While plenty of NFL rookies are able to make an instant impact as soon as they enter the league, it sometimes takes a little longer for others to find their footing. Likewise, some players may not be able to maintain that initial level of success they enjoyed. So when it comes to the 2021 draft class, which key players are ready to break out (labeled as “sizzling” below); which could be headed for a bit of a sophomore “slump”; and which should hold “steady” from a fantasy standpoint? Here are some names that stand out in each category.
Rashod Bateman, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Bateman’s opportunity is obvious with Marquise Brown traded to Arizona. Brown’s 146 targets from last season are up for grabs, and even if the Ravens sign another free agent, it’s safe to assume that Bateman will be a big part of the game plan each week.
Travis Etienne Jr., RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Etienne has been somewhat forgotten after missing all of last season with a foot injury. But the things said about him last year, when he was a borderline top-20 running back before he got hurt in the preseason, still apply. And Etienne doesn’t have to worry about former head coach Urban Meyer screwing things up, either.
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Christian Kirk may have been overpaid, but he, along with the addition of tight end Evan Engram and the delayed debut of former Clemson teammate Travis Etienne Jr. (not to mention the coaching changes), should help Lawrence get closer to reaching his immense potential. The Jags are also likely to provide better protection for Lawrence.
Davis Mills, QB, Houston Texans
Mills makes for an intriguing option in two-QB leagues, where he could end up as a top-25 fantasy option. His 66.8 percent completion rate ranked him 15th among qualified passers and second among rookies (behind Mac Jones). Houston also drafted wide receiver John Metchie III to give Mills another weapon.
Elijah Moore, WR, New York Jets
The addition of rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson as well as free-agent tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin should divert some of the defense’s attention away from Moore, who was the team’s top target last year. He is likely to build on last season’s production (43 rec., 538 yds., five TDs) and has the potential to finish as a top-25 option at the position.
Rondale Moore, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Moore’s appeal took a hit when the Cardinals acquired Marquise Brown from Baltimore, but that also could create a buy-low opportunity. Even with Brown on board, DeAndre Hopkins will miss the first six games because of a suspension, and Moore’s other primary competition at the position is 34-year-old A.J. Green. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury has already said that Moore’s role will expand, so his fantasy stock will only continue to rise.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Even if Smith sees fewer targets with A.J. Brown now in the mix, it’s no stretch to assume that the quality of those looks will improve. Smith should see considerably fewer double teams, and Brown’s presence also should help Smith be more of a factor in the red zone.
Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets
Wilson should make a big leap this year. The Jets certainly have bolstered the roster around him both through free agency and the draft, with the crop of newcomers highlighted by first-round pick Garrett Wilson, considered by many the best wide receiver in this year’s draft. With the new weapons, Zach Wilson has no excuses.
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Chase obviously had an amazing rookie season, but that also means he’ll be hard-pressed to top what he did. This is not to say Chase will be a colossal fantasy bust in 2022, but just be sure you’re prepared to pay the cost it will take to get him in a redraft league. And Chase’s monster debut could also open a tempting sell-high window in dynasty formats if there’s another manager enamored with him.
Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears
The Bears didn’t make any splashy moves in free agency or the draft to give Fields more help. He should still take a step forward and could show signs of his immense upside at certain points this season, but compared to the other second-year starting quarterbacks, he’s arguably in the worst situation in 2022.
Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Harris simply wasn’t that efficient last season, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. It was his volume (381 total touches) that allowed him to rack up 1,667 total yards, but he scored on just 2.3 percent of his carries (seven TDs on 307 att.), ranking him 23rd out of 30 RBs with at least 150 attempts. The Steelers will lean heavily on Harris again, but it doesn’t mean his fantasy output will correlate with his workload.
Elijah Mitchell, RB, San Francisco 49ers
It’s not so much that Kyle Shanahan’s RBs don’t succeed. On the contrary, they are often successful — as a whole backfield. But you never know what kind of “Shanahanigans” will occur and what each RB’s status is going to be week to week. As pleasant a surprise as Mitchell was last year, the 49ers used a third-round pick on Tyrion Davis-Price, whose size alone could turn him into a goal-line vulture.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions
It’s not just that the Lions added Jameson Williams through the draft; it’s the timing of last season’s breakout. Tight end T.J. Hockenson went down with a season-ending injury in Week 13. Guess when St. Brown started racking up the numbers? Before Week 13, St. Brown had 352 receiving yards and zero TDs. That means he accrued 61.4 percent of his yards and all of his scores when Hockenson was sidelined. And Detroit also signed DJ Chark in free agency, adding even more competition for targets.
Jaylen Waddle, WR, Miami Dolphins
Waddle is another breakout rookie whose team’s offseason improvements could have a negative impact on his fantasy value. In Waddle’s case, he now has to share targets with Tyreek Hill and find his role in new head coach Mike McDaniel’s offense. This doesn’t mean Waddle will be a waste of a pick, but those expecting him to repeat as a top-20 fantasy WR may be disappointed.
QB, New England Patriots
New wide receivers DeVante Parker (acquired via trade) and Tyquan Thornton (second-round pick) both improve Jones’ receiving corps. But it’s too soon to tell if that means Jones is ready to take another step forward in his production. For one, the Patriots don’t have a designated offensive coordinator on staff, nor a quarterbacks coach, for that matter. It also doesn’t seem likely that Bill Belichick is ready to open the offense up further now that Jones has a year under his belt.
Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo’s status with the team was unclear as of late May, but all signs point to Lance getting more opportunities to show what he can do as the 49ers’ field general. Lance is already being valued as a top-15 fantasy QB even though he has a grand total of two starts under his belt, so there’s no reason to hype him up even further.
Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons drafted Drake London in the first round and traded for Bryan Edwards in mid-May, but those moves shouldn’t change Pitts’ status in any way, shape or form. The bigger question is how he’ll fare without Matt Ryan as his quarterback. But as long as he stays healthy, Pitts should put up similar if not better numbers, especially if he catches more than one touchdown pass.
Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos
After totaling more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage with seven touchdowns as a rookie, Williams was seemingly positioned for bigger numbers in 2022 — until the Broncos re-signed Melvin Gordon III in late April. Williams should finish with more carries after the two split evenly last season, but Gordon’s presence alone could prevent Williams from taking a bigger step forward. Consider him a status quo option with upside.
– Written by Mark Strausberg for Athlon Sports' 2022 Fantasy Football Guide.