Five wide receivers were selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft and 10 more were picked in the second and third rounds. Just by sheer numbers alone, a handful of these wideouts will have breakout seasons for fantasy football.
Rookie wide receivers are often prime candidates to add midseason on the waiver wire. JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017 second-rounder), DK Metcalf (2019 second-rounder) and A.J. Brown (2019 second-rounder) are all recent examples of non-first-round receivers who produced monster rookie seasons.
While all the hype is surrounding the top receivers, can any later picks crack the preseason list of best rookie receivers? Here’s a look at our rookie wideouts for fantasy football in 2021:
1. Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
This is the easiest answer until proven otherwise. The last time we saw Chase on the field he was catching touchdown after touchdown in the national championship for LSU. Now, he’s in the NFL with his college quarterback Joe Burrow. This is a perfect match for Zac Taylor’s offense.
Chase enters Cincinnati as the clear-cut WR1 for the Bengals. Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are solid options, but neither have the ceiling Chase does. He and Burrow already have an established chemistry, as they showed when they connected for 20 touchdowns in LSU’s 15-0 season in 2019. The duo shouldn’t miss a beat in the pros.
2. DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles 2020 first-round receiver Jalen Reagor struggled with health and production in his rookie season. The hope is that Smith and Reagor playing together should benefit them both. Another added bonus could be more consistent quarterback play, as Jalen Hurts takes over for Carson Wentz full-time.
Smith is the best route runner in his class and won’t have many challengers at his position on Philadelphia’s roster. The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner had a remarkable college career at Alabama, culminating in a 117-catch, 23-touchdown senior season. Size could be a concern (6-foot, 166 pounds), especially early in his career as he gets used to NFL speed and size.
3. Rashod Bateman, Baltimore Ravens
Bateman was the fifth and final first-round receiver, but he landed in perhaps the best situation. The Baltimore Ravens have been searching for weapons to help expand the passing game with Lamar Jackson. Past-their-prime veterans like Dez Bryant and Willie Snead just aren’t going to cut it if they want to compete for a Super Bowl.
Enter Bateman, who flashed his potential in three seasons for Minnesota. In 28 career games for the Golden Gophers, Bateman had 147 receptions for 2,395 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns. The 6-foot receiver should be an ideal complement to Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.
4. Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins
The second receiver selected in the draft drops to fourth in our rankings for a couple of reasons. His talent isn’t a question -- the issue is health, quarterback play and offensive system inconsistency in Miami. Waddle missed seven of 13 games in 2020 with a broken right ankle. He’ll be reunited with Tua Tagovailoa in Miami, but the QB struggled as a rookie. Lastly, Miami is now on its third offensive coordinator in as many years. All of those factors could contribute to Waddle dropping down fantasy draft boards.
On the bright side, Waddle joins a stable organization with a potential to grow into a WR1. DeVante Parker and Will Fuller will likely start the season ahead of him on the depth chart, but Waddle will get his chances. The combination of Tagovailoa and Waddle is the future in Miami, and it’d be wise to get that connection cooking from the jump.
5. Elijah Moore, New York Jets
Many pegged Moore as a first-rounder, so the fact that he dropped to No. 34 overall was surprising. Moore’s slip becomes the Jets’ gain, as they poached a talented weapon who should fit in well with Mike LaFleur’s offense.
LaFleur comes from the 49ers, where the team got the most out of Deebo Samuel as an end-around weapon. Moore should fill a similar role, racking up rushing and receiving yards for fantasy owners. In eight games for Ole Miss last season, Moore had 86 catches for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns. He also added 64 rushing yards on 14 carries.
6. Kadarius Toney, New York Giants
Toney was slightly overdrafted at No. 20 overall. The Giants clearly think he’ll fit in with their revamped offense surrounding Kenny Golladay and a healthy Saquon Barkley. My concerns for Toney involve health and quarterback play. He missed nine games total in 2017 and 2019 due to injuries. Beyond health, Daniel Jones hasn’t proven to be a reliable quarterback for both fantasy and real-life purposes. Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton have been inconsistent since Jones took over in 2019 and I don’t see why Toney would be any different.
The flash of talent that Toney unleashed in 2020 with Florida is enough to land him on this list. Last season, he had 70 receptions, 984 receiving yards, 161 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns. He’s a versatile weapon when used correctly. Another concern is that he only produced in one of his four seasons, as he never topped 260 receiving yards in his first three years.
7. Dyami Brown, Washington Football Team
Brown is the first and only third-rounder to make our list. He emerged at North Carolina as an elite deep threat, topping 20 yards per reception in both his sophomore and junior campaigns. In those two seasons, he totaled 106 catches for 2,133 yards and 20 touchdowns.
With the Washington Football Team, Brown should complement Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel as the WR3. McLaurin put up big numbers last season with Dwayne Haskins, Alex Smith and Kyle Allen throwing him the ball. Ryan Fitzpatrick provides some stability at that position this season, which will benefit Washington’s weapons for fantasy purposes.
8. D’Wayne Eskridge, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks have a pair of star receivers ahead of Eskridge in Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. That doesn’t mean the second-rounder won’t have fantasy value as a rookie, though. In just six last games season for Central Michigan, Eskridge caught 33 passes for 768 yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged over 20 yards per reception in each of his final three seasons.
Eskridge should have a chance to perform as long as Russell Wilson is still running the show in Seattle. New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron will likely do more to get these speedy receivers the ball in open space, which should benefit Eskridge.
9. Rondale Moore, Arizona Cardinals
Moore fell into a tough situation in Arizona. On paper, his fit with Kyler Murray in the air raid offense seems ideal. Digging deeper, though, there are some concerns. Moore stands at 5-foot-7, while Murray is just 5-foot-10. There’s also plenty of depth ahead of Moore with DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk and A.J. Green.
Health is also a concern for Moore, who only played one full season (his freshman year). That one season was electric, as he totaled 1,421 all-purpose yards and 14 total touchdowns in 13 games. But after playing just seven games over the last two years, it’s fair to question what you’ll be getting out of Moore in his rookie season.
10. Terrace Marshall Jr., Carolina Panthers
Marshall falls into the “injury risk” category, but unlike some of his draftmates, that’s his only major concern. He was likely a first-round pick until test results revealed long-term concerns about a broken leg and ankle problem from high schools. Marshall also underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in January of 2021.
On the field, Marshall did nothing but produce for LSU. As the Tigers’ No. 3 receiver in 2019 (behind Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson), Marshall had 46 receptions for 671 yards and 13 touchdowns. Last season as their WR1 and without an established quarterback, Marshall caught 48 passes for 731 yards and 10 scores in just seven games. If he can stay on the field, this is a rookie worth keeping an eye on.
Logan Reardon contributed to this story.