It’s crunch time for fantasy football, and while most teams are preparing for a playoff run, it never hurts to look ahead and try to find the next rising stars before they start to show signs of a breakout. This article focuses on several rookies that have been quiet in 2020 but will have the opportunity to make a splash over the final few weeks of 2020, or in 2021. Here are four guys that I will be keeping an eye on:
Bryan Edwards, WR Las Vegas Raiders
Bryan Edwards is a fan favorite among fantasy football analysts who favor analytics to film:
|College Target Share||25.50%||64th|
College Dominator and Breakout Age tend to be some of the more accurate predictors of success among the various advanced analytics, and Edwards has one of the best profiles we’ve ever seen. He pairs that with an impressive resume of production at South Carolina, including the most receptions and receiving yards, and the second-most career receiving touchdowns in school history. After receiving 2nd team all-SEC honors in 2019, many draft analysts had a 1st-2nd round grade for Edwards but a foot fracture that he sustained while training for the combine dropped his stock enough for the Raiders to select him in the 3rd round.
Injuries were a common theme for Edwards in college. Unfortunately, injury woes have continued to follow him into his rookie season as well. After a strong training camp that generated plenty of buzz for him around the fantasy football community, especially when Derek Carr compared him to Davante Adams, he saw significant snaps in his first two NFL games (77% and 62%, respectively). The targets were slowly increasing up until he sustained an ankle/foot injury in Week 3, which led to him sitting out the next four games. In his absence, Nelson Agholor emerged as a favorite target for Carr. Even though Edwards returned to game action in Week 9, Gruden has not had any reason to take Agholor off the field while the offense was clicking, leading to minimal opportunities for Edwards. In Week 12, Edwards played his highest snap share (31%) since returning from injury, which was in a game where Las Vegas took a beating from the Falcons and the offense could do nothing against Atlanta’s poor secondary. Agholor has also had some bad drops over the past few weeks, so Edwards should continue to ease himself back in, and eventually take over the role that was intended for him at the start of the year.
Isaiah Coulter, WR Houston Texans
Isaiah Coulter was the Texans’ 2020 5th round pick out of Rhode Island. He flashed in training camp but sustained a neck injury that landed him on IR to start the season. The Texans designated him to return from IR in early October, so he has been able to practice with the team, but is still waiting to make his NFL debut. At the start of 2020, the Texans WR corps seemed too crowded for him to have an opportunity. Things have drastically changed since then:
- Kenny Stills was cut
- Randall Cobb was placed on IR
- Will Fuller has been suspended for the remainder of the regular season for PED use
All of a sudden, Coulter finds himself in a great spot to compete for playing time behind Brandin Cooks this season. One thing missing from the current WR group in Houston is a legit red zone option. Cooks, Fuller, and Stills have primarily been downfield threats for their careers, while Cobb is a typical slot receiver. At 6’2”, Coulter would give Watson a bigger target that will allow them to improve upon an underwhelming 59.38% red one TD rate (19th best in the NFL).
Looking ahead to 2021, Fuller is set to become a free agent and Cobb is on an awfully expensive contract after being acquired by Bill O’Brien this offseason, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the new regime will look to cut bait. Considering that the Texans don’t have either a 1st or 2nd round pick in 2021 to bring in a top WR prospect, Coulter has a clear path for an opportunity to become a starting receiver for Deshaun Watson by next season, and likely won’t have much competition for targets.
Anthony McFarland Jr., RB Pittsburgh Steelers:
Anthony McFarland Jr. is known for his speed. His highlight reel from his Maryland days is filled with big plays, including piling up 298 total yards in a single game against Ohio State back in 2018. He is just the 2nd running back ever to rush for 200+ yards against an Urban Meyer-coached Buckeyes team. As a Freshman, he put up 1,034 yards rushing on 131 attempts (7.9 YPC) and was poised to take over the lead RB role for Maryland in 2019, but suffered a high ankle sprain early on which hindered him throughout the season and likely caused his draft stock to slide. When the Steelers drafted him in the 4th round last spring, many expected him to compete for a role as the change-of-pace back behind James Connor. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion near the end of Training Camp which caused him to miss the first two games of the season. In his NFL debut, he rushed for 42 yards on six carries, flashing his dynamic playmaking ability, but has not received more than three carries in any other game since.
I expect McFarland to increase his role as the season progresses and he gets more comfortable with the offense. Declaring for the NFL draft as a 21-year old Sophomore, he is still raw, so it may take until 2021 for him to earn a relevant workload. James Connor is set to become a free agent, and while he’s been able to stay healthy this season, he has slowed down since his hot start. From Weeks 8-10, he averaged less than 3.2 YPC, before having a decent outing against the Jacksonville defense in Week 11. The Steelers have also lowered his carry counts over the last several weeks, as he appears to show signs of wearing down. If we remove Week 1, where he left the game early with an injury, here are his carries per game breakdown this season:
Weeks 2-7: 17.8 carries/game
Weeks 8-11: 12.5 carries/game
This tells me that there will be more opportunities for McFarland to carve out a role behind Connor, and establish himself as a reliable option for Mike Tomlin going into the 2021 season. It’s unlikely he will ever become a workhorse back at his size (5’9” 203 pounds), but he has game-breaking speed that could allow him to put up big numbers with limited carries. Eventually, I envision a role for him that is similar to what Phillip Lindsay has for the Broncos.
Adam Trautman, TE New Orleans Saints
The 2020 rookie class did not have any elite TE prospects, but Trautman was commonly touted as the best receiving TE. He put together an impressive collegiate career at Dayton, catching 70 passes for 916 yards and 14 touchdowns as a Senior, which earned him recognition as the 2019 PFL Offensive Player of the Year and 1st team All-PFL honors. Also impressive from an analytical standpoint, he posted a 38.1% College Dominator score (97th percentile) and breakout age of 19.6 (87th percentile). He finished his collegiate career with 171 receptions for 2,295 yards and 31 touchdowns, then was drafted by the Saints as the 5th TE off of the board, in the 3rd round.
TEs are known to develop the slowest out of the skill positions since they are heavily involved in both the pass and run games. With the Saints already having Jared Cook as the established starter, expectations were low for Trautman in his rookie season. He did flash in Week 9, when he caught his first career touchdown, to go along with 39 receiving yards on three targets. He has not received more than two targets in any other game though. With Drew Brees injured, and Taysom Hill choosing to run over progressing through his reads like your average QB, breaking out to finish the season is highly unlikely. Jared Cook is on the last year of his contract, and at 33 years old, the Saints will probably move on from him in 2021. We’ve seen this offense heavily involve the TE position in the past, especially in the red zone. Trautman should have ample opportunity to become a top 12 TE as the starter in 2021.