2021 NFL Draft: Fantasy Rookie Report - Wide Receivers

Senior fantasy analyst Michael Fabiano breaks down the incoming rookie receivers on-field & fantasy potential
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Fabiano's Fantasy Rookie Reports
QUARTERBACKS | RUNNING BACKS | WIDE RECEIVERS | TIGHT ENDS


There was a time when rookie wide receivers didn’t make much of an impact in the world of fantasy football. Even some of the eventual greatest players at the position, including Jerry Rice, Antonio Brown, Isaac Bruce, and Calvin Johnson (to name just a few), failed to produce huge numbers during their first NFL seasons.

However, things have certainly changed over time as changes to NFL rules and more pro-style college offenses have made rookie wideouts more attractive from a fantasy standpoint. During the Super Bowl era (1966-present), six of the top 10 best seasons from first-year receivers based on fantasy points have come since 2003.

Since 2000, we’ve seen 21 different rookie wideouts produce at least 200 fantasy points in a single season. That includes three players (Odell Beckham Jr – 2014, Justin Jefferson – 2020, Michael Thomas – 2016) who all rank in the top four at the position who have started their professional careers in the last seven seasons.

Jefferson broke the rookie record for receiving yards by a wideout and finished sixth in fantasy points at the position this past season. We also saw other first-year receivers like CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Chase Claypool, and Brandon Aiyuk all make some noise in the stat sheets. The 2021 class is very deep, and there are plenty of players with upside. So, for those fans looking to get a head start on doing their due diligence at the position, here’s my look at the top wide receivers for 2021.

Note: Age listed is at the start of the 2021 NFL season.

LSU football Ja'Marr Chase Justin Jefferson

Ja'Marr Chase, LSU

  • 21 years old, 6-foot-0, 208 pounds

2019 Stats: (14 games) 84 receptions, 1,780 yards, 21.2 YPC, 20 touchdowns

Chase opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but his 2019 campaign was next-level impressive in the stat sheets. He produced 84 catches, 20 of which he took to the end zone. He also ranked seventh among wide receivers in yards after catch and broke more tackles (23) than any other player at his position.

Chase was so good in 2019 that he actually still led the nation with the most 20+ yard touchdown catches over the last two seasons. And again, he didn’t play a single snap in 2020. The former Biletnikoff Award winner has the skills to thrive at the next level, including quickness, playmaking ability, route running, and strong hands to win 50/50 balls and contested catches. He’s the complete package and a locked-in top-10 pick.

Possible destinations: Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles

devonta smith

Devonta Smith, Alabama

  • 22 years old, 6-foot-1, 175 pounds

2020 Stats: (13 games) 117 receptions, 1,856 yards, 15.9 YPC, 23 touchdowns

Smith was the best wide receiver in the collegiate ranks this past season. He led the position in catches with 117 (no other wideout had more than 86), his 1,856 yards were 663 more yards than the second-best total, and his 23 touchdowns were also tops in the nation. Smith was also number one in terms of yards after catch (952).

Smith has all the tools to thrive in the pros. He’s a fluid route runner, he has great hands and body control, and his quickness makes him a tough cover. Smith is also versatile, playing on both the inside and outside. He has good but not elite speed, and Smith might need to add some weight in the pros. Still, Smith is one of the best playmakers in the 2021 class, and he’s a virtual lock to be a top-15 overall pick.

Possible destinations: Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles

jaylen-waddle-alabama

Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

  • 22 years old, 5-foot-10, 182 pounds

2020 Stats: (6 games) 28 receptions, 591 yards, 21.1 YPC, 4 touchdowns

Waddle played in only four games this past season after suffering a right ankle break that required a surgical procedure to repair. He did make a return for the National Championship Game, finishing with three catches for 34 yards. The numbers didn’t pop off the page, but it showed he’ll be fine for the start of the 2021 NFL season.

Waddle’s career totals at Alabama weren't at Chase or Devonta Smith's level, but he played behind and with guys like Smith, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs III. He’s always been an electric playmaker, whether lined out wide or in the slot, and he can make an impact on special teams. His former college teammate, current Cowboys DB Trevon Diggs, compared Waddle to Tavon Austin in terms of his talent and skill set.

Possible destinations: Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Football Team

rashod-bateman-minnesota-gophers

Rashod Bateman, Minnesota

  • 21 years old, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds

2020 Stats: (5 games) 36 receptions, 472 yards, 13.1 YPC, 2 touchdowns

Bateman initially opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he returned when the Big Ten decided to bring back football. He played in just five games, finishing with 472 yards and two touchdowns. His 2019 campaign, when he put up 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns, was far more impressive.

The 2021 class of wide receivers is a very deep one, so Bateman might have been ranked higher if the list of playmakers at the position wasn't so long. During his best season, 2019, Bateman led the nation in yards per route run and was 13th in yards after first contact. He can play on the outside or inside, and he’s certainly among the bigger wideouts in this relatively "smaller" draft class. Bateman could be a first-rounder.

Possible destinations: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Football Team

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LSU WR Terrace Marshall Jr.

Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU

  • 21 years old, 6-foot-3, 200 pounds

2020 Stats: (7 games) 48 receptions, 731 yards, 15.2 YPC, 10 touchdowns

Marshall wasn’t able to showcase his skills for much of his collegiate career, as he played alongside Justin Jefferson and Chase. But with that duo no longer in the mix, Marshall proved his stock last season. Before opting out, he averaged over 100 yards a game and scored double-digit touchdowns as the Tigers' top wideout.

At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Marshall is one of the bigger receivers in a class loaded with smaller, dynamic players. He can line up both on the inside and outside. Marshall does have to grow his route tree, but he has proven to be a playmaker with good speed for a player of his size. Marshall, who comes from a long line of stud wide receivers out of LSU in the last decade, could sneak into the first round of the NFL draft.

Possible destinations: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Football Team

Ole Miss Elijah Moore

Elijah Moore, Mississippi

  • 21 years old, 5-foot-9, 185 pounds

2020 Stats: (8 games) 86 receptions, 1,193 yards, 13.9 YPC, 8 touchdowns

Moore is coming off an impressive 2020 campaign where he produced huge totals despite playing in just eight games before opting out to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. His 86 catches and 1,193 receiving yards ranked second in the nation among wide receivers, behind only Devonta Smith (who played in five more games).

Moore ran the vast majority of his routes at Ole Miss out of the slot, and he has the tools to come right in and start at that spot in the NFL. Despite his lack of size, Moore still broke 31 tackles on 153 receptions in his final two collegiate seasons. Per Pro Football Focus, he also made 22 catches on 39 contested targets in his career. Some draft analysts have compared him to former fantasy star Steve Smith.

Possible destinations: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Football Team

Florida Gators Kadarius Toney

Kadarius Toney, Florida

  • 22 years old, 6-foot-0, 193 pounds

2020 Stats: (11 games) 70 receptions, 984 yards, 14.1 YPC, 10 touchdowns

Toney produced career-best totals during the 2020 season, recording nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdown catches as the Gators’ main slot receiver. He also saw some burn as a runner, carrying the football 19 times for 161 yards and one score. Toney’s 70 catches tied for the seventh-most in the nation among wide receivers.

A former high school quarterback who also ran track, Toney has a chance to be a dynamic athlete at the next level. Not only can he be an NFL team's top slot man, but he can also be used on jet sweeps, seam routes, and in other offensive trickery. He’s drawn comparisons to Tyreek Hill due to his versatile skill set, and Toney himself has said that he models his game after fantasy superstar Alvin Kamara.

Possible destinations: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Football Team

Purdue Boilermakers Rondale Moore

Rondale Moore, Purdue

  • 21 years old, 5-foot-9, 180 pounds

2020 Stats: (3 games) 35 receptions, 270 yards, 7.7 YPC, 0 touchdowns

Moore is considered a wild card at the wide receiver position. He played in just seven games over his final two seasons with the Boilermakers due to injuries. His most productive college season came in 2018 when he produced 114 catches, 1,258 yards, and 12 touchdowns while also rushing 21 times for 213 yards.

His 114 catches that year led the nation, and Moore accomplished that feat as a true freshman. He was also 11th in receiving yards, first in yards after the catch, and first in yards after contact among wide receivers. If he can avoid injuries, Moore could be a gamechanger at the next level. However, that's a big if, and his lack of size and stature could keep Moore from being picked in the first two days of the NFL draft.

Possible destinations: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Football Team

Oklahoma State Cowboys Tylan Wallace

Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State

  • 22 years old, 6-foot-0, 190 pounds

2020 Stats: (10 games) 59 receptions, 922 yards, 15.6 YPC, 6 touchdowns

Wallace had a very productive career with the Cowboys, totaling 205 catches, 3,434 yards, and 26 touchdowns while averaging nearly 17 yards per catch in 37 games. His 102.4 yards per game average this past season was good for 15th among wide receivers. He’s mostly liked to be used as an outside receiver at the next level.

Wallace possesses strong hands, which was evident in his 44 contested catches in his collegiate career per Pro Football Focus. He has tremendous ball skills and was often featured on screens at OSU to showcase his skills in the open field. If Wallace lacks in one area, it’s in his route tree. The Cowboys Air Raid offense didn’t require much route running versatility, so Wallace will have to work on that aspect of his game.

Possible destinations: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Football Team

Louisville Cardinals Tutu Atwell

Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell, Louisville

  • 21 years old, 5-foot-9, 165 pounds

2020 Stats: (9 games) 46 receptions, 625 yards, 13.6 YPC, 7 touchdowns

Atwell is undersized at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, but that didn’t stop him from putting up 115 catches, nearly 1,900 yards, and 18 touchdowns. In his breakout season of 2019, he had 13 targets that came 20-plus yards downfield when he was “open” per Pro Football Focus. That means he can separate with his ridiculous level of speed.

That’s probably Atwell's greatest asset: speed. Lining out in the slot most of the time in college, he’ll be a threat to score anytime he touches the football in off-man coverage. Whether or not he can produce against press coverage at the NFL level at barely over 150 pounds is a big question mark. Still, Atwell is a dynamic playmaker who can bring a different dimension to any offense. He’ll be a Day 2 or 3 pick in the NFL draft.

Possible destinations: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Football Team

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for all of the latest breaking fantasy football news and the best analysis in the business!

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