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The Next Fantasy Freak?

By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.

The start of the 2021 NFL regular season is still some 80 days away, but it’s never too early to talk Fantasy Football. And while rookies rarely make an immediate Fantasy impact, on occasion they do. And that can make the difference between winning and losing. In 2007, my first year playing Fantasy Football, I drafted a rookie RB named Adrian Peterson in the sixth or seventh round. Peterson wound up giving me more than 1,500 total yards, 11 TDs and the league title.

Which rookies will be worth drafting in 2021? Here are my top seven picks, along with ESPN’s latest Fantasy projections. (Note: My order of picks don’t necessarily correlate with ESPN’s projected stats):

1. NAJEE HARRIS, RB, PITTSBURGH STEELERS. The next Le’Veon Bell? Possibly, and hopefully with a better attitude. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn’t afraid of giving his featured back a heavy workload, and Harris will likely get lots of touches right out of the gate. By comparison, Bell averaged 24.9 touches per game as a Steeler from 2013 to 2017. Harris is big (6’2, 230), strong and remarkably elusive, and has great hands. Admittedly, Pittsburgh’s o-line last season wasn’t very good, but is expected to improve in 2021. ESPN FANTASY PROJECTIONS: 244 carries/1,054 yds/7 TDs…50 rec/379 yds/2 TDs…245.5 points.

2. JA’MARR CHASE, WR, CINCINNATI BENGALS. The most explosive college football receiver in 2019 is reunited with his Heisman Trophy-winning QB. With the aging A.J. Green gone to Arizona, the 6’0, 200-lb. Chase will quickly become the deep threat the Bengals often lacked last season. Fact: The last time Chase and Joe Burrow played together in 2019, Chase had a near-perfect PFF grade of 99.0 on targets of 20+ yards. Most Fantasy Football experts list him as a WR2 for now, but he has the potential to carry a higher value by the middle of the season. ESPN FANTASY PROJECTIONS: 124 targets/77 rec/1,003 yds/6 TDs…4 carries/24 yds/0 TDs…218.9 points.

3. KYLE PITTS, TE, ATLANTA FALCONS. Pitts is everything you’d want In an NFL tight end. He has size (6’6, 245 lbs.), speed (4.4 40) and elite athleticism (All-Pro TE George Kittle recently called Pitts “the best athlete in the draft). Even before playing a single NFL snap, Pitts is considered a Top 15 Fantasy TE. Worth noting: Falcons QB Matt Ryan last season led the league in both passing attempts and completions, so you know Kittle should get his share of opportunities. Also, Julio Jones is now with the Tennessee Titans. ESPN FANTASY PROJECTIONS: 103 targets/70 rec/809 yds/5 TDs…182.6 points.

4. TRAVIS ETIENNE, RB, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS. The former Clemson star has been looking impressive in mini-camp, showing his versatility both in the backfield and lining up at receiver. Said head coach Urban Meyer, “Best-case scenario, you’ll have a hybrid player who does both [running and receiving], and that’s what we’re hoping to develop out of Travis.” What will hurt Etienne’s Fantasy output is the likelihood of James Robinson being the Jaguars’ primary goal-line option. FANTASY PROJECTIONS: 138 carries/619 yds/4 TDs…58 rec/460 yds/2TDs…198.2 points.

5. DEVONTA SMITH, WR, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES. The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner was the second receiver taken in the draft, after Ja’Marr Chase. Smith had an incredibly productive season with Alabama last season, but his lack of size (6’1, 170 lbs.) had some teams concerned. Will he be able to hold up against NFL defenses? If so, there’s no reason why Smith can’t emerge as Jalen Hurts’ No. 1 target early on in the season. FANTASY PROJECTIONS: 114 targets/71 rec/963 yds/5 TDs…2 carries/13 yds/0 TDs…199.6 points.

6. JAVONTE WILLIAMS, RB, DENVER BRONCOS. PFF ranked Williams as the top power runner in the draft, which foretells his potential as Denver’s new goal line weapon. True, the Broncos already have Melvin Gordon, but the 5’10, 212-lb. human bowling ball should have plenty of opportunities to display his skills. He’s worth a look as a mid-round selection. ESPN FANTASY PROJECTIONS: 179 carries/789 yds/4 TDs…25 rec/186 yds/1 TD…151.3 points

7. JAYLEN WADDLE, WR, MIAMI DOLPHINS. Like Chase, Etienne and Smith, Jaylen Waddle has been reunited with his college QB. Waddle is known as a dynamic playmaker with big-play ability, but comparisons to Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill are premature, to say the least. For one thing, Tua Tagovailoa is not Patrick Mahomes. Also, Waddle will be competing for snaps with incumbent starter DeVante Parker and free-agent acquisition Will Fuller. Still, Waddle might be too talented to pass up as a mid- to late-round pick. ESPN FANTASY PROJECTIONS: 106 targets/64 rec/861 yds/5 TDs…2 carries/12 yds/0 TDs…179.8 points.

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