The excitement of the 2021 fantasy football season comes with renewed enthusiasm for an incoming slew of rookies who can provide immediate impacts for their new teams. Whether you play in redraft, dynasty, or keeper leagues, rookies represent the hope of finding fresh playmakers who can provide major statistical boosts. The most-hyped rookies (Najee Harris, Ja’Marr Chase, Kyle Pitts) will cost you a high draft pick, but many come at a lower-tier discount and qualify as “deep sleepers,” “handcuffs,” or “lottery tickets.” You have little to lose by drafting one.
Some fantasy football owners get obsessed with drafting and adding rookies because they love upside; others like to avoid rookie running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks altogether because they represent unknown quantities, instead preferring to stack rosters with “tried-and-true” veterans.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2021 Cheat Sheet
There’s no right answer on how many rookies you should target, as the depth of the rookie talent pool varies across offensive skill positions in a given year. However, there’s no doubt the 2021 class is loaded.
Based on their current post-draft situations but also factoring in short-term fantasy potential and long-term value, here’s ranking the top 30 rookies for half-point PPR formats.
Fantasy Football Rookie Rankings 2021: Draft ’em
1. Najee Harris, RB, Steelers
Mike Tomlin doesn’t like committees. Pittsburgh had seen enough of James Conner’s diminishing durability and patchwork backfields post Le’Veon Bell. Harris was worth Pittsburgh’s first-round pick because of his ability to carry the load and take pressure off fading Ben Roethlisberger. Harris has the strength to finish plenty of drives as a power runner and offers well-rounded skills for the passing game. He will start and see feature-like touches. Draft him as a late RB1.
2. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals
Joe Burrow loved throwing to Chase in college and will love it again in Cincinnati. Chase comes from the same explosive LSU offense that produced 2020 rookie fantasy stud Justin Jefferson and is the better all-around receiver. Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are good complementary targets, but Chase profiles like a dominant No. 1, a big reason why the Bengals took him early vs. upgrading pass protection for Burrow. There will be a ton more passing volume, shown by Higgins and Boyd being viable WR3s last year. That bodes well for Chase following Jefferson’s immediate production in Minnesota. Draft him as a late WR2.
3. Kyle Pitts, TE, Falcons
Rookie tight ends are typically afterthoughts in fantasy football, as even the most talented need a year before breaking out. Pitts is a different beast. He also steps into a spectacular situation where he will be playing off wide receiver Calvin Ridley and helping to compensate for the lost targets of wide receiver Julio Jones. Pitts will be a juicy second passing option for Matt Ryan, racking up intermediate catches with some Travis Kelce-like big-play burst. He also should remain a red-zone force like he was at Florida. Because of no Jones and still having Hayden Hurst, new offensive-minded coach Arthur Smith will call more of his typical heavy 12 personnel usage (two tight ends) vs. deploying three wideouts, further helping Pitts’ cause for big production. Draft him as a TE1.
4. Travis Etienne, RB, Jaguars
Etienne enters a crowded backfield with last year’s undrafted rookie stud James Robinson and well-traveled backup Carlos Hyde. But with a big mindset change for the Urban Meyer era, Jacksonville should lean toward giving Etienne key touches in an Alvin Kamara-like change-of-pace, receiving-leaning role. Etienne’s first-round selection and experience catching passes and getting handoffs from Trevor Lawrence can’t be forgotten. Given what Robinson did on a bad team, even a 15-touch Etienne would have great appeal with his needed supporting role for Lawrence. The Jaguars should give Robinson and Etienne plenty of chances as they lean run-heavy with Meyer and new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell after being the league’s most frequent passing team in 2021. Draft him as an RB3.
5. Javonte Williams, RB, Broncos
The Broncos traded up in the second round of the real draft to get Williams, which is a bad sign for Melvin Gordon holding down the primary role with Phillip Lindsay gone. Williams is more of a pure power back than Najee Harris and needs work to be trusted in the passing game, but he can get there in a hurry. Williams has a good chance to take over the early-down and red-zone work sooner rather than later, with Gordon falling into more of a complementary passing-down role because of his experience as a protector and receiver. Draft him as an RB3.
6. Michael Carter, RB, Jets
The Jets were smart to draft a running back, and the explosive Carter has a great opportunity to see a big role for Mike LaFleur given the other options are Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson and La’Mical Perine. Carter’s speed and burst are a great fit for the zone-blocking scheme, so watch for him to take off now that he is seeing significant reps in camp, just like his former North Carolina teammate Williams. Draft him as an early RB4.
