per attempt, 11th in TD rate
Goff (2019-20): 26th in fantasy points per attempt, 31st in TD rate
Still doubt it? Wait, really? Then you clearly missed the stat I just posted. Scroll back up a line or two. There you go. And welcome back. I have Woods as a fourth-rounder (he’s currently going in the fifth), and I have Kupp as a fifth-rounder (currently going at the 6/7 turn). Now go draft you some LAR receivers. And buy a new computer with all your fantasy winnings. And you’ll see the joy of having tons of RAM! Ha! Only thing better than a bad joke is two, amirite?
Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati Bengals: What does buying a new computer and drafting fantasy wide receivers in 2021 have in common? In both cases, you simply can’t have too much BENGAL! Oh, for real? BENGAL is not a computer term? OK, well, the joke doesn’t work quite as well in this case, then. But my point remains the same: Higgins and Boyd are in for big seasons. Ja’Marr Chase is getting all the buzz but, especially considering current cost, these two are the ones you want. (At the moment, Chase is going one round ahead of Higgins and four rounds ahead of Boyd.) In games with Joe Burrow under center last season, Boyd was a top-15 receiver in PPG, receptions per game and targets per game. Don’t let his semi-pedestrian final numbers of 841 yards and four TDs sway you; Boyd is high-end WR2 with Burrow at QB. Higgins might even have more upside. He was every bit as good as CeeDee Lamb as a rookie, going for 67 receptions, 908 yards and six TDs. Higgins also had 14 receptions of 20-plus yards and was targeted seven times in the end zone in nine “full” games with Burrow. Higgins will produce for you every week, but his big-play ability means he’ll also have some monster games that outright win you weeks. I’m not worried about Chase stealing targets. At the time of his injury, Burrow led the NFL in pass attempts. This defense will once again be brutal, so there will be enough pass attempts to go around. At cost, Higgins and especially Boyd are incredible values.
Others receiving votes: In his 10 games with at least seven targets last season, Brandin Cooks averaged 19.7 PPG. And that was with William Fuller V getting a 21.8% target share. That target share is now in Miami, and while we don’t know who will be playing quarterback for the Texans this season, we do know that they’ll be trailing. A lot. No matter who is under center. That means a lot of garbage-time targets and fantasy points for Cooks. With more than 1,000 yards in five of the past six years, Cooks out-earns his ADP every year and will once again this season. … Believe it or not, Marvin Jones Jr. is the only wide receiver in the NFL with at least nine touchdown receptions in each of the past two seasons. In Jacksonville, he’ll be reunited with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, under whom Jones finished as WR20 on a points-per-game basis in 2019. … The Mike Williams breakout we’ve been waiting for finally happened in 2020. Sort of? Kind of? At the very least, it’s in the process of happening. Williams averaged 16.3 PPG in the eight games in which he had at least seven targets last season. He should only get better in Year 2 with Justin Herbert. … Antonio Brown averaged 20.1 PPG in his final four games of 2020. Don’t forget this guy was the clear WR1 in fantasy not so long ago and he’s still only 33 years of age. There is a ton of value and upside to be had here. … The training camp buzz is off the charts for Darnell Mooney, and it’s not for nothing. He showed flashes last year, getting at least five targets in 12 of his 16 games. … Mooney’s camp buzz might be matched only by Jets rookie Elijah Moore. Remember, the Ole Miss product is the only FBS player in the past 20 years to register three games with 225-plus yards in a season.
Wide receivers I hate in 2021
Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints: I’m not the only fantasy analyst hating on Thomas heading into the 2021 season, and for good reason. Regression came for Thomas last season and nearly swallowed him like Jameis eating a W. Whether it was injury, QB play, hitting some sort of age wall, bad luck or something going on behind the scenes, we will never know. But whatever it was, he suddenly was very inefficient. Thomas was 81st among qualified receivers last season in fantasy points per target, a major step back for a wideout who was 16th in that category in 2020. He scored fewer than 12 points in four of his seven games last season. He had only two such games the previous season in which he played all 16 games. He’s a very talented wide receiver, of course, but I don’t know. I don’t have a stat for this, but, man … just feels like some bad vibes coming out of New Orleans, you know? Add to that Thomas’ lingering ankle issues and the fact that he’s very likely to miss at least some games at the start of the season, plus uncertainty at the quarterback position in New Orleans and rumors of a more run-heavy approach this season, and, well, for the first time ever, he’s made my Hate list.
