Fantasy football baggage check: Top QB/RB/WR performers and their issues

Jay Dieffenbach

Patrick Mahomes and Christian McCaffery as the first picks at their respective positions? Not exactly a stretch. As your fantasy football draft moves through the next couple of dozen picks, though, you’ll have to consider the drawbacks to a few seemingly no-brainer selections.

Today, we present three players from the pool of quarterbacks, and two each from the group of running backs and wide receivers who will test your level of risk/reward. The average draft position (ADP) references are from CBS Sports.

The quarterbacks at the top of the fantasy football board who come with a little baggage

How will Prescott and Burrow fare after season-ending injuries in 2020?

Two of these guys are able to offset their drawbacks because of the “V” word: volume. The other guy, well, you’re just guessing on a big risk/big reward result.

Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys: Average fantasy football draft position: QB No. 6.

The drawback: Prescott will scare more than a few fantasy football managers into downgrading him a notch or two. The ankle injury in his fifth game last season could be a problem.

The upside: With a “fear factor” built-in advantage, those who believe he’ll be close to 100 percent by Sept. 12 could find a QB who lands in the top three by the end of the season. He could surpass 5,000 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes. A few short rushing TDs would put him among – or very close to – the top three QBs.

Bottom line: Put simply, Prescott was on pace to lead the NFL in passing yards before his ugly ankle injury and has the same wealth of offensive weapons this year.

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals: Average fantasy football draft position: QB No. 14

The drawback: Burrow suffered a major knee injury last season and, as a rookie, struggled at times to find his rhythm behind a suspect offensive line. He’s being taken as low as 16 or 17 among QBs in some drafts.

The upside: Similar to Prescott, the key with Burrow is volume. Various projections have Burrow challenging for the No. 5 spot among quarterbacks for completions and attempts. With second-year star Tee Higgins, reliable receiver Tyler Boyd and first-round pick (and former LSU teammate) Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow is much better positioned to sling it this season.

Bottom line: If your strategy includes drafting a couple of running backs and maybe even a receiver before you concern yourself at QB, Burrow should provide a tantalizing option with a ton of upside.

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: Average fantasy football draft position: QB No. 9

The drawback: After months of uncertainty about his status for 2021, it looks like Rodgers will suit up for the Packers this season after all. But could the situation have an effect on his on-field performance? It’s unlikely, given his history of success, but there is always a possibility.

The upside: Last season’s MVP and QB2 overall, Rodgers would be directing a potent Packers offense – and he loves throwing touchdown passes.

Bottom line: Here’s your cautionary advice, courtesy Mike Tagliere from FantasyPros:

Even if Rodgers does play for the Packers, his touchdown rate was 9.1 percent in 2020. If we dial that number back to Rodgers' career mark of 6.3 percent, which is still elite, he would've finished as the QB10 instead of the QB2 that he did. He doesn't offer mobility anymore and his offense isn't what we'd describe as "pass heavy."

The running backs at the top of the fantasy football draft board who come with a little baggage

Will Barkley and Elliott light up the NFC East in 2021?

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants: Average fantasy football draft position: RB No. 6

The drawback: Again, it’s the injury concern. Barkley tore his ACL early last season and hopes to be ready for Week 1. His second NFL season (following a sensational rookie campaign) was mildly disappointing – yards per carry dropped from more than 5 ypc to 4.6 and his receptions fell from 91 to 52 (albeit in three fewer games). He likely won’t be the volume player he was before the injury.

The upside: When he’s ready to return (he begins training camp on the PUP list), Barkley will be the focal point of the offense. With Giants quarterback Daniel Jones expected to improve, Barkley’s opportunities should become more favorable.

Bottom line: Beyond McCaffery, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry, Barkley figures to bring major value at RB5 or later.

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys: Average fantasy football draft position: RB No. 10

The drawback: The post-Dak Prescott games from Elliott were not first-round material, and he wasn’t able to overcome a shaky offensive line. A late-season calf injury perhaps spoke to a need to be in better shape for 2021.

The upside: There is more than one upside, and they’re pretty basic:

  • Elliott is only 26 years old, so his reported commitment to better fitness should provide big results.
  • He also has a healthier and improving offensive line and should hit the ground running.
  • Elliott, with Prescott, will benefit from a dynamic offense and that means more TD chances.

Bottom line: At his present ADP, Elliott seems to be a major value. He fits more reasonably at RB8 or better.

The pass catchers on the fantasy football draft board who come with a little baggage

Two third-year receivers could put up big numbers in 2021

Dionte Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers, Average fantasy football draft position: WR No. 27

The drawback: Johnson was among the leaders in dropped passes last season and questions remain about how much better he can become. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is old, and did not show even a league-average success rate in deep throws.

The upside: There’s a lot to like with the 25-year-old wideout. He scores well in advanced metrics surrounding his ability to get open. Roethlisberger checks it down a little too much, but Johnson owns No. 1 receiver ability. He caught 11 passes for 117 yards in the team’s lone playoff game last season.

Bottom line: The Steelers are likely to be in more than a few shootouts, and that bodes well for Johnson’s targets. From Tagliere of FantasyPros:

… chasing targets at wide receiver is never a bad thing. If Johnson (last season) would've averaged just 7.4 yards per target (easily attainable), he would've finished as the WR14. He should be a safe high-floor WR2 with upside for top-12 numbers.

A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans, Average fantasy football draft position: WR No. 6

The drawback: The Titans traded for all-world talent Julio Jones, whose tenuous health history of late convinced the Falcons he was expendable. The likely reduction in targets for Brown could push him down the ranks toward 10 or beyond.

The upside: Brown, 24, is an undeniable talent just entering his prime. His fantasy managers won’t be upset with his ability; the issue is opportunity. That said, he outperformed expectations last season and could reward your high-drafting faith again this season.

Bottom line: Brown appears to be going a little too high in early drafts, with the Titans’ propensity for a balanced attack (hello, Derrick Henry) coupled with Jones’ arrival conspiring against him. The CBS projections have him finishing as the No. 13 wide receiver overall – quite a difference from his lofty draft position today.

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