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When to Ignore Your 2021 Fantasy Football Rankings

By Matt Schauf 11:07am EDT 7/15/21

Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley?

Keenan Allen or Michael Thomas?

Marvin Jones or Elijah Moore?

We put a lot of time into projecting all these guys, and the primary goal is to answer questions just like these. But the answers can change as you get deeper into your draft.

Zeke vs. Barkley is a clear Round 1 decision. And you can find our clear answer in the RB rankings.

Allen vs. Thomas might be a little trickier, especially without knowing for sure who will be throwing passes to Thomas. But you can also find our preference for that call in the WR rankings.

But Jones vs. Moore (or countless other similar later-draft decisions)? Well …

What are you looking for from this player?
What else do you already have rostered?
Have you already drafted any Jaguars or Jets?
What’s the latest word on Moore’s expected role?

And beyond all that … is WR even the pick here?

You get it. Projections tell most of the story for your early-draft turns. But the further you get into building your roster, the more there is to consider. And the biggest of those considerations is upside.

When you’re picking out your 5th WR, would you rather get the guy we project for 10 more points over the course of the season? Or would you rather stash the guy with the higher ceiling?

Well, we project that, too. And we have a pumped up Draft War Room set to debut within the next few weeks that will highlight that area even more as you get into the later rounds. (Get ready for “Upside Mode.”)

In the meantime, I’ve gone through each position to set relative levels for when your draft approach should change.

QB: Beyond the Top 7

QB scoring is either coming off a banner year or has simply changed with the proliferation of dual-threat QBs.

Patrick Mahomes posted the 12th most fantasy points ever for a QB last season. It was good for just 5th at the position in 2020. A record 6 QBs topped 400 points in our base scoring system.

We’ll see whether the whole group is just in for some 2021 regression, but don’t expect too much of a fall. More NFL teams now have a QB who is also capable of beating you with his legs. Lamar Jackson ran for 1,005 yards and 7 TDs last year, and he still ranked just 10th in points per game.

Fantasy drafters have also gotten sharper. It took the market a while to realize just how much upside resides in a running QB -- even 1 that doesn’t pass particularly well. But no more.

So “wait on a QB” might not carry quite the upside it once did. You can still hold off and pair value QBs later in your draft. But if you want the type of dual-threat, vaulted-ceiling QB you can start weekly in spite of matchups, you’ll need to pay for him.

This year, Justin Herbert appears to end that top shelf of passers. You’ll find larger scoring gaps within the top 7 of our QB rankings than you will between #7 Herbert and #8 Tom Brady. But Brady will need to approach 50 TD passes to qualify as a season-long ceiling option. (Like Aaron Rodgers and his 48 TDs last year.)

You’ll probably find your Draft Sharks board recommending a QB inside that range at some points. Of course, you’re still welcome to wait and then take shots on upside players such as Jalen Hurts, Ryan Tannehill and rookies Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence.

If you do jump on a top-7 QB, then you can often feel free to skip drafting a 2nd QB. If you do select a backup, keep an eye on bye weeks and how schedules align.

RB: Depends on how you start

On the PPR side, our projections present 3 gaps of 15+ points between adjacent players. They are …

Christian McCaffrey (1) to Dalvin Cook (2): 78 points
Cook to Ezekiel Elliott (3): 23 points
Chris Carson (17) to J.K. Dobbins (18): 25 points

Those first 2 gaps are why you should consider McCaffrey such a no-brainer at #1, and why Cook has become my no-brainer at #2. The 3rd gets a little more complicated …

The projections certainly indicate a tier break. But how much the rankings matter beyond that point can depend on what kind of roster you’re trying to build.

Did you already draft 2 -- or even 3 -- RBs before we get to Carson? If so, you can feel free to wait a while before adding to your backfield.

Did you skip on RBs through the first few rounds? Then you might want to key in on the next group. Miles Sanders, Josh Jacobs, Travis Etienne and David Montgomery all sit pretty closely together. And we’ve seen ADPs slide recently on the 3 veterans in that group. (Mike Davis looms just behind them as well … but there’s some disagreement among the DS staff on how good a target he actually is.)