7. Trey Sermon, RB, 49ers
Sermon got into the Day 2 draft conversation with his strong finish to the season with Ohio State. Kyle Shanahan likes to have multiple styles of backs available for the zone-blocking scheme. Anyone who gets the touches for the 49ers has proved to be productive. Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. got their turns last year, but each had trouble staying healthy. If Sermon gets his chances to show he’s a better big-back fit in San Francisco than Tevin Coleman was, he should be set up to become a massive steal in the middle rounds. Draft him as a late RB4.
8. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jaguars
Lawrence will take some lumps given Jacksonville’s transition with offensive scheming and overall coaching. That said, he can easily emerge as a blend of last season’s Burrow and Justin Herbert to have surprising starting relevance. The arm talent and the athleticism add up to a natural bump from Gardner Minshew.. Bevell’s commitment to the run will facilitate taking shots downfield. The primary weapons, including wide receivers DJ Chark, Laviska Shenault, Marvin Jones, and Etienne also will provide sources of production. Draft him as a QB2.
9. Trey Lance, QB, 49ers
Lance would be a higher upside fantasy stash if there was a better indication of him starting over Jimmy Garoppolo early in the season. For now, even with the building camp hype that Shanahan might be leaning more toward deploying the 21-year-old right away, let’s cool the jets (a little) on this smart passer with a massive ceiling. He also has a high floor because of dynamic running. San Francisco would have the protection and weaponry to support Lance in a potential O-ROY campaign if Shanahan gives him a chance to be the main man somewhat early in the season. Don’t be surprised if Lance’s stock continues to rise. He has “league winner” written all over him. Draft him as a QB2.
10. DeVonta Smith, WR, Eagles
Smith has stepped into a diverse receiving crowd in camp with 2020 first-rounder Jalen Reagor, Greg Ward, Travis Fulgham, John Hightower, Quez Watkins, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, while Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz remain the 1-2 punch at tight end. But like Chase with Burrow and Jaylen Waddle with Tua Tagovailoa, Smith has the unique early advantage of chemistry with QB Jalen Hurts. Plus, he’s an exceptional route-runner with great hands who toggles between elite possession man and home-run hitter. Smith, when he can come back from his minor knee injury (MCL) causing him to miss key camp time, projects as the outside X opposite the speedy Z in Reagor. Draft him as a WR4.
11. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Dolphins
Miami has shaken up its wide receiver corps well to support DeVante Parker and displace Preston Williams, taking a flier on speedy Will Fuller and drafting Waddle in the real first round. There’s no doubt, between Fuller’s outside speed when healthy (and not suspended, like he is for Week 1) and Waddle’s Tyreek Hill-like quickness for the slot, the Dolphins did it to try to take the reins off Tua Tagovailoa and generate a more big pass plays. Waddle should show plenty of flash in camp helped by his Alabama throwback chemistry with Tagovailoa. It’s also difficult to rely on Fuller being available opposite Parker. Waddle has the all-around talent to emerge as the 1B option. Draft him as a WR4.
12. Rashod Bateman, WR, Ravens
The Ravens don’t really have the true to-go guy at wideout for Lamar Jackson despite Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s big-play flair. That prompted them to use another first-rounder on Bateman, who profiles as a steadier route-runner with the strong frame and hands to be more consistent all over the field, including the red zone. The Ravens also drafted Tylan Wallace and signed Sammy Watkins to go along with a few more younger receivers for a limited-volume passing game under Greg Roman. While Watkins has stood out in camp reuniting with Roman, Brown is dealing with a hamstring injury, creating more ambiguity regarding Bateman’s role. His value for now is a bit capped by the other options and run-first offense. Draft him as a WR6.
13. Justin Fields, QB, Bears
Andy Dalton might remain QB1 in Matt Nagy’s eyes, but after Fields has impressed the coach so much in camp, it would be surprising if the real high first-rounder isn’t starting at some point relatively early this season. Fields has the baseline of rushing production to like in a rookie fantasy QB. He also inherits an offense with strong skill support, including David Montgomery, Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney, and Cole Kmet. The Bears also invested to improve the offensive line and slot receiver. Heck, if Mitchell Trubisky can bring some streaming value like he did in the second half of last season, Fields has the higher floor and much higher ceiling. Draft him as a QB3.
