Deebo Samuel Leads 2021 Fantasy Overachievers
NFL Offseason - If you were to look at fantasy football teams that won championships in season-long leagues, Jonathan Taylor and Cooper Kupp would be on a large number of them, and with the seasons those two players had, that should be no surprise. Taylor and Kupp were not only among some of fantasy football's biggest stars in 2021; they were also two of the players that overperformed their preseason KUBIAK fantasy projections by the largest margins.
At the beginning of each season, we use our KUBIAK projection tool to forecast how well players will do in fantasy football and to help our readers win bragging rights amongst their friends. Inevitably, there will be some deviation from those projections in both the positive and negative direction for a variety of reasons (injuries, ineffective play, young players forcing their way into the lineup, etc.).
Today, we're going to look at the players who exceeded expectations the most, with a follow-up piece on the players who underperformed their projection coming later. Overperformance will be calculated by subtracting a player's projected fantasy points (using standard scoring) from their actual performance and identifying the largest differences.
It is important to note that we will be focusing on players who overperformed their projections for reasons other than increased playing time due to injury. San Francisco's Elijah Mitchell was the biggest overperformer at running back in 2021, but a key contributing factor for his breakout year was the opportunity that presented itself when Raheem Mostert suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1.
10. Leonard Fournette, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected Points: 109.1
Actual Points: 185.5
We'll start off with Lombardi Lenny, who was a major fantasy difference-maker taken in the middle rounds of most drafts. Fournette was projected for a 35.3% carry share and 4.0% target share entering the year, but he took on a larger role as Tampa Bay's preferred running back option. Entering the 2021 season, there were concerns that Fournette would be sharing too much of the rushing workload with Ronald Jones and sharing the receiving workload with noted passing-down specialist Giovani Bernard. None of that mattered as Fournette stole the show.
Tom Brady loves to throw to his running backs, and that definitely manifested in 2021, with Fournette coming in at an 11.8% team target share, nearly tripling his preseason projection. As a result of the increased workload, he blasted past his preseason touchdown projection, finishing with 10 against a predicted 5.7. While a late-season hamstring injury knocked Fournette out for most of the fantasy playoffs, he was a major contributing factor in getting teams to that point.
Fournette re-signed with the Buccaneers in free agency on a multi-year deal in late March and Jones is off to Kansas City, meaning that Fournette should be well-positioned to perform at a high level again in 2022 as long as the Tampa Bay offense keeps clicking. Bernard is still around, but Fournette has earned Brady's trust and should stay on the field for a large share of passing-game snaps, giving him plenty of opportunities to produce both on the ground and through the air.
9. Dalton Schultz, TE, Dallas Cowboys
Projected Points: 47.2
Actual Points: 130.0
Schultz's first real opportunity to contribute came in 2020 thanks to an early-season injury to fellow tight end Blake Jarwin, but at the outset of 2021, it was unclear whether that role would persist with Jarwin back in the fold. We expected Schultz and Jarwin to essentially split the tight end workload in Dallas, with Jarwin holding a slight edge in projected target share (10.5% vs. 7.1%). Instead, Schultz built off his 2020 season to command nearly all the tight end receiving volume for the 2021 Cowboys offense.
Quarterback Dak Prescott frequently looked to Schultz in the short and intermediate areas to move the chains, and this resulted in a healthy 16.5% target share for the impending free agent. Jarwin did miss a substantial portion of the season for the Cowboys, but it was clear from the get-go that Schultz was the preferred receiving tight end in Dallas. In addition to that increased target share, Schultz outperformed his expected touchdown total by 2.5, finishing with eight receiving touchdowns against an expected 5.5 per the FO Touchdown Efficiency research tool.
Dallas used the franchise tag on Schultz to keep him in the fold, and with Amari Cooper off to Cleveland and Michael Gallup recovering from a late-season ACL injury, he should have plenty of receiving opportunities heading into 2022. If Dallas is unable to work out a long-term extension with Schultz prior to the season, he could be positioned well to hit free agency again for a major payday come 2023.
8. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Projected Points: 148.5
Actual Points: 231.6
After San Francisco moved up in the 2021 draft to select quarterback Trey Lance at No. 3, it seemed like Garoppolo's days in the Bay Area were numbered. Surely San Francisco would want to move on to the young stud rookie with the tantalizing physical tools quickly, right? Well, not exactly. Lance entered the league needing some additional development before he would be ready to start (unsurprising given his fairly short college career), and as a result, Garoppolo ended up starting 15 of San Francisco's 17 regular-season games and all of the 49ers' playoff contests. Lance's only real opportunities to get on the field came when Garoppolo was injured, and even as the veteran struggled to stay healthy during the playoffs, head coach Kyle Shanahan still stuck with Jimmy G.
In addition to the increases in the volume-based counting statistics like passing yards and touchdowns, Garoppolo also outperformed his projected yards per attempt by nearly a full yard. A full season from breakout do-everything wide receiver Deebo Samuel likely contributed to the increase in efficiency, and the overall offensive improvement had a lot to do with San Francisco reaching the NFC Championship Game and narrowly missing out on a return to the Super Bowl.
