Fantasy Football draft prep 2021: 12 bounceback candidates to target in your drafts

by Ryan

The human interest story is easy to root for. Watching a player come back to form after a down year earns everyone’s appreciation, even those people who don’t specifically have a rooting interest in Fantasy. 

But it wouldn’t hurt if we did have a specific rooting interest in Fantasy, would it?

Every Fantasy manager is on a mission to find great bargains on Draft Day. Sometimes those bargains are found in players who broke hearts the year prior. If you think back to the summer of 2020, you were probably hesitant to draft Aaron Rodgers, Adam Thielen, Will Fuller and David Montgomery. All four were bounce-back superstars who helped hoist league titles. Tom Brady, Kareem Hunt and Robby Anderson also qualified as Fantasy winners on the rebound. 

We want more of those. 

This is a category where age seems to matter at positions other than quarterback. Usually, the younger a player is, the more likely he has it inside him to rediscover his old form. Thielen, who was 30 last season, was the only non-quarterback bounce-back player from 2020 who was over the age of 27. 

Here’s what it will take for last season’s disappointments to become this season’s heroes.

Age as of Week 1: 26

What went wrong in 2020: The Cowboys offense took on too many injuries (Dak Prescott, four-fifths of the starting offensive line) and Elliott himself became victim to a bad case of fumblitis. He averaged 106.7 total yards per game with Prescott and 79.0 total yards per game without. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: Prescott’s return is obviously important, but it’s not everything — if the big men up front go down again, the offense will struggle. Superstar left tackle Tyron Smith, 30, has missed at least three games in each of his past five seasons; stud right guard Zack Martin, 30, missed six games last season; and right tackle La’el Collins, 28, didn’t play at all in 2020. Finally, Elliott must rediscover some of his explosiveness to help keep the heavy workload he started out with last year and not fall into a timeshare with third-year rusher Tony Pollard.

Odds of a bounce-back to a top-12 running back: 70%. Despite last year’s shortcomings, Elliott actually did finish as the ninth-best running back in total points scored, but 16th in PPR points per game. That said, there’s still room for improvement assuming he’s given the same opportunities as in the past.

Fantasy draft value: Because he’s still very much a 1,500-total-yard, 10-plus touchdown candidate, Elliott will get picked between fifth and 10th overall in every league. 

Age as of Week 1: 22

What went wrong in 2020: After a training camp full of hype, the Chiefs coaching staff lost faith in Edwards-Helaire. He averaged over 21 touches per game in September, under 18 touches per game in October and exactly 11 touches per game in November. The team signed Le’Veon Bell and gave work to him and Darrel Williams. Edwards-Helaire was an afterthought near the goal line and struggled along with the rest of the Chiefs offense once the O-line took on too many injuries. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: The offensive line is in good shape, so Edwards-Helaire needs more catches and more touchdowns. That’ll be tough to accomplish in an offense that revolves around Patrick Mahomes. Consider this: From three yards or closer to the goal line last year, Edwards-Helaire had six carries and one catch while Mahomes had 10 pass attempts, eight passing scores and two touchdown runs. A bigger stake in the passing game isn’t a certainty given the status of Williams and Jerick McKinnon on the Chiefs depth chart. 

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 running back: 55%. Simply put, Edwards-Helaire must be better in all facets of the game, including pass blocking and creating yards. If there’s evidence of this before the preseason ends, he’ll become a very sought-after Fantasy option. Short of that, he’ll be more of a useful No. 2 Fantasy rusher. 

Fantasy draft value: People who drafted Edwards-Helaire last year will hesitate to do so again, but risk-takers who see a good running back in a great offense won’t. He’ll get chosen as a No. 2 option between 20th and 28th overall. 

Age as of Week 1: 24

What went wrong in 2020: The wheels came off the Eagles offense. Injuries sent the O-line into a tailspin, which turned the passing game into a mess. As a result, the run game struggled. Sanders averaged 16.0 touches per game and was efficient with them (5.3 yards per carry, 7.0 yards per catch) but missed four games due to hamstring and knee injuries. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: The offensive line is healthy and even added talent in the draft, and the threat of Jalen Hurts as a rushing quarterback should ultimately help Sanders’ efficiency. Sanders played at least 70% of the Eagles’ offensive snaps in 8 of 12 games last year — he has to maintain that workload again this year, which isn’t promised, and he needs to lock up more carries near the goal line after getting just three in 2020 and nine through two seasons.  

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 running back: 45%. The Eagles held on to Boston Scott, re-signed Jordan Howard, added Kerryon Johnson and drafted Kenneth Gainwell. Any of those guys could take meaningful opportunities away from Sanders, especially in the pass game. Hurts’ rushing prowess also will swipe valuable carries. Sanders still profiles as the Eagles’ lead running back, but his high-value touches are in jeopardy.

Fantasy draft value: Bank on Sanders getting drafted steadily pick between 20th and 30th overall. Competition for touches is a problem, but at the very least he’s still a young running back who has good explosiveness and power, not to mention a better supporting cast than what he had on the field last season.  

