Fantasy football: Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith among high-impact rookies

The Miami Dolphins selected former Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (R) with the No. 6 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29 in Cleveland. Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI
1 of 5 | The Miami Dolphins selected former Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (R) with the No. 6 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29 in Cleveland. Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI | License Photo

CLEVELAND, May 6 (UPI) -- Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith, Ja'Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle are among the NFL rookies UPI senior sports writer Alex Butler expects to make the most impact for fantasy football teams in 2021.

Waddle, Harris, Smith and Chase entered the league as part of last week's 2021 NFL Draft.


Chase joined the Cincinnati Bengals as the No. 5 overall pick. Waddle went to the Miami Dolphins with the No. 6 overall pick.

Smith joined the Philadelphia Eagles at No. 10 overall. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Harris at No. 24 overall. The Denver Broncos picked up Williams in the second round at No. 35 overall.

While most rookie roles are yet to be determined, these four players have clear paths to immediate playing time and will fill needs for their respective teams. They all should play numerous snaps and become critical components to their offenses.


Chase, the first wide receiver picked in the draft, has lofty expectations for the 2021 season. He has the skillset required to achieve those goals.

"I want to win Rookie of the Year and have 10 touchdowns and 1,000 yards minimum this year," Chase told reporters at the NFL Draft on April 29 in Cleveland.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson, Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor were among the top offensive rookies last season. They helped many fantasy football teams reach the playoffs.

Here are my top fantasy football rookies for 2021:

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

I expect Najee Harris to make the biggest impact as a rookie for fantasy football teams in 2021. Harris has the clearest path to immediate production out of all of these players. The former Alabama standout could be the next man in a long line of stellar Pittsburgh Steelers running backs.

The Steelers ranked last in rushing last season, but I expect Harris to provide a jolt for the running game. He should earn more touches as a pass catcher and provide RB2 value all season.

Harris should be a late second or early third-round pick in most fantasy football drafts for leagues with at least 14 teams.


Projection: 1,300 yards from scrimmage, 12 touchdowns

Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos traded up in the second round to select Javonte Williams, which shows that the team didn't want to miss out on the former North Carolina playmaker. Melvin Gordon is still penciled in as the Broncos starting running back in 2021, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Williams rise to RB2/flex level relevance for fantasy football teams.

Williams showed in college that he can excel in a two-back system and has an addiction for the end zone. I think the Broncos will attempt to provide more balance in the running game this season and try to get Williams the ball as much as possible.

Target Williams in the mid-to-late rounds of your draft and in keeper leagues. He could be a home run for your team at some point, but should likely start the year from your bench.

Projection: 750 yards from scrimmage, eight touchdowns

Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Ja'Marr Chase was the first wide receiver off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft. He will reunite with former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow in 2021 as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals.

I expect the Burrow-Chase connection to develop over time. I don't see the rookie wide receiver putting up sensational statistics right away.


Burrow's pass-catching options will include Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon and Drew Sample, which likely means the rookie won't receive enough looks to post consistent weekly statistics.

Chase could still haul in enough touchdowns to provide WR3 production in good matchups or during bye weeks. He shouldn't be picked before the sixth round, unless you are in a keeper league.

Projection: 60 catches, 675 yards, six touchdowns

DeVonta Smith, WR Philadelphia Eagles

Like Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith has the clearest path to immediate production for his position. The Philadelphia Eagles are in desperate need of a playmaker at wide receiver.

Smith will reunite with former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia.

That camaraderie and opportunity -- paired with Smith's ability to get open and make tough catches -- should result in a reliable fantasy football option for your weekly lineup. I expect Smith to post similar statistics to those posted in 2020 by former LSU playmaker Justin Jefferson. His touchdown total likely won't be as high, but he should be a magnet for Hurts, if he stays healthy for 16 games.

Smith can provide WR2/WR3 value this season in point-per-reception leagues with at least 14 teams. He will be a mid-to-late round pick in fantasy football drafts.


Projection: 85 catches, 1,000 yards, 5 touchdowns

Jaylen Waddle, WR Miami Dolphins

Jaylen Waddle, another former Alabama standout, was viewed as one of the most-explosive players in the 2021 draft class. Waddle lit up opposing defenses in college and can play inside or outside in different formations. I expect him to flourish in Miami as he catches passes from former Crimson Tide teammate Tua Tagovailoa.

Out of all the wide receivers in the draft, I think Waddle might have the highest ceiling.

"We love his athletic ability, his run-after-catch [ability], obviously the speed; but it's also his toughness," Dolphins general manager Chris Grier told reporters April 29 during a Zoom conference call. "He's a very competitive kid."

The Dolphins' desperate need for a speedy pass-catcher and Waddle's skill set after the catch make this an ideal fit. I can see Waddle posting WR2 numbers in some matchups and serving as a low-end WR3 in deeper leagues this season. He likely is a better fantasy football play in point-per-reception formats.

The Dolphins should use Waddle as a punt returner as well, which adds to his value and scoring potential. Waddle should be a late-round pick in fantasy football drafts.

Projection: 50 catches, 800 yards, six touchdowns


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