10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021
Every year there are prospects that appear to be NFL ready, only to disappoint when they make the jump to the next level. In episode 135 of my podcast – Sully’s Two Cents Fantasy Football Podcast (available pretty much anywhere podcasts are found) I brought you all Rookie Hit Rates 2021 edition. Now I bring this episode up for two reasons. 1. I can never get enough of shameless plugs for my pod, and 2., to remind you all that of the 862 skilled players drafted between 2010-2020, 77% of them failed to provide you a single hit season during their careers.
Now 77% is a massive number and I will admit that I am massaging that number to get your attention. A hit season by the way is any QB that has a top 12 season, a RB that has a top-12 or 24 season, a WR that has at least a top-36 season and any TE that has a top-12 season. I say I am massaging the number because of those 862 players selected, 388 were selected in rounds 5-7. First rounders hit at 63%, second rounders at 42% and third at 35%. I could have led with this: there were 324 skilled position players selected in the first three round of NFL drafts from 2010-2020, and 46% of them recorded a hit season, but hey, that wouldn’t have been as catchy.
Then again that means that 54% of them didn’t give you anything better than a flex season in a league in which you start 1QB, 2RB, 3WR, and 1 TE. No matter how you slice it, the success rate when jumping from college to the NFL is not nearly as high as we would expect.
So, the million-dollar question, as it is every season, is who are the hits and who are the misses? Now, if I had that answer I’d be on a beach somewhere drinking far too many beverages with paper umbrellas in them. I don’t have the answer, but I do have 10 players in this draft class that I believe are riskier than others. Let’s be real, they all have risk; this article is intended for fun as well as help you mitigate that risk.
Using rankings and ADP from our friends over at DLF, here are my top 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021.
10. Tutu Atwell – WR Louisville
Current Rank: 37th Overall – WR17
April ADP: 34.40 – WR16
Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell is a 5’9” 165-pound WR that led the ACC in receiving as a sophomore in 2019. Two years before he was in high school playing quarterback. Atwell is fast–like really fast. Atwell recently ran a 4.32 40 at his pro day.
He has the skillset to excel at the NFL level no doubt. He also isn’t the greatest route runner and he is 5’9 165. We have seen speedsters enter the draft in recent years that have struggled to make the transition to the NFL. Atwell lands on the 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021 list mainly because I fear he could soon add his name to that list. At his current ADP, the risk is already minimal. You shouldn’t expect to land much at the back of the third round. Grabbing him here isn’t a bad move, but personally I would prefer to select Nico Collins, Tamorrion Terry, or Jaret Patterson who are all in the same range in ADP as Atwell.
Chuba Hubbard – RB Oklahoma State
Current Rank: 25th Overall – RB7
April ADP: 18.50 – RB5
When it comes to Chuba Hubbard, his 2020 season was the equivalent to biting into an onion thinking it was an apple. After a 2019 season, in which he broke out in a big way (2,292 total yards and 21 touchdowns), expectations were sky high for Hubbard. In 2020 in seven games, he totaled 677 yards and 6 touchdowns.
As a born and raised Canadian, I suppose I should get behind my fellow Canuck, but I just can’t seem to feel comfortable doing so. He is a solid one-cut back that thrived in the Air Raid offense. He is also a liability in the passing game. He failed to become a reliable option in the passing game and at times appeared to struggle to haul passes in. Adding to my concerns is his less than adequate performance as a pass blocker. He is destined to be an early down back, and I don’t see a spot in the league currently where he is taking anyone’s job.
His ADP has climbed over his ranking and that is where the risk comes in and why he finds himself on this 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021 list. I don’t see him as a second-round rookie pick, and that is where he is currently sitting. Draft at your own risk!
Trey Lance – QB North Dakota State
Current Rank: 24th Overall – QB4
April ADP: 21.- QB4
Full disclosure, Trey Lance is my second ranked QB entering the draft. That doesn’t mean I don’t see the risk here; I just have fallen for the upside. I am a sucker for the dual threat QB with a cannon for a throwing arm, what can I say.
