As the 2021 season draws closer, many fantasy football managers continue to pour over last year’s results to find potential value on players who might have underperformed in what was a chaotic season (to put it mildly). Full of immense talent, these NFL players are primed for a rebound in 2021 and a return to fantasy dominance after a tough 2020 season.
Quarterbacks primed to rebound in 2021
With the talent at the quarterback position in the NFL as high as it has ever been, which players can bounce back and join the upper echelon of talent in 2021?
Cam Newton, New England Patriots
From former league MVP to people questioning whether or not he is a starting-caliber QB, Cam Newton is the prime example of the NFL being a “what did you do for me lately” job. With that said, once we put his season into context, it’s not so difficult to see where the struggles might have come from.
For starters, he signed late in the offseason with a brand new team during the most tumultuous time in recent history. Coupled with an injury that forced him to miss 14 weeks in 2020, Newton was behind the eight ball from the get-go. Not to mention, the Patriots needed to redesign their playbook completely and had the worst group of receivers in the league.
Prior to testing positive for COVID leading up to Week 4, Newton was the QB7 (24.5 ppg) despite throwing only 2 touchdown passes. Before the Broncos game in Week 6, the Patriots had just two on-field practices over two weeks. Newton himself even stated it affected his play.
However, it did not affect his rushing ability. Newton was second amongst QBs in rushing attempts (137) for 592 yards (third) and a position-leading 12 touchdowns. In those 137 attempts were 25 red-zone carries.
All the Patriots did in the offseason was bring in talent on the offense. Key additions include Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jonnu Smith, and Hunter Henry. While not a weekly QB1, Newton is the perfect streaming option and by far a better QB than his QB24 (169.9 ADP) would suggest. For my money, there is no more evident bounce-back candidate at QB than Newton.
Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams
Since 2018, Matthew Stafford has finished as the QB20, QB29, and QB15, respectively. From 2011 to 2017, he finished outside the top 10 once (2014 – QB15) and was the QB7 or better four times. Last year, he was the QB13 in ADP, and now despite going to the Los Angeles Rams, who are infinitely more talented than the Lions, has dropped in value as the QB14?
It was just two seasons ago when Stafford was on pace for 5,000 yards and 38 TDs before a back injury cost him the remainder of his year. Stafford has thrown for over 4,000 yards in eight of his 10 years as a starter and nine seasons with 20 or more touchdown passes.
Stafford has one of the best arms in the NFL and is now paired with the coach who made Jared Goff look like a franchise-level QB. The offensive line is better and flanked by Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Higbee, and Cam Akers. Stafford is one of the elite players at improvising off-script and should return to low-end QB1 consideration.
Which NFL players should have a bounce-back season at running back?
One of the most talent-rich positions in the NFL, these players could have bounce-back seasons after a disappointing 2020.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Does anyone have a legitimate argument as to why Ezekiel Elliott should not be considered one of the NFL’s elite running backs? All he has done is finish as the RB2, RB12, RB5, RB3, and RB9 while averaging 1,276 rushing yards, 391 receiving yards, and 11.2 total touchdowns.
With Dak Prescott in the lineup (Weeks 1-5), Elliott was the RB3 (22.3 ppg), averaging 107 total yards and a touchdown on 24.4 opportunities per game. From Week 6 and on, Elliott was the RB24 after seeing his points fall by 50% to 11.2. Dallas’ offense could not sustain drives, and it led to Elliott seeing his opportunities fall to 19.4 per game.
So, if we consider that to be his absolute floor, Elliott is still a 250-touch, 1,250-total-yard running back. The greatest news for Elliott is that Prescott is back and at full strength. This means more offense and opportunities in the red zone, an area of the field where Elliott eats up touches (86% share and 55.3 opportunities). Elliott is one of the most consistent players and the focal point of one of the NFL’s more dangerous offenses. He is a prime bounce-back candidate and has top-three upside.
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
Expectations for Miles Sanders were through the roof in 2020 as he came off an impressive rookie campaign (RB15). However, a few missed weeks and so-so performances resulted in an RB23 (13.7 ppg) finish for Sanders last season.
An issue for Sanders is that he has never been treated as an RB1, seeing 15 or more touches just 11 times since entering the NFL. Due to this, Sanders has been a somewhat inconsistent fantasy scorer, producing RB2 or better numbers in just 14 of 28 games. We can’t forget the offensive line either. The Eagles started 10 different OL combinations in the first 11 weeks. Still, there is more we can take from his 2020 season.
With Jalen Hurts at QB, Sanders was the RB11 (15.3 ppg) and saw an increase from 12 carries and 56.1 yards per game to 15.3 carries and 78.7 yards per game while scoring 3 touchdowns. Sanders is far and away the most talented back on this offense, and while he might not be the traditional three-down back, the new regime could give him the consistent work that HC Doug Pederson never did. Will Sanders be an elite RB1? Likely not, but given improved QB play along with a healthy OL, Sanders should be a bounce-back candidate in 2021. He remains one of the most explosive NFL players and should be an integral part of the Eagles’ offense.
Which NFL players should have a bounce-back season at wide receiver?
Arguably the deepest position in the NFL, which receivers could enjoy bounce-back seasons in 2021?
Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Michael Thomas entered 2020 fresh off the heels of an incredible season. He set an NFL single-season reception record with 149 (80.5%) on a ridiculous 185 targets for 1,725 yards and 9 touchdowns. It was his third season in a row with at least 147 targets and 104 receptions. It was his fourth season with over 1,137 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The All-Pro WR suffered from an injury-riddled season which forced him to miss a total of nine games. After initially missing six games from Weeks 2-8, Brees was hurt in Thomas’ first game back. Thus, he had to spend the next four games with Taysom Hill under center.
I feel there is this massive misconception that Thomas can not succeed with Hill under center. But the truth is Thomas was the WR15 (16.1 PPR) while averaging 9.3 targets, 7.5 receptions, and 85.8 yards. He saw over 30% of the targets during this stretch. And we consider Hill to be the lesser of the options between him and Jameis Winston.
Regardless of who is under center, Thomas will be the focal point of the passing game. Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook are on other teams, and he has no competition for touches outside of Alvin Kamara. Thomas is one of the best players in the NFL and can be a 100-reception-and-1,200-yard receiver with whoever the Saints decide to place at the helm.
Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Heading into last season, we all thought that Chris Godwin would be the guy to have with Tom Brady under center. He was coming off a 2019 campaign as the WR2 (19.7 ppg), where he caught 86 of his 121 targets for 1,333 yards and 9 touchdowns. Now Godwin gets one of the NFL’s greatest players as his quarterback? Sign me up. Unfortunately, there were bumps for Godwin in his first season with Brady.
Godwin emerged from Week 1 in the league’s concussion protocol, which cost him Week 2. Then a hamstring issue sidelined him for Weeks 4 and 5. And finally, a fractured finger suffered in Week 7 cost him an additional game. He ended the season as the WR31 with 65 receptions, 840 yards, and 7 touchdowns but was the WR15 in points per game at 15.9, just edging out teammate Mike Evans at 15.6 ppg.
It’s almost a prove-it year for Godwin as he plays on the franchise tag, and his ever-growing chemistry with Brady could lead to a lucrative payday and fantasy success. Godwin could bounce back out of the gates as he saw 7 or more targets in four of the final six games with Brady, including a monstrous Week 17 where he had 5 catches for 133 yards and 2 touchdowns.
D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers
Any chance I get to talk about D.J. Moore, you bet I am going to take it. After a WR16 finish in 2019 (15.4 ppg), he dropped to the WR25 in 2020 (14.1 ppg). Still, I do not think people grasp how good he has been, despite the atrocious QB play of Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, Taylor Heinicke, Will Grier, and Teddy Bridgewater.
In three years, Moore compiled 208 receptions, 3,156 yards, and 10 total touchdowns. He is fifth all-time in total receiving yards before the age of 24; he is the only WR with back-to-back 1,200-total-yard seasons in the NFL since 2019. Last season, there were only three WRs with 93 or more yards in eight or more games: Calvin Ridley, Stefon Diggs, and D.J. freaking Moore.
Moore did all of this while being second on the team in targets to Robby Anderson at 136 — Curtis Samuel saw 97 himself. While the Panthers did draft Terrace Marshall, Moore will eat up most of the 37.9% vacated targets. The touchdowns will catch up, and Moore will not just bounce back but will be a breakout WR1 in fantasy.
Which NFL players should have a bounce-back season at tight end?
With talent hard to come by in the NFL and fantasy, which tight ends could bounce back from a down 2020 season?
Tyler Higbee, Los Angles Rams
Outside of the elite tight ends, production can be challenging to find. Typically, I want to categorize a bounce-back player as one that has already shown us they are one of the better NFL players at their position. At tight end, we have to broaden that range just a touch. While Tyler Higbee has not established himself as one of the best players, we have seen flashes that he can succeed, and a change in personnel might facilitate that bounce-back season.
Higbee was a favorite of many after a TE8 (10.7 ppg) performance in 2019 with 69 receptions, 734 yards, and 3 touchdowns. However, many ignored that the majority of that production came when Gerald Everett was not on the field. We get to 2020, and it is a similar story. Both Everett and Higbee saw equal amounts of targets (60 to 62), which resulted in Higbee finishing as the TE17 (8.5 ppg).
Now that Everett is in Seattle, Higbee could be in line for a significant bounce-back season. We know he can take advantage of this opportunity. This is the same player who averaged over 100 yards receiving and 21.95 ppg to close the 2019 season. The path is there for Higbee to be the third in the progression, as Stafford has shown a propensity to target his TEs consistently.
George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
I try to stay away from players who missed significant time due to injury, but George Kittle is too much of a slam-dunk bounce-back player that I could not leave off “The People’s Tight End.”
While battling a myriad of injuries and questionable QB play, Kittle finished as the TE19 overall, but he was the TE3 in points per game (15.6).
In his previous two seasons, Kittle was the TE3 and TE2, averaging 86.5 targets on 121.5 receptions with 1,215 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 16.05 ppg. Simply put, Kittle is a man amongst boys on the field; he is one of the most electric players the NFL has to offer. He now heads into 2021 fully healthy and with a massive upgrade at QB, once Kyle Shanahan unleashes Trey Lance on the NFL. When that happens, good luck.
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Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football and a member of the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association). You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.