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Sophomore Slump - Breakout Rookies Who Could Bust in 2021

justin jefferson fantasy football rankings NFL dfs lineup picks

This past NFL season, we saw a number of breakout rookies like Justin HerbertJustin JeffersonJonathan Taylor, and James Robinson. While some of these players will maintain or exceed their fantasy production from year one, there are some others whose production will become stagnant or even take a step back.

Second-year players can have a wide range of outcomes because there's now a full year of film where NFL teams can look and better exploit the player's weaknesses. The players need to readjust and show they have improved.

In this space, we are going to talk about the players from the 2020 draft class that are due to hit the sophomore wall, and you should try to avoid them at their current draft prices.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!

 

QB Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers

2020 Stats: 595 paAtt - 396 paCmp - 4,336 paYds - 31 paTD / 55 ruAtt - 234 ruYds - 5 ruTD

2021 Projection (via PFF): 591 paAtt - 381 paCmp - 4,675 paYds - 25 paTD / 56 ruAtt - 266 ruYds - 4 ruTD

I'm not going to waste your time here. Do you want to know how impossibly great Herbert's 2020 season was? Just look at the past 21 years of play, and you'll find Herbert as the second-best rookie-QB in that span. Seriously. Herbert's 332.8 FP in 2020 while playing "only" 15 games rank only behind Cam Newton's debut campaign in 2011 when he got to 370.3 FP in 2011--playing 16 games, that is.

Herbert was just unstoppable back in 2020, and lucky too as he got to the field early only because the Chargers messed with Tyrod Taylor's body. Anyway, Herbert's rookie year has him in the true upper-echelon of freshmen quarterbacks, and in a select group of players that went on to average more than 18 FPPG as rookies (in fact, Herbert, Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Deshaun Watson all averaged at least 21 FPPG in their rookie seasons). While Watson and Newton had great second-year seasons, they dropped their FPPG a bit (around 20 FPPG) while RG3 absolutely dropped off the picture (16.4 FPPG).

The Chargers are only adding über-veteran TE Jared Cook to the receiving corps along with rookie-third-rounder WR Josh Palmer. Herbert enters the 2021 season in a much more comfortable QB1 position and should have every chance to rack up fantasy points, but odds are his scores go down if only a bit. PFF has him projected to a lower 18.8 FPPG next season and almost 20 fewer total FP even though the projections assume 17 starts. Not saying he won't thrive, but definitely that the expectations should be tamed quite a bit for Herbert's sophomore campaign. I wouldn't be paying his ADP of QB6 (30th overall) and would target him more around the 80th pick.

 

RB James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

2020 Stats: 240 ruAtt - 1,070 ruYds - 7 ruTD / 60 reTgt - 49 reRec - 344 reYds - 3 reTD

2021 Projection (via PFF): 91 ruAtt - 397 ruYds - 3 ruTD / 27 reTgt - 23 reRec - 151 reYds - 1 reTD

If PFF's projections hold up, oh boy will a lot of fantasy GMs scream out of pain come December. Robinson is currently getting drafted with an ADP of RB26 (77th overall) while only projecting to finish the year RB55. That, simply put, is wasting draft capital like a madman. It makes no sense, although judging by Robinson's backstory and his 2020 rookie season, it's normal that some folks are falling into the trap.

Robinson was undrafted, came out of nowhere, took advantage of Leonard Fournette getting traded by the Jags before the season started, ran with his opportunity, and never looked back. That's it, that's J-Rob for you. While Robinson's 2020 rookie year is not the best among freshmen in the past 20 seasons (16th-highest PPR tally), the truth is that his per-game average of 17.9 FPPG (min. 14 games played) ranks as the ninth-best mark in that same span. Bonkers coming from a UDFA.

It is not that Robinson was impossibly efficient in 2020. There were other rushers (D'Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, Zach Moss, and most of all J.K. Dobbins) who put up more ridiculous FPOE (FP Over Expectation, as defined by RotoViz) marks than Robinson. That being said, J-Rob still finished 21 FP above his expected PPR points, and that should regress at least a bit next year.