When reviewing Trey Lance film, we have the 2019 season and that’s it. Lance didn’t play in 2020 and he attempted 1 pass as a freshman. His performance in his lone season sure caught our attention and the attention of NFL scouts across the league. He finished the season 192 of 287 (66.9%), for 2,787 yards, 28 touchdowns, and no interceptions. If that didn’t hook you, maybe his rushing totals will: 169 carries for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Lance is the complete package as a quarterback prospect with good size (6’3” 225 lbs.), tremendous athleticism and excellent arm strength. He’s an RPO quarterback with the ability to make all the throws in or out of the pocket. He needs to fine-tune his passing skills, and more than anything else, needs more experience and playing time at a high level of competition.
His experience is where the risk factor meter goes into the red. Dating back to 2000, there have been five quarterbacks selected in the first round who have only been one-year college starters – Kyler Murray, Dwyane Haskins, Mitchell Trubisky, Mark Sanchez, and Cam Newton. Nervous yet? Four of the five were legit prospects and the only one listed who failed to lead his college team to 12 or more wins was Trubisky. They all came with an element of risk, and so does Trey Lance.
If you are drafting Lance in a Superflex or 2QB league you are looking at selecting him anywhere from pick 1.02 – 1.10. If you are selecting Trey Lance, then you are hoping he’s more Kyler and Cam, and much less Dwayne and Mitch.
Trey Sermon – RB Ohio State
Current Rank: 22nd Overall RB5
April ADP: 23.70 – RB8
Trey Sermon spent 4 seasons in college–three at Oklahoma and his final season at Ohio State. After a rather productive career at Oklahoma, Sermon took his game to another level after transferring to Ohio State. He’s a versatile running back with good size who is effective running between the tackles. Trey Sermon does the little things well and could very well develop into a featured back in the right offense.
At Oklahoma in 37 games he totaled 2,467 yards and 25 touchdowns. In his lone season at Ohio State, Sermon totaled 965 yards and scored 4 touchdowns in 8 games. In total at the collegiate level, he had a 6.5 yards per carry rushing average and a 6.8 yards per reception average.
His 2020 season was successful, but it is certainly worth noting that close to half of Sermon’s yards on the season, and two of his four touchdowns, came in the Big Ten Championship game. Sermon had a monster game posting 331 yards and two scores on 29 carries. Sermon was impactful against the Clemson Tigers as well. He ran for 193 yards and a score on 31 carries. If you are keeping score at home that is 525 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns in two contests and 346 rushing yards and 1 score in his other 6 performances in 2020 (57.67 yards/game).
The issues in Sermon’s game mainly stem from his athleticism. His top speed is average for a running back. He has enough speed to get into space, but he’s not a breakaway player. This prevents him from breaking runs to the house and also limits his upside.
Another concern for me is he runs upright which can limit his forward momentum and flexibility. Additionally, it makes him more susceptible to injury. Injuries happen to everyone, but if you offer up a larger area to tackle, you will likely have a higher chance for injuries.
His numbers suggest he could be a competent receiver – 48 catches, 486 yards, and 3 touchdowns in his 45 collegiate games. The concerns I have with Sermon when watching him is he doesn’t appear comfortable catching the football at all. Catching the ball out of the backfield requires a certain feel that Sermon hasn’t shown consistently yet.
There are risks with all of these prospects, a narrative I am sure will be shared more than a few times in this article. Despite my concerns, Trey Sermon remains a solid running back prospect in the NFL Draft. If I can add him in the third round of my rookie drafts, I will feel much better about it than if he was a second-round selection.
Seth Williams – WR Auburn
Current Rank: 17th Overall WR10
April ADP: 23.60 – WR12
Seth Williams appeared in 33 games for the Auburn Tigers over three seasons from 2018-2020. In those seasons he totaled 132 receptions for 2,124 yards, and he scored 17 touchdowns. His most productive year at Auburn came in his sophomore season in which he hauled in 59 passes for 830 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Williams is a good-sized wide receiver, (6’3” 211 lbs.). He is also very athletic and that enabled him to come down with some rather spectacular catches. He is a big receiver and tracks the ball in the air very well. Williams shows good body control that enables him to adjust to the errant throws, and he uses his strong hands to make the catch. There is a lot to like about Seth Williams, and frankly that is why is he ranked where he is ranked. In a receiver class as deep as this one is perceived to be, WR10 is significant.