Once you look beyond that range, we have lots of backfields with depth charts yet to shake out. Can Trey Sermon lead Niners RBs right away? Will Myles Gaskin and David Johnson hold on to last year’s workload gaps? How will Tampa Bay split touches after Leonard Fournette’s strong playoffs? How will Denver split touches after moving up for Javonte Williams? Can anyone besides Josh Allen be a RB1 in Buffalo?

We’ve certainly addressed all of those questions in our projections. But we’ll all learn more throughout training camp and the preseason. And in many cases, that learning will continue into the regular season.

Whether you’re targeting someone with a clearer role (such as Damien Harris) or ultimate ceiling will depend at least somewhat on the foundation you laid. And as you move to the later rounds, buying on uncertainty can deliver upside even on players that don’t excite you.

No one was actually excited about James Robinson last August. The few who landed him simply guessed right in the uncertain Jaguars backfield -- and got rewarded big time.

In non-PPR scoring, we find fewer significant gaps between players. That’s no shock, given the lower scores overall without reception scoring. Here are the breaks of 10+ points between adjacent players:

McCaffrey (1) to Cook (2): 38 points
Cook to Henry (3): 14 points
Aaron Jones (10) to Joe Mixon (11): 12 points
David Montgomery (21) to Mike Davis (22): 10 points
Travis Etienne (23) to Myles Gaskin (24): 11 points
David Johnson (32) to Melvin Gordon (33): 10 points

Gaskin and #25 Leonard Fournette sit tied in total non-PPR points in our projections. But that looks like a turning point in role certainty. We don’t know that Miami will continue to deploy him the same way it did last year. But we do know that Gaskin got 54% of carries and 18.5% of targets when he took the field. Fournette totaled 37.1% rushing share and 10.2% target share, even if you include the playoffs.

There’s plenty more uncertainty, varied player types and potential upside beyond that point. But which players you should target will depend on more than just how we rank them.

WR: After you have 4

You want to chase upside at this position throughout your draft. But taking chances and having your roster survive landmines gets a lot easier if you’ve laid the proper base.

On the PPR side, Mike Williams and Michael Gallup sit 43rd and 44th (respectively) in our WR rankings. It’d be nice to secure your top 4 WRs within that range.

Will Fuller sits close behind them and jumps up in points per game. But he also joins a new team, which adds uncertainty vs. Williams and Gallup in known situations.

Beyond that range lie questions such as who leads the WR corps in targets for the Jets, Lions, Ravens and Patriots -- among others. You’ll find rookies that you may decide to take a chance on or avoid. You’ll have another chance to decide whether Mecole Hardman is ready to break out.

Whether you decide to bet on that or not shouldn’t simply rely on how we rank him vs. Jalen Reagor and Darnell Mooney.

The approach is similar in a non-PPR format, but you should worry even less about who is “safe” in this format. Taking reception scoring out of the equation makes basically no one safe.

You’ll still want to open your draft with the position’s top bets for targets, because those are things we can project. The yards and TDs are more likely to come to those guys getting chances.

TE: After Tyler Higbee

Drafters are treating this position as though there’s a clear top shelf, and that’s how our projections lay it out as well.

If you want to nitpick, it’s probably actually 2 shelves: Travis Kelce, then Darren Waller and George Kittle. And then a gap before the rest of the position.

That doesn’t mean you need to prioritize a top-3 TE, of course. We’ve laid out upside cases for T.J. Hockenson. Even though his TE4 ADP would seem to be near his ceiling, he’s often a couple of rounds behind the position’s top 3. That balances out the value.

Mark Andrews and Kyle Pitts sit near Hockenson in our rankings, across formats. And the upside cases are fairly obvious for them as well.

Then come Dallas Goedert, Noah Fant and Tyler Higbee. And that’s where we believe things change.

Goedert has the upside to lead all Eagles in targets. Fant could be the most reliable target for a QB who ranks perennially among the league’s lowest in average depth of target, if Teddy Bridgewater wins the job. And he already finished top 11 last year with a poor-playing Drew Lock and a bum ankle. Higbee … we all saw the ultimate ceiling 2 years ago. So we know it’s there -- even if we don’t ever get to see it again.

Then comes Mike Gesicki, who delivered wild scoring swings last season and then watched his team add Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller. Behind that sit a number of split situations, young unproven guys and regression candidates.

We’d recommend trying to secure a top-9 TE. If you want to shoot for upside beyond that, you’ll find many different flavors to choose from.

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