14. Elijah Moore, WR, Jets
There’s only certainty in the Jets’ wide receiver corps for rookie Zach Wilson. Former Titan Corey Davis will be the unquestioned outside No. 1, but the other two key roles, opposite him and in the slot, are in flux. Second-year man Denzel Mims is a misfit for LaFleur’s offense and has been quickly displaced by underrated former Jaguar Keelan Cole in camp. That leaves Jamison Crowder trying to hold on to his busy slot job vs. the second-rounder Moore. Moore has had a good first camp, with the key being his fellow rookie chemistry with Wilson. Crowder doesn’t offer the same quickness and explosiveness inside and took a hit with the QB change from Sam Darnold. Moore is fast-tracking toward starting with Davis and Cole in 11 personnel. Draft him as a WR6.
15. Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Eagles
The Eagles were intent on grabbing a plug-and-play backup for Miles Sanders and settled on the undervalued Gainwell. He has a good shot to displace Boston Scott and Kerryon Johnson in camp as the true No. 2 and preferred handcuff. Gainwell’s explosive skillset is most interchangeable with Sanders, and new offensive-minded coach Nick Sirianni should soon see he doesn’t have the various limitations Scott and Johnson do in their games. Beyond the fun last name made to put up good fantasy stats, don’t sleep on Gainwell having a key complementary role. Draft him as an RB5.
Fantasy Football Rookie Rankings 2021: Watch ’em
16. Zach Wilson, QB, Jets
Wilson, like Lawrence, is guaranteed to have a starting job. He also steps into a terrific offensive system with much-improved offensive line, running back, wide receiver, and tight end situations. Robert Saleh’s defense will spring some holes at first, leading to some garbage-time passing volume for Wilson. He also can pad some of his numbers with a little running. He can emerge as a much better deep-league fantasy option with more help (see Davis, Cole, Moore and Crowder) and talent than Darnold.
17. Rondale Moore, WR, Cardinals
This Moore is also an explosive undersized athlete and big play waiting to happen. The problem, even with Larry Fitzgerald slow-riding into retirement, is this team also has DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, A.J. Green, and Andy Isabella at wide receiver. It will be difficult for Moore to stand out with his short stature, but watch out if Arizona works in his speed and quickness more at the expense of both Kirk and Isabella. The gadget nature of Moore’s game may not be put on display enough to have immediate fantasy relevance.
18. Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Lions
The Lions have tried to piece together a viable veteran wide receiver group for Jared Goff minus Jones, Kenny Gollday and Danny Amendola. St. Brown was their only drafted wideout, and coming out of the same program as JuJu Smith-Schuster, he can turn into a key slot target for Detroit’s new QB. For now, Breshad Perriman is tabbed to start outside as the X, while Tyrell Williams, who played for Anthony Lynn with the Chargers, is the front-running Z. Quintez Cephus looms as a perimeter threat behind them. That leaves St. Brown well positioned to take the inside job with former Titan Kalif Raymond as his best competition.
19. Chuba Hubbard, RB, Panthers
After losing Mike Davis in free agency, Carolina had to draft a new viable backup for Christian McCaffrey to clean up some committee options. Hubbard flashed big production at Oklahoma State and is an easy bet to displace Rodney Smith and Reggie Bonafon as the preferred handcuff in camp.
20. Nico Collins, WR, Texans
Collins’ role may be bigger than anticipated after he was drafted to give Houston much-needed size and great catch radius. He must navigate through a crowd and has an uncertain QB situation with the cloud hanging over Deshaun Watson. But after Brandin Cooks, the WR pecking order is in total flux. Anthony Miller, replacing Randall Cobb, became the slot favorite right before camp and pushed Keke Coutee and Chris Conley down the depth chart. Collins has the size (6-4) and skill set to best complement the diminutive dashing Cooks outside.
21. Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, Panthers
Marshall ended up in a curious spot because his size/speed profile from LSU suggested he will be an option to replace free agent-to-be Robby Anderson outside in 2022. But the Panthers, knowing Anderson and D.J. Moore are dedicated perimeter wide receivers, are showcasing the second-rounder as a big slot in camp after much smaller Curtis Samuel left a void inside. With the Panthers using frequent 11 personnel, that should get Marshall on the field often with Darnold. He is headed to becoming the team’s fourth-busiest target after Christian McCaffrey, Anderson and More.