Williams is a solid possession receiver who will be a good red zone threat, but his inability to separate through routes or speed limits him, and that is of extreme concern for me. He gained most of his separation with his hands in college, and he will struggle in that same situation at the next level.
There are some additional concerns that could impact Williams’ 2021 NFL Draft stock. If his draft capital is impacted, he needs to be faded in your rookie drafts. That is not specific to Williams, as draft capital is tied to this entire class.
Williams isn’t overly fast. He ran a 4.49 at his pro day which, while good for his size, is not an elite time. The 40 time is what it is, and I am not one to fixate on the 40. Although his 40 time might not be a big concern for me, his lack of quickness certainly is. Creating separation is key for wide receivers in the NFL and Williams doesn’t demonstrate quick feet to help create separation at the line of scrimmage in press coverage in the film I studied.
Another concern will be a lack of agility. He isn’t the most agile player, and he won’t create separation in the NFL with ankle-breaking changes of direction.
At the back of the second round where Williams currently is at his ADP, I am comfortable selecting him. If he slides in the draft, he slides in my rankings and becomes a WR that I start looking for in the third round. The risk is magnified by the ADP. If Williams were listed with an ADP in the 30s he would be a player I target. Currently I am cautiously optimistic that he will be viable for fantasy at the next level.
Kenneth Gainwell – RB Memphis
Current Rank: 14th Overall RB4
April ADP: 11.50 – RB4
Full disclosure time again, I like Kenneth Gainwell, and I like him a lot. I have him ranked as my 4th RB in this class and he is a back that I will likely be targeting in my rookie drafts. With that said, the higher we get in the ADP, the higher your draft pick, and as a result the risk magnifies. You do not want to be swinging and missing in the first round of your rookie drafts.
Gainwell played in 18 games across two seasons in 2018 and 2019. For the most part, his 2018 season was non existent. In 2018 in four games, Gainwell touched the football 10 times. He turned those 10 touches into 143 total yards and a touchdown. That 2018 version of the Memphis Tigers rostered Tony Pollard, Darrell Henderson, and Antonio Gibson.
In 2019, Kenneth Gainwell put himself on the NFL radar. In 14 games he had 231 carries for 1,459 yards, scoring 14 touchdowns. In addition to his rushing totals, Gainwell added 51 receptions for 610 yards and 3 more scores. He totaled 282 touches and averaged 7.3 yards per touch.
Gainwell explodes on film. He is an extremely creative running back that also happens to be solid pass catcher. He’s quick, creative, and plays with balance. He shows burst through the hole, gets to top speed quickly, and has shows enough speed to turn the corner. He’s a deceptively strong runner with excellent vision. Kenneth Gainwell doesn’t need very many blocks to have an impact and he uses his blocks everywhere on the field. In addition, as his college stats indicate, he’s an excellent receiver out of the backfield and out of the slot.
The concerns when it comes to Gainwell start with his size. Depending on where you look, he is weighing in anywhere from 185-200 lbs. His frame is a legit concern at the next level, and although I am not overly concerned about it, there is no denying it adds some risk. In addition, he has a very small body of work at the college level. His pass catching abilities and his ability to run routes are impressive and add another element of risk. There is a possibility that his NFL team uses him more as a receiver than a running back a la Miami’s usage of Lynn Bowden Jr. a year ago.
I am happy to add Gainwell to my dynasty rosters, and it will take a first round selection to do it. Anytime you are picking in the first round the need to hit is magnified and the risk factor is elevated.
Kadarius Toney – WR Florida
Current Rank: 13th Overall WR8
April ADP: 21.10 – WR10
Full disclosure once again, Kadarius Toney is a wide receiver that at his current ADP I am avoiding with little hesitation. There is also no denying the skill set of this individual and the impressive 2020 season he had in Florida.