Age as of Week 1: 33

What went wrong in 2020: Top receiver Kenny Golladay played just five games, and Stafford threw 528 times, the lowest output in a 16-game season of his career. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: The Rams have to let Stafford chuck it as much as he used to in Detroit. No one’s expecting Stafford to struggle, but the Rams have an excellent defense and a quality young running back. Those elements could make it harder on Stafford to attempt north of 33 passes per game, which was his average in 2020 … and his lowest mark in a decade. 

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 quarterback: 40%. It could take a few games for Stafford to get comfortable, especially since the early-season schedule is tough, but given the receivers at his disposal and the Rams’ desire to throw the ball downfield more effectively, he’s got a shot. 

Fantasy draft value: Look for him with a late pick, well past when Justin Herbert and Russell Wilson get chosen. One idea is to pair him with a quarterback who has an easy early-season schedule, that way you won’t feel pressure to use Stafford during his tough September. 

Age as of Week 1: 28

What went wrong in 2020: After averaging a touchdown every 8.4 catches over 2018 and 2019, Kupp scored once every 30.7 grabs in 2020. It also didn’t help that his receiving average was a career-worst 10.6 yards. Quarterback Jared Goff became a much more timid passer, and the Rams run game showed signs of life by the end of the year, taking scoring opportunities away. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: Kupp’s role in the slot is stable, but he needs to have more chances further downfield and re-emerge as a touchdown magnet. The longer completions have a good shot of happening now that Stafford is under center. Stafford has thrown at least 30% of his passing touchdowns to slot targets since 2017.

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 wide receiver: 35%. Kupp finished 11th among receivers in targets per game in 2020 (8.3), firm evidence that he remains a big part of the Rams passing game. That area of the offense is rejuvenated and won’t be compromised unless Cam Akers plays like Marshall Faulk. Still, Kupp will have a hard time cracking the top 12 unless his touchdown production rebounds considerably. A top-20 finish is more likely. 

Fantasy draft value: Early Round 5 is the right time to pounce on Kupp, especially in PPR leagues. 

Age as of Week 1: 36

What went wrong in 2020: The same thing that’s gone wrong for Ryan in all but a handful of his seasons: not enough touchdowns! He led the league in pass attempts and completions, and finished fourth in passing, so it’s not for a lack of trying. Ryan had less than two touchdowns in half of his games. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: It’s a pretty safe bet that new coach and offensive play-caller Arthur Smith will find ways to help Ryan score touchdowns — just consider what he did for Ryan Tannehill for two years. The trick is to do it with a receiving corps whose best option had offseason foot surgery and second-best option is a rookie tight end. Atlanta’s offensive line also has to block better than expected.  

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 quarterback: 30%. Look, Ryan threw like crazy last season and still didn’t finish in the top 12 in overall points or in points per game. To compete with the growing number of quarterbacks who run, he’ll need another MVP-type of season similar to what we got in 2016, the likes of which he’s come close to matching once in the past four years.

Fantasy draft value: Ryan will settle into No. 2 quarterback territory. That’s phenomenal in Superflex and two-QB formats but less appealing if you start only one passer each week. There will be better late-round sleeper quarterbacks than Ryan. 

Age as of Week 1: 24

What went wrong in 2020: Smith-Schuster collected a career-high in touchdowns and a second-best number of receptions, but his receiving average cratered to 8.6 yards and his yards per target collapsed to 6.5 yards. He effectively became an extension of the Steelers’ run game by compiling catches close to the line of scrimmage. Only six of his 97 receptions were deep passes good for 20-plus yards. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: Smith-Schuster needs more variety in his game — more downfield targets, more work lined up wide, more yards after catch — while maintaining the incredible target volume and touchdown numbers from 2020. With young receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool improving and rookie running back Najee Harris set to resuscitate Pittsburgh’s run game, it’s going to be a massive challenge for Smith-Schuster to repeat. 

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 wide receiver: 25%. This doesn’t mean Smith-Schuster won’t be a helpful Fantasy receiver, but he ranked 24th in average PPR points per game last year even with 97 catches and nine touchdowns. If those numbers drop, he’ll need incredible efficiency through the air to even have a chance to match his 14 PPR points per game. It seems tough to believe in, even with the Steelers offense morphing into a more disruptive unit.

Fantasy draft value: Someone will take the chance on him after 50th overall in PPR. Expect him to slide to after 60th overall in half- and non-PPR formats. Also expect Smith-Schuster to be the third Steelers receiver taken on Draft Day. 

Age as of Week 1: 24

What went wrong in 2020: Believe it or not, Chark was on pace for numbers close to 2019 before Mike Glennon took over the Jaguars passing game. With Glennon, Chark had a miserable 41.2% catch rate and his numbers tumbled. Chark also missed three games in 2020 due to minor injuries. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: So much already has. The Jaguars improved their quarterback situation by drafting rookie phenom Trevor Lawrence, and Chark has put on 10 pounds of muscle this offseason at the request of coach Urban Meyer. Chark figures to be a key part of Jacksonville’s offense this year, which is set to look a lot different from last year. 

