The 2021 NFL fantasy football season is upon us. The next step is the grind of weekly decisions and finding potential help on the waiver wire. Unfortunately, fantasy football has a wide range of formats, league sizes, and free-agent processes, making it challenging to offer a one-stop, fix-all article.
The first step in building a winning team is understanding the current structure of your roster. The football season is a sprint that is loaded with injuries and changing opportunities from week to week. It is also critical to understand that points win leagues—not the best players—because what happened the previous season won’t be repeatable this year.
Here are a couple of thoughts before winding through the potential Week 1 pickups for anyone who drafted over the past two months:
We never want to put the best player in the free-agent pool for next week. This theory sounds pretty straightforward, but it happens way more than it should, and we are all guilty of this mistake.
In many cases in football, it comes from releasing a backup running back to cover an injury or bye week. Inevitably, the lead back on the released running back’s team gets hurt, inflating the price point to reacquire a dumped player.
Each week the waiver wire will have different opportunities. At times, the player pool looks barren, but somehow more players emerge the following week. In these situations, it is essential not to overspend due to a lack of inventory.
I play in all non-trading leagues, so my only option to have a better team is to draft well while keeping a close eye on the waiver wire. This season, I saw many drafters build a deep bench at wide receiver while leaving their rosters thin at running back. These teams will need to launch some good wideouts into the free-agent pool if they have injuries at running back or need more backs to start in bye weeks.
For anyone playing in short roster leagues (12 teams with 16 players) with free agent bidding, evaluating the comparable options on the waiver wire should keep your bidding down. Many times, there are multiple wide receivers with similar starting jobs. You may identify one player as impactful, but other fantasy owners may not have the same view. Past league history in bidding should help put players in a range of free-agent dollars spent. Also, understanding who you believe is sharp in your league for pickups should give some insight into the prices for the most talented players.
When I manage my football teams, I will never run out of free-agent dollars. If I pin myself in a corner by making a significant bid, I leave three moves a week for my team. If there are five weeks left to acquire players, I want to leave myself $15 in free-agent spending.
Free Agent Bidding
For this article, I'll use $100 of free agency spending to determine expected prices. There are three levels of bidding (must-have, market value, and token bid) when bidding on players, with the top two having a wide range of outcomes.
Seventy-five percent of the time, the most expensive players acquired in the free-agent pool are backup running backs either released by another franchise or backs who suddenly have a starting job due to an injury. With a full free agent bankroll, these types of players will cost between 40 and 60 percent of your budget.
There isn’t enough talent in the waiver pool to support the free agent budgets, leading to most teams spending later in the year for lesser talented options. Each owner should have one big move a year, and the strength of your roster will determine when to fire your best shot.
In most cases, the big push running backs don’t live up to expectations. I prefer to spend between 16 and 25 percent on backup running backs with talent released by another owner. Many of these types of players hit the waiver wire during bye weeks.
Understanding the market value of each player at different positions comes from experience, but it doesn’t always carry over to every format.
For example, in a 12-team league with a 20-man roster, an emerging wide receiver without a high-profile name may have a market value of $89. Yet, that same player would draw minimal interest in short roster formats. Once you determine a player's market value, you can decide if you have enough free-agent dollars to push for that player (bid over his expected price).
In many weeks, there are a couple of unexpected “hot players.” Either game flow led to them receiving a better than expected opportunity, or there was an injury. Understanding their role as far as snap count is key to not overpaying for last week’s stats.
A token bid can have a wide range of values. If a must-have player presents itself, your team may not need that player, but you want to keep the league honest by at least taking a shot on him. Other times, you don’t have the budget to make a full-court press. The goal is to place a bid while hoping your league mates are sleeping at the wheel.
Often, a token bid will win a player for fewer than 20 percent of his market value.
Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers
Most fantasy owners will wheel out their star quarterback in Week 1 after committing a high draft selection. For a team looking to micromanage the quarterback position out of the gate, Darnold has an excellent matchup against his former team. Carolina has the best pass-catching back in the league, plus three talented wideouts.
I cheated the quarterback position in one league (Trey Lance, Tua Tagovailoa, and Ben Roethlisberger). I can’t trust Lance out of the gate if he plays, and the other matchups don’t look favorable on the road. So with my final selection on draft day, I added Darnold to start this week.
If I want to start him this week, my bid would be between $2 ($100 budget) and $15 ($1,000 budget).