On top of that, Jacksonville has drafted two key impact players this offseason: a legit QB with both passing and rushing prowess (Trevor Lawrenceand a first-round running back in Travis Etienne who actually projects to an RB1 role, a better finish than Robinson in 2021 (RB24 compared to Robinson's RB55), and only a slightly more expensive ADP (64th overall to 77th). If you're going to overpay, please make sure you do it for the right rusher--Etienne in Jacksonville's case.

 

WR Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings

2020 Stats: 125 reTgt - 88 reRec - 1,400 reYds - 7 reTD

2021 Projection (via PFF): 127 reTgt - 87 reRec - 1,352 reYds - 8 reTD

God bless Justin Jefferson for doing what he did last season, and for doing it while I was watching as I got to witness a top-three campaign from a rookie WR in the past 20 seasons. You read that right, folks. Jefferson's 274.2 PPR points over 16 games playing for the Vikings rank as the third-highest tally since 2001. That means only Anquan Boldin and Odell Beckham Jr. were better rookie wideouts than Jefferson. Insane in the brain, even more considering Jefferson only became a truly used player from Week 3 on (just three targets in each of the first two games he played).

Am I saying Jefferson's rookie numbers were just a fluke, and that he will stink for the remainder of his career? Nope. I'm just highlighting a man that went on to put on a career year almost before even hitting the pro circuit. While OBJ raised the bar to a ridiculous 320 PPR points in his sophomore season, Boldin flopped to 125 in his second year. In fact, among rookie-WRs to score at least 200 PPR points as debutants, eight of them improved in year two for an average of 40 FP, while the other eight got worse for an average of -80 FP.

Minny has been able to retain the same squad for 2021 that they had in 2020. That should bode well for Jefferson, but considering he was absolutely efficient last year (64.2 FPOE), he should regress to the mean (wherever it is) more probably than not. Only four rookie-WRs with 200+ PPR points went on to be more efficient in year two, but three of them topped at 14.9 FPOE as rookies compared to Jefferson's insane 64.2 mark.

While PFF has a projection for Jefferson rather close to his 2020 line, I am a little bit more bullish on his upside, having him a little bit lower on the scale. The ADP can barely get higher as it is already at WR7 and 31st pick overall. Some cheaper yet more valuable WRs (via PFF) are the likes of Calvin Ridley, Chris Godwin, A.J. Brown, D.J. Moore, Mike Evans, or Terry McLaurin--all of them are expected to finish as top-12 WRs.

 

TE Harrison Bryant, Cleveland Browns

2020 Stats: 38 reTgt - 24 reRec - 238 reYds - 3 reTD

2021 Projection (via PFF): 32 reTgt - 23 reRec - 251 reYds - 2 reTD

The 2020 class of tight ends was rather bad. If we're to believe the hype, even a one-legged Kyle Pitts should be good enough to score as many PPR points as the two-best TEs combined put up last season as rookies. Long gone are the years of great debuting TEs, with only two of the best 14 rookies at the position in the past 20 years having debuted in the past five seasons.

Harrison Bryant, the TE2 of the Browns, did enough to finish as the second-best rookie tight end last season, which tells you all you need to know. Drafted with a fourth-round pick, Bryant finished the year as the TE40 with 65.8 PPR points. That hides a very important nugget of information you need to know about Bryant's season, though: almost 33% of Bryant's total fantasy points over the year came in an absolute outlier-of-a-game in Week 7 when he reached 21+ PPR points.

That, along with Austin Hooper retaining the leading TE role for the Browns, doesn't paint a rather optimistic projection for Bryant. Bryant's ADP is nothing otherworldly--in fact, he's getting off draft boards only in deep leagues--which makes him a no-risk play in those leagues, but if you're going with a second-year TE for 2021, then make that man either Cole Kmet or Adam Trautman.



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