In four seasons with the Gators, Kadarius Toney totaled 120 receptions, 1,590 yards, and 12 touchdowns in 38 games played. His 2020 season produced the bulk of his college production with 70 catches for 984 yards and 10 scores. He added an additional 161 yards and a touchdown on his 19 rush attempts.
Kadarius Toney is an extremely athletic wide receiver who enters the draft on the back of a tremendous senior season. He displays outstanding balance and body control, possesses terrific short-area quickness, and creates separations with his exceptional route running. He’s a scrappy receiver that uses his hands to to create separation when necessary and often comes back to the football in the film I studied. He is a hands catcher, a trait I target, and Toney tracks the pass in the air and makes the over-the-shoulder receptions look easy.
My concerns with Toney are he has a thin build, struggles in battles, and needs space to work. Toney is easily brought down by first contact limiting his yards after the catch and his upside. I also have concerns with the fact that in four seasons at Florida, 58% of his receptions, 62% of his receiving yards, and 83% of his receiving touchdowns came in his senior season. Prior to 2020, there was very little interest in Kadarius outside of the Toney family.
I noted above that draft capital matters, and it does. Toney is rumored to be a late first round draft choice this Spring. If he lands in a spot that requires and utilizes the slot, he very well may do well. He is a slot receiver at the next level and that as well limits his upside. I also noted above that 37% of first rounders bust. The bust rate of first round wide receivers alone is 35%, and I can’t shake the feeling that Toney with a late breakout age, with basically all his production in his senior season, has bust written all over him. Draft with caution.
3. Rondale Moore – WR Purdue
Current Rank: 9th Overall WR5
April ADP: 9.00 – WR5
When it comes to talent, Purdue WR Rondale Moore is quite possibly the most talented receiver in this class. He might be the most talented of all players that will hear their name called this spring.
The Purdue Boilermakers haven’t produced a first-round pick at wide receiver since Larry Burton in 1975. I am fairly confident that Rondale Moore will break that trend in the 2021 NFL Draft. Of all the players film I have watched (108 and counting), preparing for the draft, the most impressive was Rondale Moore.
Rondale, in a word, is explosive. He has game-breaking skills, and he is a threat to score every time he has the ball in his hands regardless of where he is on the field. He has very impressive initial quickness and an even more impressive second gear. He uses that quickness to gain separation, and that second gear is used to run away from defenders with what appears to be with ease. Moore does everything well: he tracks the pass in the air well, he adjusts to the errant throw, and has great hands. When Rondale Moore catches the football in full stride it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Clearly I am a fan. So what puts Rondale Moore at 3 on my list of 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021, you ask? Well, first of all this is a WR that in three years played in only 20 games, and seven in the past two seasons. I loved his film, I just wish there was more to watch. He missed most of the 2019 season with a hamstring injury and all but three games of the 2020 season to an unspecified lower body injury. He also had surgery on a finger between the 2019 and 2020 seasons. The finger injury is of no concern to me, but the soft tissue lower body injures, however, scare the hell out of me.
There are also concerns about his size. He is listed at 5’9″ and 180 lbs. which by all accounts is generous. Playing in the slot at the next level at that size is mildly concerning to me, as is his route running. He’s not the greatest route runner and if Moore doesn’t generate space with his quickness off the line he may struggle.
As we near the top of this list of 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021 it’s really a question of where you will need to pick these players, as they are all talented and are all capable of good to great NFL careers. Rondale Moore is a player that I will take a chance on more often than not, but he’s as risky as them come in this class.
2. Devonta Smith – WR Alabama
Current Rank: 7th Overall WR3
April ADP: 6.60 -WR3
From one extremely talented wide receiver to another–enter Devonta Smith. DeVonta Smith completed 4 years at Alabama appearing in 47 games. He compiled a total of 235 receptions for 3,965 yards and scored 46 touchdowns. His 2020 season was extra special — 117 catches 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. Smith won the Heisman Trophy in 2020–the first wide receiver to win the award in 29 seasons.
