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From Peter Diana, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Five Wide Receivers I Like for the 2021 Fantasy Football Season

It’s been a crazy news-filled couple of days. One of the most anticipated rookie receivers, Ja’Marr Chase, is potentially having issues outside of his preseason case of the drops. Meanwhile, Travis Etienne suffered a season ending Lisfranc injury. That’s two of the most highly hyped rookies, especially in fantasy, potentially out. That’s why, if possible, everyone should wait as long as possible to draft. There was no way to predict either of those problems arising. Losing a fifth to seventh round pick by complete luck really sucks. 

I digress. This is the next stop in my series to highlight a few guys at every position that I think are underrated, and overrated. The last two weeks were spent on the quarterbacks, now it’s time for the wide receivers. As always, these articles are all about value, not really about how good a player is. A player can be extremely talented, but if he’s going too high, I like him less than a more mediocre guy going much later.

ADP Data (PPR) from FantasyData.com

Scoring Data (Half-PPR) from FantasyPros.com

Rankings in no particular order.

Odell Beckham Jr. 

OBJ is one of the best wide receiver talents in the league since coming out of LSU. His first few years in the league were as good as anyone’s. A few injuries and temper tantrums later, and OBJ’s star has really faded as of late. What was once a player that would be drafted in the first round now has an ADP in the mid-60s. I’m banking on the talent that made OBJ a star still being in there somewhere. The torn ACL is a concern, but ACL injuries are no longer the death knell they used to be. OBJ is one of those superior athletes that can come back from this type of injury.

More than just betting on talent, I believe in Baker Mayfield. Actually, scratch that, I believe in Kevin Stefanski. He’s one of the premier offensive minds in the league right now and presided over Stefon Diggs breakout in Minnesota. Baker is also a good QB, I think that’s been proven, and now that he finally has some stability he has the chance to really explode. Not only that, I think in year two Stefanski will really open up the offense. The Cleveland Browns will still be a run first team with Nick Chubb, but that doesn’t mean wide receivers can’t thrive.

OBJ has the skill to be a top wide receiver, and he’s going in the sixth round, which is where you might draft a flex or your first backup. The best part is, OBJ will almost assuredly be a flex if he stays healthy. That means there’s basically no risk, but there’s still immense upside. 

JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu has finished as a top 24 wide receiver every year that he’s played at least 14 games, and three of his four total seasons. The talent and production are there. His situation also isn’t all that different from last year when he finished WR 18. He’s got the same QB, the same coach, and the same pass catchers around him. The big difference is Najee Harris, whose presence will probably cause the Pittsburgh Steelers to run a lot more, and one more year of decline for Ben Roethlisberger. Though that will be the case, the Steelers have been a pass-heavy team for a few years now. They ALWAYS produce fantasy viable wide receivers. They were number one in pass attempts last year, so even if that number drops significantly, it won’t be enough to mean JuJu is suddenly unplayable. 

All three Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers finished in the top 24 last year. While that probably won’t happen again, at least one of them will be this year. Who’s to say it won’t be JuJu? Getting a top 24 wide receiver in the 80’s where he is currently going is a massive bargain. Smith-Schuster has a really strong track record, and should certainly go higher than guys like Zack Moss or DeVonta Smith.

Julio Jones

While I made the usual disclaimer that I’m basing my opinions mostly on value, with wide receivers especially I really trust in past production. That’s a common theme with these first three picks, which are all guys that have been WR 1s in the past but have fallen in draft rankings from injury or other reasons. 

Just like OBJ, Jones has been one of the best receivers in the 2010’s. He has a place in the pantheon of the best wide receivers in NFL history. Jones is getting up there in age, but he’s in the top five most athletic wide receivers ever. He has produced at a high level in his 30’s. Even last year when he missed seven games due to various injuries, Jones still averaged 85.7 yards per game. In fact, in points per game Jones was WR 14 last year, which is still really good. That includes two games in which he didn’t play half the snaps. Take those out and he’s even better.

