As the 2021 NFL season comes to an end, I wanted to make a run through the top 12 fantasy players for next year’s draft season. Many teams will change head coaches, multiple veteran quarterbacks may find a new home in 2022 and free agency could change the outlook for some players. But here’s an early look at how the first round of a 12-team draft might look:
1. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts
The next impact running back has arrived in Indy. Taylor finished with 2,171 combined yards with 20 touchdowns and 40 catches. He gained an impressive 5.5 yards per rush and 9.0 yards per catch while averaging 21.9 touches per game. Over his first three games, Taylor only had 50 touches, leading to 241 yards with no scores and eight catches. He looked poised to score over 400 fantasy points in PPR leagues with a few more receptions. Indianapolis has a top offensive line and their running backs gained 2,994 yards with 23 touchdowns and 782 catches.
2. Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
Over the past two seasons, Adams caught 238 of his 318 targets for 2,927 yards and 29 touchdowns over 30 games (23.49 FPPG in PPR leagues). He has 69 scores over his last 87 starts. However, Adams does have 10 missed games over the past six years. He caught 52 passes for 634 yards and eight scores over six games from Weeks 11-17. If Aaron Rodgers doesn’t return to Green Bay, Adams takes a significant hit in his fantasy value.
3. Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
When the dust settles after 2021, Kupp will have the best wide receiver season in NFL history. He finished with 145 catches for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns on 191 targets (440 fantasy points – 25.88 per game). Only three quarterbacks (Josh Allen – 464.65, Justin Herbert – 447 and Tom Brady – 443) scored more fantasy points. Kupp had a floor of 92 yards in 16 of his 17 starts. He had seven or more catches in 15 matchups. The change to Matthew Stafford at quarterback led to his production improving by close to 50% from his previous best year (94/1,161/10 in 2019).
4. Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
Compared to the top two running backs expected to be drafted in 2022, Ekeler had a much shorter opportunity in the run game (12.9 carries per week). However, he made up for this weakness by scoring 20 touchdowns. In addition, Ekeler remains active in the passing offense (70/647/8), leading to 1,558 combined yards. He finished second in running back scoring (346.80) in PPR leagues while missing one game due to a battle with COVID-19. The Chargers will rotate in another back next season, limiting Ekeler’s ceiling. Los Angeles has a rising young quarterback, pointing to an explosive offense again in 2022.
5. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
After two straight injury-plagued seasons, many fantasy owners will avoid McCaffrey. In 2018 and 2019, he gained 4,357 combined yards with 32 touchdowns and 223 catches over 32 starts, which breaks down to an incredible 27.33 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues. McCaffrey played in 10 games over the next two years, leading to 1,159 yards with eight scores and 54 catches (21.79 FPPG). He has yet to have a knee injury while missing time due to a high right ankle sprain (2020), shoulder issue (AC Joint – 2020), thigh (2020), hamstring (2021) and left ankle (2021). When he is on the field, McCaffrey has been one of the best players in the game, and he will start 2022 at age 26.
The running back position is full of question marks next year. In each 12-team fantasy league, there are 11 other managers that didn’t go through the McCaffrey experience last season. In addition, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Ezekiel Elliot have lost their luster while posting down seasons. A fantasy manager will have to pin a tail on a running back at some point. McCaffrey is a rare “do it all guy” with that go-big-or-go-home feel. With no injury news over the summer and an expected upgrade at quarterback in Carolina, he should work his way back to a top-five selection in 2022.
6. Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Despite the Steelers struggling to run block for most of 2021 (fewer than 4.0 yards per carry) and a subpar season by Ben Roethlisberger (6.1 yards per pass attempt), Harris finished as the third-highest scoring running back (300.7 fantasy points) in PPR leagues. He gained 1,667 combined yards with 10 touchdowns and 74 catches while averaging almost 22.4 touches. Pittsburgh had him on the field for 85.6% of its plays over the first 16 games. However, the Steelers will have a change at quarterback in 2022, and they also need to address their weakness on the offensive line. Harris has an elite opportunity, but he gained only 3.9 yards per rush and 6.3 yards per catch.
7. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Jefferson caught 108 passes for 1,616 yards in his sophomore season, with 10 touchdowns on 167 targets. He finished fourth in wide receiver scoring (332.55 fantasy points) while gaining over 100 yards in seven matchups (9/118/1, 7/124, 9/143, 11/182/1, 8/116, 5/107/1). Over his first 33 games, Jefferson averaged 18.17 fantasy points (19.56 in 2021). His stock should continue to rise, making him a top-tier receiving option in 2022.
8. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
After eight games (219/937/10 with 18 catches for 154 yards), Henry was on pace for 2,318 combined yards with 21 touchdowns and 38 catches – good for 395.8 fantasy points (23.28 per game) had he not missed the rest of the regular season with a broken foot. The Titans' running backs finished the season with 2,766 combined yards with 18 touchdowns and 82 catches. Tennessee gave Henry an incredible 29.6 touches per game this season, but he did have regression in his yards per rush (4.3 – 5.1 in 2019 and 5.4 in 2020). Nevertheless, Henry remains a beast, and he’ll command plenty of attention in the 2022 draft season.
9. Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Anyone watching football this year witnessed an electric season by Samuel. He dominated in four (9/189/1, 8/156/2, 7/100/1, 6/171) of his first seven games via the pass. In Week 10, the 49ers turned to him as a complementary running back due to injuries. Samuel gained 343 yards with seven touchdowns on 53 carries over his final eight games. Over this span, he continued to make big plays in the passing game (28/523/2 – 18.7 yards per catch), but San Francisco only looked his way five times a game. As a result, Samuel finished third in wide receiver scoring (341.2 fantasy points) in PPR leagues. His explosiveness is exceptional, and the 49ers will ride him as a dual-threat again next season.
10. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Despite setting career-highs in catches (111) and targets (159), Hill posted multiple empty games (3/14, 2/22, 2/19, 1/2). In addition, the Chiefs struggled to make big plays, leading to him gaining a career-low 11.2 yards per catch. A good portion of his scoring came in six matchups (11/197/1, 11/186/3, 9/76/1, 12/94/1, 7/83/2, 12/148/1). Kansas City gave him double-digit targets in nine of his starts. Patrick Mahomes remains a top quarterback, giving Hill a high ceiling if the Chiefs regain their deep passing game.
11. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Chase set the NFL rookie record for receiving yards (1,455 – 1,429 after 16 games) while securing 81 passes and 13 touchdowns. His catch rate (63.2) came in at a respectable level when adding in that he gained 18.0 yards per catch. However, Chase did leave some starts on the table based on his 11 drops. He finished the year with three impact games (6/159/1, 8/201/1, 11/266/3) while gaining over 100 yards in three other matchups (5/101/1, 7/125, 9/116). Despite his success, Chase averaged only 7.3 targets over his first 14 games, lower than the best receivers in the game (Cooper Kupp – 11.2, Davante Adams – 10.6 and Justin Jefferson – 9.8). Chase finished the season ranked fifth in fantasy points (332.55) in PPR formats but 17th in targets (128). He plays in a rising offense, but Chase needs their head coach to push the throttle in the passing game. At pick 11, he would still be a value to me.
12. Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens
There is probably a case for multiple running backs and wide receivers with the 12th selection in drafts, but one of those players could be had by the same manager with the next choice. Andrews was one of nine skill players (joining three running backs and five wide receivers) to score over 300 fantasy points last year in PPR leagues. He set career-highs in catches (107), receiving yards (1,361), touchdowns (9) and targets (153 – eight wideout had more chances). His rise to fantasy stardom came over his final five games (11/115/1, 10/136/2, 8/125/2, 6/89, 8/85) when Lamar Jackson was on the sidelines with an injury for all but nine snaps. In addition, Baltimore had players go down in their secondary, forcing the Ravens to attempt more passing plays in the second half. As a result, Andrews finished with over a 90-point edge over the third-ranked tight end (141.00 fantasy points over the 12th ranked tight end). Baltimore has the look of a running team, but Marquise Brown (91 – 12th at WR) and Andrews (first at TE) had top-tier opportunities in 2021. Drafting Andrews is all about gaining an edge in fantasy points at a position.
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