2021 Fantasy Football Rookies: Top 10 First-Year Studs

Michael Fabiano highlights 10 fantasy football rookies for the 2021 NFL season.
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Rookies have become a much bigger part of the fantasy football landscape in recent seasons. In previous seasons, it was first-year running backs who typically made the most significant statistical impacts among rookies. Nowadays, we’ve seen an increase in the number of quarterbacks and wide receivers who have produced right away.

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In 2020, Justin Herbert, Jonathan Taylor, James Robinson and Justin Jefferson finished among the 10 best players at their respective positions based on fantasy points. Other rookies like D’Andre Swift, Antonio Gibson and CeeDee Lamb ranked in the top 20 per position, while players like Chase Claypool, Tee Higgins and J.K. Dobbins also made an impact as the season rolled on. Brandon Aiyuk and Cam Akers were also on this list.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 rookies to target in your 2021 fantasy redrafts. Who knows, some of these first-year players could lead you to a league championship.

Top 10 Fantasy Football Rookies for 2021

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

A three-down back, Harris averaged nearly six yards per attempt in his final collegiate season and put up a ridiculous 26 rushing touchdowns. He also proved he can handle a featured workload, seeing 251 carries and nearly 300 touches. The Steelers do have a lot of questions on their offensive line, but Harris projects to start and could become the next great runner in the Steel City. He could be worth as much as a late first-rounder.

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

The last time we saw Chase on the gridiron, he was putting up 84 catches, 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns at LSU. He accomplished those numbers with Joe Burrow throwing him the football. Guess who’ll be throwing him the rock at the next level? That’s huge, as the two already possess a tremendous rapport that makes Chase the favorite to lead all Bengals wideouts in targets as a rookie. He could push for top 20 numbers in 2021.

Travis Etienne, RB, Jaguars

Fantasy fans loved Harris going to the Steelers, but Etienne's landing in Jacksonville isn’t nearly as appealing. After all, James Robinson came out of nowhere to finish as the RB7 while averaging nearly 18 fantasy points a game in 2020. As a result, Etienne won’t have a clear path to touches as a rookie. In what looks like a potentially confusing backfield committee, I’d draft Etienne as a flex starter and hope he earns a big role.

Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos

The Broncos traded up to land Williams, who figures to be their featured runner of the future. He’s coming off a monster final season with the Tar Heels, producing more than 1,100 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground while averaging more than seven yards per carry. He’ll likely start the season behind Melvin Gordon and will be in a committee as a rookie, but he could push for more work in the second half. Draft him as a flex.

Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons didn’t have a need at tight end, but Pitts is a generational talent at what is a thin position. A wideout in a tight end’s body, he produced more than 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Florida. He might not have elite fantasy value as a rookie (unless the team deals star wide receiver Julio Jones), but regardless, Pitts will remain one of the top eight tight ends to come off the board in most redrafts.

Michael Carter, RB, New York Jets

Carter landed in a great spot from a fantasy perspective, as the Jets don’t have a true featured back with Tevin Coleman, La’Mical Perine and Ty Johnson on the roster. In fact, Carter projects to be the first New York runner to come off the board in redrafts. A versatile back who had 82 catches and just six dropped passes at North Carolina, he projects as a Giovani Bernard or Chase Edmonds type of player at the next level.

Trey Sermon, RB, San Francisco 49ers

Sermon finished last season ranked tied for 10th in broken tackles among runners, and he'll come to the NFL with fresh legs. In three seasons with the Oklahoma Sooners and one with the Buckeyes, Sermon never had more than 164 carries. The Niners will be without Jeff Wilson Jr. for several months, so Sermon will compete with Wayne Gallman for touches behind Raheem Mostert. He’s a potential fantasy sleeper choice in 2021.

Devonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles traded up with the Cowboys (of all teams) to land Smith, who might have gone to the rival Giants otherwise. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner doesn’t have great size, but he was still able to produce big totals during his collegiate career. I think he’ll come right in and start opposite Jalen Reagor, and he’ll be the first Eagles wideout picked in redrafts. He’ll also be a first-round pick in dynasty drafts.

Jaylen Waddle, WR, Dolphins

Waddle reunites with Tua Tagovailoa, his former collegiate quarterback at Alabama, in South Beach. He was a dynamic playmaker with the Crimson Tide, averaging nearly 19 yards per catch while splitting targets with studs like Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith. Waddle might not make a major impact as a rookie with DeVante Parker, Will Fuller and Mike Gesicki all in the mix, but he has late-round appeal.

Rashod Bateman, WR, Ravens

The Ravens run the football a ton, and their wide receivers ranked dead last in routes run and targets a season ago. That’s bad news for Bateman, who lands in a crowded Baltimore pass attack. Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin and Devin Duvernay remain on the roster, and the team also added Sammy Watkins and Tylan Wallace. Oh, and let’s not forget the target machine, Mark Andrews. Bateman is a late-round flier in redrafts.

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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. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!