Smith is a polished, productive wide receiver who was an unstoppable force for the Alabama offense. He displays outstanding football instincts and awareness. DeVonta possesses terrific hand/eye coordination, and consistently extends to make the reception away from his frame with his exceptional hands. When I ran my initial rookie rankings this year, Devonta Smith was my top ranked WR and second ranked rookie overall. He has since slipped in my rankings due to some concerns I have with him at the next level
The first concern I have is likely the same concern that nearly everyone has and that is his frame. The lack of size will scare some teams off, and Smith is a scheme-specific wideout. Simply put, he likely doesn’t work in all systems despite his extreme talent. He gives effort blocking, but isn’t effective and lacks strength, as he is easily knocked off balance and pushed back. At the NFL level, if you can’t block your snaps will be impacted.
Here is my main concern: he retuned to Alabama for his senior season when he could have entered the NFL draft a season ago. His decision on the surface looks rather brilliant. He would not have carried first round draft capital into the 2020 draft, and the dude won the Heisman Trophy this past season. Brad Menendez and I were fortunate enough to have JJ Zachariason guest on our most recent episode of the Dynasty Heat Seekers steam and it is what JJ said that drove this point home for me.
Since 2006, 53 wide receivers have been selected in the first round. Of those 53 receivers, 13 of them were not early declares, and of those 13 only 5 of them have produced a 1,000 yard season. The only one of the five to have multiple 1,000 yard receiving seasons was Dwayne Bowe. JJ’s point is players that return to school are concerning mainly because they didn’t feel strongly about their draft capital the previous season. This concerns me as well. If you are looking for a recent example all you need to do is look back a season at Smith’s Alabama teammate, Henry Ruggs III.
I am not campaigning for anyone to not to select Devonta Smith. In fact, I am hoping that I can acquire some shares during my on rookie drafts. The reality for me is I have Smith ranked as my WR4 and as my seventh overall ranked rookie because of my concerns. He lands on this 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021 list simply for the fact there are other wide receivers I prefer at his current ADP.
Travis Etienne – RB Clemson
Current Rank: 2nd Overall RB1
April ADP: 2.90 – RB2
Travis Etienne is not on the top of my 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021 because I don’t like him. The reality is the complete opposite. I like Etienne, and I like him a lot. Looking at other rankings in the industry, it’s clear that I am not alone.
In his Clemson career, Etienne from 2017-2020 carried the football 686 times for 4,952 yards and scored 70 touchdowns. In addition to his rushing yardage, Etienne caught 102 passes for 1,155 yards and another 8 touchdowns. In total, he turned 788 career touches into 6,107 yards and 78 touchdowns in 55 games.
Many anticipated that Etienne would enter the 2020 NFL Draft class, but he elected to return to Clemson. I won’t argue with those that have Etienne ranked as their No.1 or 2 RB, (he is my RB3), as he has the skill set to become be a three-down back at the NFL level. He has the speed and the ability to provide his offense with big plays. In addition, he has good hands in the receiving game and the ability to turn short passes into big gains.
My main concern with Etienne, thus his spot atop the 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021 list, is his vision between the tackles. It is, in a word, average. Where this man did a lot of his damage at Clemson was off the edge where he could utilize his world class speed to run away from defenders. I don’t see Etienne being able to get to the edge as easily in the NFL and the defenders in this league are bigger, faster, and stronger. You will not see the home-runs at this level with the regularity we did in college, and that will have a negative impact on his fantasy value.
Travis Etienne is not an overly creative ball carrier who makes defenders miss–he is a ball carrier that uses his speed to run away from tackles. That will not be an easy task at the NFL level.
Etienne needs to be drafted and he needs to be drafted in the first round of your rookie drafts unless something of epic proportion takes place at the NFL Draft. Personally, if I have to select him at his current ADP, I won’t. I understand that likely means I will not have any shares on my dynasty rosters and that is fine by me. I mentioned that missing on your first round rookie pick is not ideal. That magnifies itself when you are picking at 1.02 or 1.03. The goal of this article is for you to mitigate risk, and at his current value he is the riskiest of my 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021.
Thank you for reading my 10 Risky Rookie Picks in 2021
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