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Must-Have Players for 2021 Fantasy Football

Winning in fantasy football requires just one simple strategy: pick the best players. Of course, we don't know who those players will be, otherwise it would be too easy. That's where extensive research and opportunistic drafting comes into play. Luckily, I've done the first part for you, the reader. The rest is up to you.

The draft itself is just the first step in building a winning roster. The waiver wire and trade market are essential components which will be addressed once the year kicks off. For now, my goal is to help you identify which players should be among the top priorities on draft day to minimize reliance on in-season moves to patch holes on the roster. Here are my must-have players for 2021 fantasy football.

Full disclosure: I won't have all these players on all my teams this year. It doesn't work that way. They won't even necessarily be my top targets around their typical ADP each time I draft. It all depends on league type, roster construction, and the fact I like to differentiate across leagues. Putting all your eggs in one basket isn't a great strategy, especially in best ball. That said, I will attempt to take these players whenever it's possible and sensible to do so. That doesn't mean reaching too far to get "my guys" because then the value isn't there. Always follow a sensible draft plan and take the best player possible to help your team. Maybe that will include a couple of these names.

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Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

I've come around on my stance regarding Harris through the preseason. Rookie fever is contagious and we saw nearly every rookie rusher get vastly overdrafted in 2020. Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a first-round pick in many drafts yet finished as RB22 in fantasy. D'Andre Swift (RB18), J.K. Dobbins (RB24), and Cam Akers (RB45) all disappointed relative to draft stock in fantasy with only Jonathan Taylor (RB6) paying off with a strong finish. For that reason, I was convinced Harris would be a draft bust because his first-round draft capital and memories of Le'Veon Bell would incite drafters to make him a unanimous first-rounder. Instead, the recency bias of what was just mentioned regarding the rookie RB busts from 2020 seems to be deterring early drafters from selecting him too early.

Harris is being selected as RB11, 16th overall according to industry consensus. That doesn't seem low for an unproven commodity, especially considering the state of the Steelers' offensive line that is filled with questions following the departure of longtime mainstays Alejandro Villanueva, David Decastro, and Maurkice Pouncey. Another way to view it is that the Steelers got much younger on the O-line, with all three missing starters over 30. Plus, this team finished last in rushing in 2020 so it's not as if a decline is even possible. A rehaul along the line along with an elite RB prospect might provide much-needed rejuvenation in the running game.

The main appeal of Harris is his projected workload. In 2020, James Conner rushed 169 times and Benny Snell Jr. ran it 111 times. Lazy math tells me Harris could inherit 280 rush attempts since Conner is gone and Snell may not even make the final roster. That total would have placed him fourth in rush attempts last year. He was also selected to be more than an early-down back and has no viable competition anyhow (remember the whole being last in rushing thing). He is a very capable receiver, having caught 43 passes at Alabama last year and 25 the year before. The top predictor of fantasy points for running backs is snaps and touches and Harris will have plenty. Worry less about the state of the Steelers and focus on the sheer talent + opportunity combo. On draft day, I'm prioritizing Harris over Nick Chubb, Antonio Gibson, and any of last year's rookies aside from Taylor.


Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers

The best case for Sermon boils down to one name: Jeff Wilson Jr. He was an undrafted free agent out of North Texas who rarely played his first two seasons. Once the Niners were thin at running back late in the season, they threw Wilson out there and he responded with a string of productive games at the best possible time - the fantasy playoffs.

image from PlayerProfiler

Wilson scored five touchdowns over the last four games and put up a monster game in Week 16 with 204 total yards. That's league-winning stuff.

Is Sermon the same as Wilson just because they are both San Francisco running backs? No. Sermon is better.

He was a third-round pick out of Ohio State which the team moved up to acquire. He won't have to wait for injuries to strike to become fantasy-relevant. We already know any semi-talented RB can be a fantasy asset in the Shanahan system. Wilson is out with injury, Raheem Mostert is always hurt, and Wayne Gallman is simply depth not competition.

Doubt Sermon because of his limited college production. That matters before the NFL Draft, not after. Hate on him because of his slow 40 time. Jeff Wilson was slower. Question him because of the crowded RB room - that hasn't stopped Mostert, Wilson, Matt Breida, and Carlos Hyde from being fantasy studs at times in the Shanahan San Fran backfield.

It doesn't hurt that San Fran will face the Texans in Week 17, which should be championship week for most fantasy leagues this year, and the Titans in Week 16. Those teams ranked 32nd and 27th in fantasy points per game against running backs last season. Even if Sermon starts slowly, he can absolutely be the RB2 for your team come playoff time.


CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys

Lamb wasn't the first receiver taken in the 2020 NFL Draft but it's safe to say he should have been. Maybe Henry Ruggs will pan out after all but Lamb didn't waste time making an impact as a rookie, collecting 935 receiving yards on 74 receptions. Keep in mind this came with Dak Prescott behind center for only five games.

