For the past decade, I’ve been attempting to identify which
top performers at the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver
positions will fail to maintain their elite fantasy status moving
forward. I’ve used a mix of look-back analysis, rudimentary
statistical projection or “trendcasting,” and some good
ol’ gut instinct to call these shots, which have been right
enough to keep me coming back year after year. Or maybe that’s
just what I tell myself to justify firing up the laptop and writing
the same article every summer, which I thoroughly enjoy and which
now seems to mark the unofficial start of football season in my
mind. Here’s what I’m hoping YOU get out of it, even
if the details are quickly forgotten: The top performers in 2021
won’t look very much like the top performers in 2020, which
didn’t look very much like the top performers in 2019...and
so on. That’s my thesis, it will never change, and I have
10 years’ worth of data to prove it.
Without further ado, here’s this year’s take on the
most likely Top 10 dropouts for the coming NFL season.
Note: All rankings are based on FFToday’s
Non-PPR league scoring.
Who Missed the Cut in 2020 (6/10): C. McCaffrey, E. Elliott,
A. Ekeler, M. Ingram, C. Carson, & S. Barkley
It gets widely panned by fantasy “experts” and I’m
not actually brave enough to execute it in my big money leagues,
but I’m guessing those who spent first-rounders or beaucoup
budget bucks on Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley last year
really wish they’d have just swallowed hard and run with the
Zero RB strategy. There was no way of knowing the two studs would
make a combined five appearances—high ankle sprain and shoulder
injury for McCaffrey, ACL tear for Barkley—but you can pretty
much take a catastrophic RB injury or two (or more) to the bank
every year, so...do with that what you will. For the record, I typically
employ more of a One RB strategy and hope the one isn’t “that
Chris Carson maybe isn’t “that guy” because he’s
not highly regarded enough for folks to miss dearly. He probably
should be, though, after finishing up as RB14, RB9, and RB16 the
last three years. 2020’s RB16 performance was pretty impressive,
actually, considering Carson missed four full games and carried
the ball half as many times as he had in 2019. The same can’t
be said of Austin Ekeler, who toppled all the way to RB36 thanks
to a balky hamstring. Undaunted, pundits are giddy about a 2021
collaboration with Justin Herbert, a revelation in his first season
as LAC’s franchise flinger (GO DUCKS!!!).
The last two 2020 dropouts also missed some time and in Ezekiel Elliott’s case, that made all the difference. Zeke missed
his Week 15 tilt and was a mere nine YARDS away from slipping past
Kareem Hunt for that RB10 spot. Mark Ingram, on the other hand,
missed six games but may as well have missed six more since he only
averaged 4.3 FPts/G, plummeting all the way down to RB71.
Most Likely Candidates to Fall from the Top 10 This Year:
LV: I correctly pegged Jacobs as a Top
10 Riser last summer and he did not disappoint. At least, not
me. His owners probably had a right to expect more production from
the second-year back considering he tallied 306 touches, good for
third overall at the position, yet finished as RB7. His fantasy
bottom line was buoyed by increased TDs and slightly better production
as a receiver, but his YPC average dropped almost a full yard, from
4.8 as a rookie to 3.9 as a sophomore. For perspective, Nick
Chubb rushed for two more yards on 83 fewer carries.
Maybe that dip in per-carry production explains why the Raiders
went out and nabbed Kenyan Drake in the offseason. It was a real
head-scratcher to most, especially considering the high price tag.
$11M over two years is a LOT of money to pay a backup running back,
unless what Las Vegas has in store for the other Bama product is
more of a 1B role to Jacobs’ 1A. Whatever the case, Drake’s
presence is the primary reason I’m bearish on his teammate’s
chances to reclaim Top 10 status in 2021.
The other reason is what Mike Mayock did to a once-great Vegas O
line: he blew it up. On consecutive days in March, the Raiders traded
away Trent Brown, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson, 60% of what had
been considered the strength of the squad and one of the league’s
best front fives. Though injuries ravaged that group last season—the
starting core appeared together on just three PLAYS—it’s
unknown how the younger, mostly unknown replacements will fare moving
forward. Pro Football Focus, for one, ranks the unit as the 25th
best in the league, and other publications are similarly skeptical.
Jacobs is still valuable, but temper expectations.
Robinson, JAX: Robinson doesn’t have
a first-round pedigree like the guy we just talked about, but that
didn’t keep him from exploding onto the fantasy scene last year
to the tune of 1,414 total yards, 10 TDs, and an RB8 finish just
one year after leading the mighty Redbirds of Illinois State to
the FCS semis. The undrafted rook was the lone bright spot for an
atrocious Jaguars squad and all new management did to reward him
for that effort was load up on competition for his touches in 2021.
To be fair, Robinson didn’t have much of ANY competition for
touches last season. Only Tennessee’s Derrick Henry commanded
more of his team’s carries (72.6%) than Robinson (71.2%) and
only Chicago’s meal ticket, David Montgomery, netted a larger
share of his squad’s RB-specific carries (91.5% v. Robinson’s
85.4%). Put another way, Urban Meyer pretty much HAD to add some
horses to the stable if the Jags were going to compete in today’s
NFL. Carlos Hyde is the most immediate threat to steal touches and
did serviceable work subbing for Chris Carson in Seattle last season.
First-rounder Travis Etienne is the longer-term threat, though Meyer
and the Jacksonville brass are shaping him to be a third-down back
or, inexplicably, a receiver? Don’t ask.
The head man is actually another, gut-based reason I think Robinson
could struggle to reproduce his stellar rookie year. The history
of college coaches making a successful jump directly to head man
in the pros since 2000 is pretty ugly (.480 winning percentage).
Only three had winning records (Bill O’Brien, Chip Kelly,
and Jim Harbaugh) and none of those three are still in the bigs.
Could Meyer be another successful outlier? He’s taking over
a 1-15 team, so consider me very dubious.
CLE: Only 11 of last year’s top 50 running backs managed
to play in all 16 games and of those 11, only 2 (Derrick Henry and
Hunt) merited Top 10 status when the dust finally settled. That
seems like an important data point as training camps start opening
up in preparation for the league’s first 17-game season. Presumably,
what is already pretty uncommon, RBs making it through the slate
unscathed, will become downright rare in the coming years. Just
ask Cam Akers,
who didn’t even make it to training camp before succumbing to a
Lucky for Cleveland, Hunt was Steady Eddie last season and a mostly
fungible fill-in for Nick Chubb when the latter missed four games
in the season’s first half. Though his YPC rate was a pedestrian
4.2, Hunt made up for it by excelling as a pass receiver. Despite
serving in a mostly part-time role, he tallied 38 receptions on
51 targets and parlayed all that passing game attention into five
receiving scores, tied with Alvin Kamara for most at the position.
Those five receiving scores are likely the margin he needed to narrowly
eke past Zeke, as previously mentioned, into the Top 10 club.
Hunt’s role in the passing game seems very secure (Chubb was
targeted only 18 teams all season), but it would be foolish to assume
he’ll gain market share in the Cleveland running game this
season, especially if his more dynamic cohort stays healthy. Chubb’s
5.6 YPC average was second overall at the position (behind only
J.K. Dobbins) and he was actually RB6 in FPts/G. Moreover, per his
FFT player card, Chubb averaged a whopping 7.2 YPC in the second
half of games. NFL coaches love closers and the Brownies have a