22. Javian Hawkins, RB, Falcons
Speaking of Davis, the Falcons didn’t draft a back behind him, but don’t sleep on the fact they signed Hawkins as an undrafted free agent. Cordarrelle Patterson isn’t a real backup, and the only other viable option in camp is holdover Qadree Ollison, the default No. 2. Hawkins, based on talent, should have been a Day 3 pick from Louisville. He belongs on the watchlist for Smith’s run-friendly offense, given Davis is a journeyman backup who has yet to carry a feature-like load over a full season in any of his previous four NFL stops. Watch Hawkins as an emerging handcuff.
23. Kadarius Toney, WR, Giants
The Giants took Toney after losing out on DeVonta Smith. It wasn’t the best place for him in fantasy. Kenny Golladay is the new No. 1, Darius Slayton has some chemistry with Daniel Jones as an outside deep threat, and Sterling Shepard can settle back into a busy slot role with Golden Tate gone. There’s also Evan Engram, Kyle Rudolph and Saquon Barkley to catch a lot of passes. Unless there’s a chance for Toney, a nice-sized, big-play slot, to get into 11 personnel, this blurb is the most rookie attention he will get
24. Rhamondre Stevenson, RB, Patriots
The Patriots like to have a pure power back of Stevenson’s ilk as part of their committee. This Oklahoma smasher has a chance to carve out a key role to complement Damien Harris and James White. You can’t trust early-down types in New England in general, but you also can’t totally ignore them, especially if Stevenson displaces oft-injured Sony Michel in the mix to help Cam Newton with scoring punch.
25. Amari Rodgers, WR, Packers
The Packers have big plans for this other Rodgers with Aaron Rodgers at some point, but it just got more difficult for Amari to get into a key role behind Davante Adams with Randall Cobb also joining Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard ahead of him. Because of that, Rodgers has less chance of a dedicated slot role, instead contributing at first as a short area change-of-pace option with his quickness.
26. Josh Palmer, WR, Chargers
The Chargers look like they might have a steal of a versatile route-runner to put in three-receiver sets often with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Palmer has used his size and technical skills well in camp to become a promising big slot option, compensating for what he lacks in top-end speed and explosiveness. Palmer has a good chance to jump Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson as the preferred third wideout for Justin Herbert in the new offense.
27. Dyami Brown, WR, Washington
Terry McLaurin has some big changes around him as Washington tries to make its passing game more dangerous for Scott Turner with new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Curtis Samuel was signed to be the No. 2 outside, with Adam Humphries carrying over his dedicated slot role from the Titans. But there’s an opening for the speedy and explosive Brown, given Humphries is more pedestrian and Samuel proved he had plenty of juice inside. Brown has turned heads with his big-play prowess in camp, giving him some classic “Z” deep-ball intrigue knowing what McLaurin can do as the “X”.
28. D’Wayne Eskridge, WR, Seahawks
The Seahawks are looking to diversify their passing game for Russell Wilson and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, formerly of the Rams. DK Metcalf is still the classic size-speed No. 1 for the outside, while Tyler Lockett does well to toggle from slot to perimeter. Eskridge, a second-rounder, offers some of that same alignment versatility with a frame and quickness also similar to Lockett’s. Unfortunately, Eskridge has been slowed down by an early toe injury in camp which might keep him behind Freddie Swain for a little while. Undrafted third-year man Penny Hart also can gain ground in Eskridge’s absence.
29. Pat Freiermuth, TE, Steelers
The Steelers added Freiermuth, the well-rounded blocker and receiver, to replace Vance McDonald as more of a inline option to pair with receiving-focused Eric Ebron. Freiermuth’s biggest rookie value might be helping Najee Harris in the running game. Beyond Ebron, Pittsburgh has few vacated targets, as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool remain the wideout centerpieces for returning Roethlisberger, while Harris also will get considerable backfield catches. That said, Freiermuth hasn’t wasted time tapping into some of his high upside in camp and might be given enough opportunities to emerge at Ebron’s expense.
30. Mac Jones, QB, Patriots
Jones won’t be starting over Cam Newton. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are reluctant to trust the first-round rookie with the reins of the complex offense. Newton is better suited for their run-heavy ways that will feature a lot of 12 personnel, starring marquee new tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. At some point, given Newton’s age and wear and the potential for New England to fade quickly from playoff contention, Jones is bound to get in there to get some regular live action before Year 2, but he doesn’t offer the same initial passing or running appeal as the other four QBs above.