Amari Cooper is on the PUP list ahead of training camp due to a recurring ankle injury. This isn't expected to keep him out of regular-season action at the moment but it does bear monitoring. There's already a growing sentiment that Lamb will take over as the main receiver in this offense regardless. He won't simply be a slot receiver either per OC Kellen Moore.

The third-year breakout for receivers has given way to second-year breakouts. Last year, players like DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, and Diontae Johnson took big steps forward. This year, Lamb is in by far the best offensive situation to take that leap and become a top-10 receiver.


Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons

Ridley led the NFL in Targeted Air Yard share in 2020 at a 39.8% clip. That includes nine games sharing the field with Julio Jones. The result was 90 catches on 143 targets for 1,374 yards, which was fifth overall and fourth among WRs. If Ridley actually sees more action this year, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't be the overall WR1. Of course, I would also make a case for D.K. Metcalf but that'll be saved for another time.

Ridley should rightfully be selected as a top-five receiver yet that isn't happening. Justin Jefferson had an amazing rookie season and A.J. Brown is an exciting player but they each have a high-end WR2 playing alongside them and Ridley doesn't. As great as Kyle Pitts could be, he's a rookie tight end; neither he nor any other receiver on the bird squad will affect Ridley's ascent to dominance. High-end talent combined with league-leading target share equals fantasy must-have.


T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions

It's enticing to secure the tight end position with Travis Kelce but that will cost you a first-round pick in 2021. Darren Waller and George Kittle won't last beyond the third round in most drafts. Taking one of the "big three" at TE forces a compromise elsewhere on your roster. Waiting too long at the position leaves you with the likes of Mike Gesicki, Irv Smith Jr., or someone else bound to disappoint.

What if I told you that you could get a top-three tight end at an ADP of 63 instead?

Hockenson isn't just a talented player at a position bereft of prolific fantasy production. He's the best receiver on his team by a wide margin.

The current crop of Detroit receivers didn't do a whole lot last year:

Player Receptions Yards
Breshad Perriman 30 505
Quintez Cephus 20 349
Tyrell Williams N/A N/A
Amon-Ra St. Brown N/A N/A

This is partly cheating because Williams opted out of the 2020 season and St. Brown is a rookie. We don't rightfully know how St. Brown will adapt to the league but as a fourth-round pick, it's safe to say he isn't expected to be the next Megatron. He makes a nice sleeper late in drafts but that's about it.

Let's explore the career stats for the veteran receivers only instead.

Player Rec/Gm Yds/Gm
Tyrell Williams 2.9 46.1
Breshad Perriman 2 32.8
Quintez Cephus 1.5 26.8

Nearly all of Perriman's production came in a five-game stretch with Tampa Bay two years ago when Mike Evans was out. Otherwise, he's been a first-round bust and journeyman trying to catch on with his fifth team in five years. Williams had some nice seasons but that was a while ago with Philip Rivers slinging him the ball. Cephus barely saw the field as a rookie despite the fact Kenny Golladay missed the majority of the season. There just isn't any threat to Hockenson's target share in this WR corps.

He caught 67 passes for 723 yards in his second season and should take another big step forward. Rather than having to pull the trigger early on Travis Kelce or Darren Waller, wait a few rounds and take someone who could realistically approach their production.


Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles

Most of the arguments for Hurts as a potential league-winner have been covered effectively by Adam Koffler in his latest piece appropriately titled: "Path to QB1: Jalen Hurts." Each of the past few years, a quarterback drafted in the mid-to-late rounds has emerged as the overall QB1 and provided a massive advantage. Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Pat Mahomes... there's a common thread here. Mahomes and Jackson barely played as rookies before breaking out in their second season, Allen did it in his third year.

Now, Hurts takes a four-game resume into his second year surrounded by uncertainty as the team is still rumored to be heavily interested in Deshaun Watson. Assuming some blockbuster deal doesn't go down before Week 1, Hurts will be the signal-caller in Philly and can prove to the team and league as a whole what he is capable of. He's already shown us, though. In his four NFL starts from Week 14-17, he led all QBs with 37.8 fantasy points per game ahead of even Josh Allen (37.7 FPPG). Imagine if Doug Pederson had kept him in the second half of the season finale instead of trying to tank.

There's certainly risk in pinning your fantasy hopes on Hurts, not so much because we aren't sure what he can do but the Eagles don't seem completely sold on him. They chose not to draft a quarterback but are still being heavily linked to Deshaun Watson. It's still a longshot that a deal would get done before the season given the complications of Watson's legal situation but it does instill doubt in Hurts' job security. Would the team pull him in favor of Joe Flacco or Nick Mullens if he struggles in consecutive games? I'd bet against that scenario taking place for more than a quarter or two. More importantly, Hurts showed that he is talented and confident enough to handle a pro offense despite a lack of weapons. Hurts has the upside to be a weekly top-10 QB and then some, making him worth the gamble at an ADP around 80, or QB11.

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