Julio Jones, Tennessee Titans: Does adding Jones to their lineup give the Titans a better shot at winning a Super Bowl? Without a doubt. But joining the Titans also hurts Jones’ fantasy stock, and isn’t that all that matters? Jones is leaving a Falcons team that had the fourth-most pass attempts last season and joining a Titans offense that was 30th in pass attempts. It remains to be seen how Julio reacts to a bunch of change and being the No. 2 receiver in an offense for the first time in a long time, heading into his age-32 season. Jones missed seven games last season, left two games early and set the NFL record for most career weeks listed as questionable with a hamstring injury heading into a week. That last one may not be an official NFL record, but it should be. And he definitely is the record holder. But it’s especially significant when he plays a late game and you don’t know whether to risk starting him or play a guy in the 1 p.m. ET window.
Kenny Golladay, New York Giants: In past years, did I sometimes put Golladay on the weekly Hate list simply to crush the feelings of Daniel Dopp, my co-host on The Fantasy Show? Absolutely! But now that Golladay no longer plays for Daniel’s Lions, his presence on the Hate list must be based entirely on legit analysis. So here you go:
• Golladay’s strength is as a deep threat, but the Giants ranked 28th in deep pass attempts in 2020.
• Since 2018, Golladay had a 22.1% target share in Detroit. He is highly unlikely to get that kind of target share in an offense with Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton and, eventually, red zone threat Kyle Rudolph.
• Less target share … and less volume: The Giants ranked 26th in total pass attempts last season, even in a season without Barkley, and they have a better defense than they get credit for, so they likely won’t be in as many shootouts. So there are also serious volume concerns for Golladay.
• Golladay has played in just 36 games since 2018 and he’s already dealing with a leg injury this year in camp.
• But all is not lost for Golladay. At least he no longer plays for Daniel’s Lions.
William Fuller V, Miami Dolphins: Fuller is facing a huge downgrade at quarterback this season. Deshaun Watson, Fuller’s quarterback last season, led the NFL in passing yards and yards per pass attempt. But his new quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, was 30th among qualified QBs in yards per pass attempt. From first to 30th. Not great! And then there are the usual durability concerns with Fuller, too. He has missed at least five games in each of his past four seasons. Add to all that the fact he has a lot of competition for looks with DeVante Parker, Field Yates favorite Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki, plus a very good defense, which means Miami won’t be in the kind of garbage-time games Houston had last season. Fuller might very well be a good free-agent signing for Miami, but considering he is being drafted ahead of guys such as Brandin Cooks, Tyler Boyd and Antonio Brown (to mention three guys on the Love list), he is unlikely to return a profit.
Tight ends I love in 2021
Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders: It has been two years now since I nailed my prediction on Waller breaking out as a top-tier fantasy tight end. What does that have to do with 2021? Nothing at all! I just really enjoy bringing it up. But fine, you want to talk about Waller in 2021? An obvious name, sure, but I list him here because I have him clearly ahead of George Kittle for TE2 and as a late second-rounder (he’s currently going in the fourth round on ESPN). There’s every reason to believe he will duplicate, or even improve upon, last season when he finished as TE2. Waller had nine games with 15-plus fantasy points in 2020. Travis Kelce was the only other tight end with more than five such games, by the way. But it’s not just the splash games. Waller is consistent, too, averaging 9.1 targets per game, ninth most among all players. He led all tight ends with 22 red zone targets — when Derek Carr gets close, he looks for number 83. As I wrote in my Draft-Day Manifesto, I want to be either one of the first to grab a tight end or one of the last. High floor. High ceiling. Waller is a great target if you want to get a weekly advantage at tight end and be done with the position early. I love me some Waller the Baller.
Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams: If you used to be thrown footballs by Jared Goff and will now be thrown footballs by Matthew Stafford, apparently I like you in fantasy in 2021. What can I say? For whatever reason, all the Rams are undervalued this year. Anyway, Higbee’s stock isn’t up solely because of the arrival of Stafford. It’s also because of the departure of Gerald Everett. In five games without Everett active in 2019, Higbee averaged 11.4 targets per game and 21.4 PPG and basically won fantasy titles for everyone who picked him up. I know the Rams are high on rookie tight end Jacob Harris, but I think he’s a year away. Higbee was in the top seven among tight ends in yards per target, catch rate and percentage of catches gaining 20-plus yards (minimum 50 targets), so when Higbee gets work, he produces. In his five games with at least five targets in 2020, he averaged 14.6 PPG. Currently going as TE17, I have Higbee as a borderline top-10 play this year. Higbee – Everett + Stafford=TE1. That’s basic fantasy math.
Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings: Small sample size, of course, but last season, in the four games he played without Kyle Rudolph, Smith was the fourth-best tight end in fantasy. He averaged 12.8 points per game, scored three TDs, and for his career averages 12.0 points per game when getting at least five targets. Rudolph is, of course, now on the Giants, and color me not worried about Tyler Conklin. Smith is just 23 years old and enters his third NFL season with TE1 upside at TE2 prices.
Others receiving votes: Of the 16 targets Adam Trautman got as a rookie, he caught 15 of them. I’ve run the numbers and that’s a good percentage. All Trautman needs is more opportunity in New Orleans. He’ll get it with Jared Cook out of the picture and Michael Thomas banged up. Since 2019, Saints tight ends are tied for the third-most touchdowns and second-highest yards per reception (12.9) … You like tight ends catching a high percentage of their targets? Then I present Mr. Anthony Firkser. He had the third-highest rate among qualified tight ends last season at 75%. With Jonnu Smith off to New England, Firkser’s targets will rise significantly. The Titans were third in tight end target share and tight end red zone targets last season. … Not only will Gerald Everett not be tanking Tyler Higbee’s fantasy stock in 2021, he’s worth a look of his own. Now in Seattle with Russell Wilson, Everett has produced when targeted. Over the past two seasons, in his games with five-plus targets, he averages 10.6 PPG. … It wasn’t that long ago Austin Hooper was the No. 1 tight end in fantasy. The Browns are going to be an above-average offense, and in his seven games last season with at least five targets, Hooper averaged 12.1 points. Once you get into the mid-TE2 territory, Hooper is an interesting flier. … Jimmy Graham will continue to be an issue, but Cole Kmet is a talented player who should be a favorite of Justin Fields sooner than later. … I have a weird theory that the Falcons will become one of the league leaders in running two-tight-end sets under new head coach Arthur Smith. Smith, of course, used tight ends very effectively in Tennessee. Which means Kyle Pitts could get Julio Jones’ target share and still leave the same amount of looks for Hayden Hurst that he got last season when he was TE10 overall and TE15 on a PPG basis. Hurst is free right now, as he is going undrafted.
Tight ends I hate in 2021
Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers: Not to be mean, but if I am mean, Robert Tonyan would definitely be in line to regress toward me. Boom! Get it? Stats joke burn! I might have to retire after that one! But for real: As impressive as Tonyan was last season, he’s in line for a big drop-off in 2021. Volume is a problem. He was tied for 22nd last season in total targets among TEs and he had only five games with more than 40 yards. And yet, even with low volume (just 52 receptions), he scored 11 touchdowns, getting into the end zone on a ridiculous 21% of his receptions. The last NFL player to score double-digit touchdowns on fewer than 60 receptions in consecutive seasons was Falcons WR Michael Haynes in 1991. The odds of Tonyan repeating is highly unlikely. Bob Tonyan is a fun player, and I have him just outside my top 10, but he most certainly will have a worse fantasy season than he did last season. Again, not to be mean.
Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins: Gesicki might help you win you some DFS contests, but he’s hard to roll out there with any confidence in a regular fantasy league. Get this: 46% of his fantasy points last season came in just three games. It’s feast or famine with him, as he had eight games with three or fewer catches. And while last year he had a solid target share going for him (15.5%), that will likely drop with Miami adding Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle to DeVante Parker.
Hunter Henry, New England Patriots: Huh. Once again, two first names … not a crowd pleaser. Henry has never played all 16 games in an NFL season, so you have obvious health concerns. But more than that, I think Jonnu Smith is the better player, the better tight end and the better fantasy option. Will Henry score some touchdowns this year? Of course. Will you have any idea when? No. I know the Patriots have had two fantasy-relevant tight ends at the same time before, but with all due respect to Cam Newton and Mac Jones, neither is going to be “peak Tom Brady” this season. I’d prefer to just avoid the headache, but if I have to pick a Patriots tight end, gimme Jonnu Smith.
Jared Cook, Los Angeles Chargers: You know I can’t do a Love/Hate season preview without putting Cook on the Hate list, right? I have to play the hits! But there are legitimate reasons, beyond tradition, to have him here. Last season, Cook was highly touchdown-dependent, which is very hard to count on, especially with a new QB. Cook had only three games with more than three catches and he was 21st among all tight ends in routes per game. It’s hard to see either of those stats turning around at the age of 34 in a new offense, especially with my guy Donald Parham Jr. breathing down his neck. (I am semi-obsessed with Parham in dynasty leagues.)
And there you have it! Love/Hate 2021 is in the books. Good luck this year. May all your backups turn into starters and, once again, just want you to know I appreciate you.
Matthew Berry — The Talented Mr. Roto — really wanted to put Antonio Gibson on the list, too, but was worried he’d be called too much of a homer.