By Erik Kreil
The NFL Draft is coming, and dynasty managers are getting full of anticipation for what shiny new prospect they get to unwrap after their rookie drafts. Rookie picks are reaching peak value, and young talents who didn’t explode in their early NFL years are starting to get overlooked, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold value.
Let’s talk about a few year 2 players ready to boom in 2021. These are guys whose values are either debated or not getting enough attention–players poised to skyrocket in fantasy value in the year to come.
We all know names like his draft class counterparts Lamb, Higgins, and Jefferson, but this guy is the T-N-T of year 2 WRs not already receiving major recognition. Aiyuk was offensive-mastermind Kyle Shanahan’s favorite receiver in last year’s star-studded rookie class, noting his ability to “run every single route,” his speed, and toughness. He doubled down on his affinity for the Arizona State product, saying Aiyuk “can do everything,” so it’s no wonder Kyle traded 3 draft picks to move up in the 1st round of the NFL Draft and snagged his guy.
In only 12 games, this kid posted: 60 catches, 825 total yards, and 7 total TDs. Lamb and Higgins often get credit for having to work with backup QBs for half the season, so let’s not overlook that Aiyuk actually had 3 QBs dishing him the ball last year. He balled out, no doubt about it. So what’s the controversy?
Most nay-sayers will point out something to the tune of, “In Kyle Shanahan’s run-happy offense, there just aren’t enough targets to go around when Deebo and Kittle are healthy.” Let’s dive into that. Throughout Jimmy Garoppolo’s tenure with the 49ers, he has averaged 30 pass attempts/game or 480 attempts/season. Deebo garnered 81 targets in his rookie season, so the assumption is fair that he earns more targets as the (slightly) more veteran WR on the team. Let’s give him a 25% increase and guesstimate he earns 100 targets in 2021*. An average of Kittle’s 2 best years gives us around 120 targets we can guesstimate for 2021. That leaves 260 targets unaccounted for, more than enough to support alpha target numbers for Brandon Aiyuk with a little wiggle room on either side of the argument to spare.
(*You can argue this point, but don’t overlook that Deebo has dealt with injuries almost every year since 2015 causing him to miss snaps and streaks of games.)
Well, why Aiyuk and not Deebo? It comes down to their usage in Shanny’s offensive scheme. Shannahan drafted Aiyuk as a WR who can run every route. And that he did. In fact, Aiyuk’s Depth of Target map in 2020 almost perfectly mirrors Deebo’s from 2019 with both averaging around 8 yards/ target. Deebo’s 2020 role shifted dramatically with an Average Depth of Target to only 2 yards/ target as most of his work became relegated to behind the line of scrimmage. In less than a full season, Aiyuk consumed Deebo’s alpha role, like Pac-Man eating blue ghosts.
Trade Value: Anywhere between 1.06-1.10 in 10-man SF leagues, but you might be able to offer a manager with rookie fever an early-mid 2.
2020 was a weird year for a lot of reasons, and in fantasy-land Darnell Mooney’s immediate impact on the Bears was certainly an eye opener. Mooney doesn’t boast standout college metrics like other receivers in his class, but he showed off blazing speed in his 4.34 40-time (98th percentile), and that translated to his play in 2020. By week 7, this 5th round rookie sleeper began earning an average of 6.7 targets/game with a healthy Average Depth of Target (aDOT) of 11.4, effectively unseating his roster rival Anthony Miller as WR2 on the team.
Looking ahead: Unfortunately, the erratic QB play between Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky capped Mooney’s fantasy ceiling. They flat out missed him on a number of game-breaking routes. In fact, their advanced passing stats are ranked below the mighty prowesses of Garner Minshew, and the mighty Nick Mullens. Allen Robinson is the clear WR1 on the team, however he’s entering free agency and has repeatedly shown signs of discontent with the Bears and readiness to move on. Even if only one of these factors changes in 2021, Darnell Mooney’s value has plenty of room to boom as a trade target or a selection in a Dynasty Startup.
Trade Value: He’s worth an early-mid 2 as a trade target, but an impatient manager might be willing to move him for a late 2-early 3.
This is a value play here, folks. I’m not here to say he’s a Jonathan Taylor gem or even that he’s a misunderstood pre-draft Antonio Gibson. What I am saying is that he’s an offensive weapon I think we’ll see a lot of in 2021 and is a solid sleeper. I don’t love comps, but PFF compared McFarland to Devonte Freeman with grades of 92nd percentile 40-yard dash and 85th percentile speed score. The guy ran 80 yards in 8 seconds against Ohio state. He’s fast and does a ton of his damage working on the outside.
Mike Tomlin said he’s been eyeing McFarland as a prospect for 2 years. So, why didn’t he get playing time? No offseason and incumbent veterans on the depth chart can seriously limit rookies’ workhorse roles causing them to start shining later in the season (i.e JT, Swift, Akers). Further, starting in week 1, the Steelers began sending veteran offensive linemen to IR. Their interior was in shambles by mid season with 3 OL having season ending injuries and their center began preparing for retirement. These factors compounded to leave Pittsburgh ranked 31st in run blocking on the season.
It’s possible that the team simply was pigeon holed into specific schemes that don’t fit McFarland’s skill set, because of injury.
With the news of 3 starting OL and James Conner set to hit FA in a tight salary cap season, a new OL coach, AND the promotion of Matt Canada (McFarland’s UMD coach) to OC, the Steelers are screaming for an offensive overhaul. This might be an opportunity for Matt Canada to finally create his offense, the one that decimated Ohio State and Indiana with its run game. Enter Anthony McFarland.
Trade value: He’s worth a 4th as a dart throw with room to boom, but you might be able to snag him for even a 5th rounder or a sneaky toss-in to a bigger trade.
Erik Kreil – Writer
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