To me, that means the talent is still there in spades. You can easily argue that Ryan Tannehill and the Tennessee Titans offense is an upgrade to Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons these days (although the Titans losing Arthur Smith could be a major blow). The only concern with Jones is if you think his age and injuries are a sign that more are coming. It’s a valid concern, but personally I believe it’s overblown.

Always Hurt, Rarely Out

Jones is famous for playing through injuries or always being on the injury report. Yet he’s missed very few games in his career, just 26 in 10 seasons of play. He’s only lost significant time twice, in 2013 and 2020 (those two years account for 70% missed games). You could easily chalk those up as outliers in what has been a pretty healthy career. From 2014-2019 for instance, he missed four games total. 

Jones still has it, and if doesn’t get injured there’s basically no way he doesn’t outperform his current draft slot of 42 overall and WR 16. 

Tyler Boyd

His ADP will go up if the Ja’Marr Chase story has legs, but his current ADP of 94 is criminal. Boyd was a starting fantasy WR two of the past three seasons, going over 1000 yards in both. While last year was a down year, it’s worth noting he was WR 18 in the ten games Joe Burrow played. Who’s the starting QB for next year? Joe Burrow.

A lot has been made about Burrow and Chase’s connection in college. which is fine. But Boyd and Burrow showed a connection in the NFL, which is the league they are playing in right now. Not only that, but it’s not like Chase and Burrow being good precludes Boyd from doing the same, especially since Boyd is the slot receiver. Boyd is a proven NFL talent, and has worked with Burrow already. He’s a guy that can easily be a starter, or at least a flex. He’s being taken in the eighth round, which is backup territory. 

DJ Chark Jr. 

This one’s a bit more speculative. Chark has been a productive fantasy player in the past despite his struggles last season. In 2019 he finished as WR 16 and nearly hit 200 points, a benchmarks for a great fantasy season. Hopefully that means the talent is truly there for Chark, as it didn’t really come through in 2020. Of course, the Jacksonville Jaguars were by record the worst team in the league last year, largely due to rather poor quarterbacking play. With the Jaguars grabbing one of the most vaunted QB prospects since Andrew Luck, you’d hope they’ll be much better on that front. Getting Urban Meyer, who presided over some great offenses at OSU, could also be great. 

Chark finished in the top 15 in air yards (one of six receivers to average 100 per game) and top ten in average depth of target. That shows he was getting opportunities deep, they just weren’t connecting. A better quarterback will help with that immensely. Laviska Shenault Jr. and Marvin Jones Jr. represent some real alternative options to Chark who’s averaged over seven targets per game the past two years, but I don’t think either cut into his workload that much. Chark is a much different receiver to Jones, while Shenault is still inexperienced. 

Low Risk. High Reward.

Would I bet my house on Chark being a top fantasy wide receiver? No, but since he’s going around pick 99, I don’t have to. When choosing bench players this late, you don’t want milquetoast guys that will maybe be a flex once in a while. Guys like David Johnson or Jarvis Landry. You want guys that have high ceilings, and Chark is exactly that. You aren’t paying much of anything, and you have a guy that could end up as a starter if Lawrence is what he’s billed to be. If Lawrence and Chark can connect on a few more of those long balls that the previous Jaguars quarterbacks missed, Chark is in business.

Honorable Mentions

Brandin Cook is another guy that has a great track record. He’s finished with over 1000 yards five of his seven seasons in the NFL, and has produced with a lot of different QBs and in a lot of different situations. As of right now, Deshaun Watson is still the quarterback and if he is allowed to play he is one of the best QBs in the league. With no Will Fuller around, Cooks is the number one guy and stands to benefit a lot. The thing is, even if Watson doesn’t play, Tyrod Taylor isn’t terrible and he’s had a WR perform well for him before (Sammy Watkins in 2015).

One of the Indianapolis Colts wide receivers should do pretty well if Carson Wentz plays at an acceptable level. Michael Pittman is the all-around threat and will probably lead the team in catches and touchdowns, while Parris Campbell is a problem with his speed if he can stay healthy.

All three of those guys are going very late in drafts (ADP 100+) and they all have decent potential to be flexes or better.