Mac Jones, New England Patriots
In short roster formats, it would be challenging to carry two quarterbacks over the first five weeks (no byes). Therefore, I would consider the waiver wire an extension of my bench and look a week ahead to add potential starters when my top players are off.
Jones fits into the buy-and-hold category as a QB3 in leagues with 20-man rosters. Ideally, he would develop into a backup fantasy quarterback with matchup value. The Patriots have a favorable schedule for their offense, but Jones still has to prove his worth on the field.
Also, as the season moves through the bye weeks, I may try to roster three quarterbacks to protect the position from a COVID scratch on Sunday.
Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints
Entering Week 1, Winston doesn’t look viable as a hold on 12-team rosters. The key to his success and upside is the health and return of Michael Thomas. Unfortunately, at this point of the season, the Saints haven’t given us enough information about the progress of his recovery. Nevertheless, I respect New Orleans’ coaching staff enough to put a $1 if I need an upside QB2 later in the season.
Sony Michel, Los Angeles Rams
For anyone who drafted before August 25th, Michel may have slipped through the cracks in their league. He instantly moves to RB2 for the Rams with a reasonable chance to steal the early-down job. Over his first two years with the Patriots, Michel gained 1,987 combined yards with 13 touchdowns and 19 catches over 29 games (10.20 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues). With repeated success, he would fall into the RB3 range with more upside if Michel outplays Darrell Henderson. My range for his bidding is between 18 and 23 percent, depending on your team's need at running back.
Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots
Stevenson fills the void in the Patriots’ offense after New England shipped Sony Michel to the Rams. The change at quarterback to Mac Jones shifts rushing attempts and potential scoring chances to their running backs. Stevenson flashed in the preseason (30/217/5), highlighted by a 91-yard scoring run against Washington. The Patriots should use him at the goal line and in short-yardage situations. His opportunity won’t match Michel early in the year, but I would invest the same amount of free-agent dollars if my team needs depth at running back. If I owned Damien Harris, I would want to buy his handcuff.
Wayne Gallman, Atlanta Falcons
The jump from the 49ers to the Falcons gives Gallman RB2 status in Atlanta’s backfield. Last year he ran the ball well (147/682/6 – 4.6 yards per rush) as the replacement for Saquan Barkley. However, in his career, Gallman offers a low ceiling in the passing game (80/498/2 – 6.2 yards per catch), which almost matches Mike Davis (6.4 yards per catch). My target number for him is five to seven percent of my free agent budget.
Quintez Cephus, Detroit Lions
The Lions cleared a window for Quintez Cephus to be fantasy relevant after releasing Breshad Perriman. He caught 20 of his 35 targets for 349 yards and two scores while working as a big-play threat in his rookie season. Cephus doesn’t have a great matchup in Week 1, but Detroit doesn’t have strength at wide receiver on their roster. He has no value on short roster teams while being only a $1 flier in deeper formats.
Chris Conley, Houston Texans
I can’t promote playing Conley in Week 1 with Tyrod Taylor starting at quarterback for the Texans with a good conscience. In 2019, he offered bench value (47/775/5) for the Jaguars while expecting to be the WR2 in Week 1 for the Texans. Conley fits as a bye-week cover if he can maintain his ranking in Houston's wide receiver rotation. At best, a one-dollar swing in deep leagues.
Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills
In short roster formats, Davis may have made his way to the waiver wire after the drafts. His ceiling looks extremely high, while his competition for targets is aging (Cole Beasley – 32 and Emmanuel Sanders – 34). In my final projections, Davis ranks 43rd in PPR scoring. In 2020, Buffalo gave him the second-most snaps at wideouts. I would want to roster him before Sunday’s game with a seven to eight percent investment of my free agent budget.
David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
After a successful sophomore campaign with the Browns (56/639/4), Njoku fell off the fantasy map. He missed almost all of 2019 with an injury while struggling to get on the field last season (19/213/2). Harrison Bryant looks to be challenging for the TE2 spot on the depth chart. The best path for Njoku to see a bump in chances and playing time would be via a trade. For now, he is a player to keep an eye on if such a trade presents itself.
Senior analyst Shawn Childs is a multi-sport, high-stakes fantasy legend with lifetime earnings in the high six-figures. He has been providing in-depth, analytical break downs for years all while helping his subscribers to countless titles and winnings across season-long & DFS. An inaugural inductee of the NFBC Hall of Fame, Shawn can teach you how to prep like a champ!