Starting 2021 Fantasy Football projections in February can feel a little silly, even in a normal year. With trade rumors swirling around Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson, and with a free agent class that includes Aaron Jones, Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin, and Allen Robinson, it feels more than a little silly heading into the 2021 offseason. While it may be somewhat silly, diving into projections now also provides value. This initial run of projections will look very little like the finished product in early September, but there are a few surprising truths that stuck out anyway. Here are five early observations from the first run of my 2021 projections.
1. Mahomes to break the mold?
Patrick Mahomes has averaged 3.8 more Fantasy points per game than any other active quarterback since the start of 2018. My initial projections for Mahomes have him at 4,900 yards and 40 touchdowns. If that's not ridiculous enough, he's projected to outscore every other quarterback by 50 Fantasy points. Projections, by their very nature, are not supposed to produce these kinds of outliers. But it's exactly the kind of outlier Mahomes has been.
His 16-game pace over the past three seasons is for 4,931 yards and 41 touchdowns. In any given year there may be another quarterback who pops up and outscores Mahomes, but two of the past three years he's been better than 29 Fantasy points per game and no one else is going to get close to that kind of expectation. The one year Mahomes wasn't elite (he was still very good) he played with a banged-up Tyreek Hill half the year and left one game due to an injury after 11 attempts.
The real shocker is what this type of projection means for Mahomes' draft value. Every year we tell you not to draft a quarterback in the first two rounds. I cannot make that recommendation currently. Value Based Drafting (VBD) is a popular formula to use in determining when and where players should be drafted across positions. It helps tell you how many running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends are worth more than the No. 1 quarterback as well.
There are many different baselines you can use to determine value; average starter, worst starter, average bench player, or, as the linked article suggests, the number of players at each position selected in the top 100. Each of those baselines suggests Mahomes should be drafted in the top 18 picks. Half of them would peg Mahomes as a borderline first-round pick.
I haven't decided exactly where I'll rank Mahomes in my initial 2021 rankings, but unless something significant changes, he will be inside of my top 24.
2. Falcons passing game is on notice
Matt Ryan has averaged 617 pass attempts per year over the past three season. The Titans averaged 466 under Arthur Smith in Tennessee. It's had to imagine a bigger juxtaposition than the offense Ryan has run the past three seasons versus what Smith called in Tennessee. As a rule, I'll trust playcaller/coach tendencies over what the team has done in the past. If that plays out in Atlanta it's bad news for Ryan, and it's not great for Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley either.
The most obvious thing to point out is that the Falcons don't have Derrick Henry. It's unlikely Arthur Smith would feed Ito Smith and/or Qadree Ollison with the same enthusiasm he fed Henry. But the free agent running back class includes guys like Jones, Chris Carson and James Conner and there's no shortage of talented backs in this draft class either. It seems unlikely the Falcons would use the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on a running back, but pick 35 could be the perfect spot to land a difference maker.
If the Falcons make running back a big priority, then my initial projection of 516 pass attempts for them will stay close to where it is. That keeps Ryan out of the top 18 quarterbacks and keeps Ridley and Jones outside of the top 10 wide receivers. That's because at their target rate (23%) a drop of 100 pass attempts for the offense would cost them 23 targets, which is more than 40 Fantasy points at their career efficiency. The biggest loser could be Hayden Hurst, who would be a distant third in the pecking order and was a borderline starter even with a high volume pass attack.
To be clear, my initial projection could be too low. Maybe we'll hear more out of Atlanta that makes us feel better about the pass volume. Maybe they won't make running back much of a priority in free agency or the draft. Until then, I'll be out on the Falcons passing game at their expected cost.
Quarterbacks are on the move this offseason and the projections have shifted. We've learned a lot from quarterback stat projections over the last several seasons and Chris Towers broke down the key takeaways you can use to improve your fantasy football game in 2021.
3. What Stafford's arrival means for Rams WRs
Cooper Kupp averaged more targets, catches, and yards per game than Robert Woods in 2020. Upgrading from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford should make both of the Rams wide receivers better but I think it's important to rectify the perception that Woods had a great year and Kupp was a bust. The truth is, Woods got into the end zone more than Kupp, which is not something anyone should have seen coming.
In his first three years in Los Angeles, Woods had a 3.7% touchdown rate, which is very low for a wide receiver. Last year, that number improved to 4.7%, a more normal rate. Kupp had a 7.4% touchdown rate from 2017-2019, which plummeted to 2.4% last year. For 2021, I have both Kupp and Woods projected for 130 targets, but Kupp is projected for one more score.
Of course, touchdowns aren't the sole reason Woods outperformed Kupp last year. Woods scored 27.5 Fantasy points in the running game. That's not something I generally want to count on for wide outs, but it was Woods' third straight season with at least 115 rushing yards. Kupp has never had more than 33 yards on the ground. For that reason, Woods is still projected for more Fantasy points in the first run of the 2021 projections, but the gap is much smaller than it was in 2020.
4. Johnson could continue to be a sneaky value
David Johnson was a top-15 PPR back on a per-game basis in 2020. I don't really know what to make of Johnson's season at all, other than the fact that he was a very good No. 2 fantasy running back when he was on the field. His 4.7 yards per carry was a career-high and he continued to be well above-average in the passing game, averaging 9.5 yards per reception. He only had one game below 10 PPR Fantasy points and he topped 19 Fantasy points in a third of his games.
Could the Texans tank their 2021 season by trading Watson? Absolutely. Could they cut Johnson to save salary cap? Yep. Could he fall apart in his age 29 season? Of course.
With all of those concerns duly noted, Johnson came in at No. 19 in the initial projections. My presumption is that will be considerably higher than where he is drafted. If the Texans keep Johnson and find a way to mend things with Watson, Johnson will be one of my exceptions in the dreaded running back dead zone.
5. What to make of the Panthers WRs
Curtis Samuel (14.14), D.J. Moore (14.1), and Robby Anderson (14.01) were basically identical on a per game basis last year in PPR. Like the blurb above, I have mixed feelings on this one. For one thing, Curtis Samuel is a free agent. For another, it sure sounds like the Panthers would prefer to upgrade at quarterback. And the Panthers will hopefully have Christian McCaffrey for 16 games in 2021. But there are a couple of takeaways.
First, Joe Brady's offense really emphasized the "spread" in the spread offense. Anderson, Moore, Samuel, and McCaffrey all averaged between 6.3 and 8.5 targets per game. Mike Davis saw at least five targets in nine of his 15 games. Four different Panthers topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
Second, much like Kupp, I would expect Anderson to be a value on draft day because of his poor touchdown luck in 2020. Anderson owned a 5.2% career touchdown rate heading into 2020, then he scored three times on 136 targets (2.2%). While some of that is a change in his role, I project Anderson for more scores in 2021 (and a top-25 finish in both formats).