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 wide receiver: 25%. Chark has rated highly as a deep-ball receiver in each of the past two seasons and can continue to make contributions on short and intermediate throws. But because there are more targets in Jacksonville and a more spread-out approach to the passing game, Chark’s chances of seeing a massive target share are dim. A top-24 finish is more likely. 

Fantasy draft value: Chark looks like a bargain since he can be selected as a No. 3 receiver, especially for those folks who choose to wait on drafting the position. A good projected schedule helps. Chark should get snagged by Round 6. 

Age as of Week 1: 22

What went wrong in 2020: Talk about a let-down debut — Jeudy had a dozen drops, 3.3 receptions per game and zero red-zone catches. To be fair, he also saw a catchable target on 58.1% of throws sent his way, second-worst among all receivers with 100-plus targets. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: Jeudy must aim for the same kind of target volume he had as a rookie (113) even with star receiver Courtland Sutton coming back from injury. He also needs his quarterback(s) to be more accurate, and more red-zone targets would be nice. 

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 wide receiver: 25%. Jeudy’s route-running skills and slippery nature will give him a chance to be great for Fantasy. Hopefully an offseason of focusing on his hands and being in the right place at the right time on the field could keep his drops to a minimum. But he still has to vie for targets on a team that should have an improved defense and a deeper rushing attack. You’re better off hoping for Jeudy to make it into the top 24 among receivers by the end of the year. 

Fantasy draft value: Aggressive drafters will go after the second-year wideout by the end of Round 7. If you see him sitting there after that, he’s a bargain. 

Age as of Week 1: 28

What went wrong in 2020: Everything. Again. After posting career-lows in catch rate, receptions per game and yards per game in 2019, Beckham bottomed out and set new worsts in each category in 2020. That was before he tore his ACL in Week 7. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: The seemingly insurmountable combination of staying completely healthy and being on the same page as Baker Mayfield is in front of Beckham. The two have rarely connected for big games (six out of 23 with at least 80 yards), in part because Beckham’s body hasn’t been right, and in part because Mayfield has thrown more efficiently with Beckham sidelined. 

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 wide receiver: 15%. It hasn’t happened since 2016, so it’s probably safe to say it won’t happen here. Besides, the Browns made a playoff run last year not only by running the ball exceptionally well but without Beckham as a major contributor! 

Fantasy draft value: What’s left of Beckham’s notoriety will carry him into No. 3 receiver territory on Draft Day. If someone takes him before Round 7 ends, they’re probably doing you a favor. 

Age as of Week 1: 28

What went wrong in 2020: Visions of his impressive finish to 2019 faded fast; outside of a three-score eruption at Philadelphia in Week 2, Higbee had three weeks with at least nine PPR points — and nine with seven or fewer. His passing game role didn’t expand at all and his target share dipped. 

What’s gotta go right in 2021: Matthew Stafford has to fall in love with him. In Detroit, Stafford did target his tight ends on 21.6% of his throws in 2019 and 2020. And in current-day L.A., Higbee figures to dominate playing time for the Rams at tight end. There’s a chance Higbee is at least more efficient on the same kind of target volume, and perhaps he sees a few more red-zone looks. 

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 tight end: 15%. Expecting Higbee to turn into George Kittle is far-fetched, but a modest season with six or seven touchdowns could slide him into the top 12. It can happen with Stafford’s aggressive passing nature. 

Fantasy draft value: Higbee’s a late-round flier you may not feel comfortable starting in Week 1 against the Bears, nor in Weeks 2 and 3 against the Colts and Buccaneers. The better move might be waiting until after these games to procure Higbee and see what happens. 

Age as of Week 1: 27

What went wrong in 2020: In the season when he finally played 16 games, Engram totaled only two touchdowns, set a career-low with 10.4 yards per catch, and posted second-worst career numbers in drops (eight) and catch rate (57.8%).

What’s gotta go right in 2021: The Giants rebuilt their passing game by adding big-bodied receiver Kenny Golladay, shifty rookie Kadarius Toney and veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph in free agency. Think those additions say anything about how the coaching staff feels about Engram?! His chances of being impactful in Fantasy might be better if he were on a different team. 

Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 tight end: 10%. You have to assume Engram’s target share and playing time are going to slide as long as Golladay and Rudolph stay healthy. That means the contract-year tight end has to play mistake-free and become more efficient than he’s ever been if he’s going to find his way to, say, 600 yards and five touchdowns. 

Fantasy draft value: Unless his competition for playing time and targets changes dramatically, he’s not worth much more than a bench spot, if that. Engram will get taken with a late-round pick by Fantasy managers who recognize his name.

So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen’s huge season, and find out.

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