Garoppolo was widely expected to be traded before the 2022 season in order to turn over the keys to Lance, but as of now he remains on the 49ers roster, with teams around the league unwilling to meet San Francisco's asking price. The litany of injuries Garoppolo sustained late in the season seems like a major factor in this delay, but until there is some clarity with Garoppolo's situation, it is hard to project what his 2022 will look like. If he stays in San Francisco, he could end up starting for another year, forcing Lance to keep waiting for his chance … or he could get benched early on in favor of Lance and spend most of the season as the backup.
7. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Projected Points: 136.2
Actual Points: 224.0
Entering 2021, there was a lot of hype around Chase's college connection with quarterback Joe Burrow, but between a crowded receiver room and some uncertainty regarding Cincinnati's eventual offensive performance, we merely expected Chase to have a strong year for a rookie as opposed to finishing fourth overall in receiving yards. We projected the target shares for Cincinnati's wide receiver trio of Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd to be more or less even at 19.5%, 19.3%, and 20.1%, respectively; Chase effectively siphoned off a chunk of Boyd's targets to finish at 23.7%, with the increase split between designed touches to get Chase the ball in space and deep shots down the field. Perhaps that time spent in the LSU locker room was the reason for that increased focus from Burrow.
While Chase and Burrow's shared bond might explain some of the difference in target share, the biggest factor in Chase's fantasy overperformance was in the touchdown column. Chase scored 13 touchdowns compared to our projected total of 8.5, resulting in a 4.5-touchdown surplus against his expected numbers, the third-largest surplus among wide receivers across the league. The top-ranked touchdown overachiever will also be making an appearance on this list.
As for 2022, Chase is well-positioned to have another strong year as he enters his sophomore season. While it would be difficult for Chase to be even better than he was as a rookie, his college teammate Justin Jefferson followed up his own 1,400-yard debut year with an even better campaign in 2021, so we should not write that off as out of the question. We're very far removed from those preseason concerns about Chase dropping passes.
6. Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens
Projected Points: 99.0
Actual Points: 189.1
2021's biggest overperformer at tight end had a career year for a Baltimore Ravens team that narrowly missed the playoffs despite not having a fully healthy season from quarterback Lamar Jackson. Andrews nearly doubled his preseason KUBIAK projection for a few key reasons even without having the former MVP available.
First, Andrews posted a monster 26.1% target share against his projected rate of 19.0%, giving him a larger share of the receiving pie than was previously expected. Second, and more importantly, the Ravens passing offense massively exceeded expectations from a volume perspective, so that pie Andrews was pulling from was significantly larger. A major reason for the uptick in passing volume stemmed from injury issues on the offensive line, at running back, and on defense. Baltimore's previously vaunted rushing attack couldn't move the ball effectively, forcing them to lean on their passing game much more than expected when they had the ball. Preseason injuries to JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards could not have helped, forcing Baltimore to rely on Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray in the run game. On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens sustained a number of key injuries to players such as cornerback Marcus Peters, making it less likely that the team would be in position to salt games away late.
For 2022, Baltimore should bounce back defensively thanks to some returns from injury and offseason additions such as Marcus Williams at safety, meaning that they may not be as pass-happy as in 2021. Another continued year of development from second-year receiver Rashod Bateman could pull some additional targets away from Andrews as well, so while Andrews should continue to perform at a high level, he may not have the sheer volume of opportunities to produce, hurting his overall fantasy production.
5. Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
Projected Points: 181.2
Actual Points: 273.8
Heading into the season, there were some concerns that the Chargers would spread the ball around a bit near the goal line to take some of the load off Ekeler given his heavy involvement in the Los Angeles passing game. Safe to say, that did not happen. The Chargers were happy to feed Ekeler the ball in the red zone, resulting in 12 scores on the ground to go along with his eight receiving touchdowns. That total of 20 represented a surplus of 8.7 against his 11.3 expected touchdowns, the largest for a running back in the entire NFL ahead of Arizona's James Conner and his surplus of 6.3. Conner would absolutely be featured in this article if we were including players who saw major upticks just because of an injury (in his case, an injury for Chase Edmonds).
It would be pretty easy to just say "touchdowns" and leave the analysis at that, but it is worth noting that rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater was extremely effective right away, making the All-Pro second team. A successfully-blocked run play takes more than just one lineman making his block, but the Chargers finished tenth in adjusted line yards and fifth when running off left tackle after ranking 29th and 18th in those categories, respectively, in 2020. Adding a stud rookie tackle to the mix had to help Los Angeles' production, and Ekeler was a clear beneficiary.
In 2022, Ekeler does not stand to face much serious competition for touches, so he should still have a strong year. While expecting him to maintain the insane level of touchdown production would not be reasonable, the Chargers still have an excellent offense, and Ekeler will have plenty of opportunities to rack up fantasy points.
4. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts
Projected Points: 219.3
Actual Points: 332.6
Talk about a sophomore breakout. Taylor was projected to have a strong year for the Colts behind their impressive offensive line, but he absolutely smashed through any reasonable expectation in his second season in the league. Indianapolis took a very run-heavy approach with its offense, and Taylor was the primary beneficiary, exceeding his projected number of carries by almost 70. Add in a slight increase in targets over what was anticipated and you have a recipe for a league-winning fantasy season.
While the Colts did not live up to expectations from a real-life perspective, that was largely a result of the team's quarterback play, and Indianapolis moved swiftly to remedy that issue during the offseason, trading away Carson Wentz and replacing him via another trade with Matt Ryan. Ryan is getting older, but with the offensive infrastructure the Colts currently have in place, he will not be asked to play hero ball. As long as Ryan does not completely fall off a cliff, the Colts offense should be able to move the ball effectively.
That quarterback stability should improve their chances of making the playoffs, but it may come at the cost of some of Taylor's volume in 2022. The Colts relied on the rushing attack because that was how they felt they could move the ball most effectively. A more trustworthy quarterback may shift some of that workload away from Taylor. Exposing Taylor to fewer hits would likely help keep him on the field, but in fantasy football, volume is king. Taylor should have another strong year, but another season with over 2,100 total yards and 20 touchdowns does not seem like it would be in the cards.
3. Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
Projected Points: 151.6
Actual Points: 294.2
While a bump in receiving production for the Rams was expected when Los Angeles upgraded at quarterback from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford, we projected that Kupp and Robert Woods would receive similar target shares at the start of the 2021 season, at 22.9% and 20.4%, respectively. Kupp's projection was very healthy, but he exceeded that by a massive amount. He quickly established a connection with Stafford, leading to a monstrous 31.7% target share that helped Kupp lead the league in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Kupp was the only receiver in the league with a target share over 30%, and there were only five players in the league that reached 27%.
When a player puts together that type of outlier season, there are normally a few reasons that may not be repeatable heading into the following year. Keeping with a theme of this article, Kupp had a surplus of 4.1 touchdowns over expected, which makes a lot of sense considering his connection with Stafford and the instability in the Los Angeles receiver room beyond him. Woods tore his ACL at midseason, and while the Rams were able to effectively replace Woods with Odell Beckham Jr., it took some time during the regular season for him to get up to speed. Second-year receiver Van Jefferson also saw an expanded role, but it did not come close to measuring up to Kupp's.
As the Rams look to defend their title, they will be counting on another big year from Kupp, and with Woods traded to Tennessee, Kupp is again well-positioned to produce at a high level. That said, as effective as the Stafford-Kupp pairing was in 2021, I would not be surprised if defenses specifically try to force some other receiver to beat them. It would be fine for the Rams if Jefferson or Allen Robinson made teams pay for that choice, but from a fantasy perspective, it would not be quite as good for Kupp.
2. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Projected Points: 38.6
Actual Points: 183.0
On a Falcons team with Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts, and 2020 fantasy stud Mike Davis, who would have guessed that the best fantasy performer would be Patterson, a career gadget player known mostly for his return abilities on special teams and playing for his fifth organization? Patterson initially took advantage of the void created by the Julio Jones trade to carve out a role in the passing game, but as the season progressed, he took over the starting running back job from Davis, setting him up for hefty workloads on the ground.
After missing the Falcons' primetime game against New England, Patterson took on more of a pure running back role, as he didn't get more than five targets in any game for the rest of the year. Even without his early-season receiving volume, he still amassed a 12.1% team target share that, when paired with his 38.9% rush share and strong red zone involvement, gave Patterson the chance to be one of fantasy's biggest surprises.
For 2022, Patterson will face even less competition for touches with Ridley suspended and wide receiver Russell Gage off to Tampa Bay, but Atlanta's trade of Matt Ryan and subsequent signing of Marcus Mariota to play quarterback raises some questions of whether Patterson will be as productive. Patterson will also be playing his age-31 season in 2022, meaning that last year may be as good as it gets. Still, it had to be validating for the former first-round pick to finally produce at that level after a career where he had not been used as a primary offensive option.
1. Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Projected Points: 109.7
Actual Points: 268.5
Samuel's 2020 season was wrecked by injury, and after a late-season surge by then-rookie Brandon Aiyuk, it was unclear whether Samuel would regain his status as the primary receiving option in the San Francisco offense. Combine that with some anticipated growing pains that might come for rookie quarterback Trey Lance (who did not end up playing much), and there were questions about what Samuel's production might look like. Instead, Aiyuk ended up in Kyle Shanahan's doghouse for part of the year, Jimmy Garoppolo played a full season, and San Francisco felt so strongly about getting Samuel the ball with opportunities to make plays that they started using him at running back.
In addition to Samuel's expanded role, he had a knack for creating massively explosive plays on the ground when he did carry the ball. The 49ers had used him as a runner on sweeps in the past, and he got to show off his ability to alternate between making defenders miss and running through them on outside runs. That tackle-breaking ability played a major role in Samuel finishing the year with eight rushing touchdowns against an expected total of just three. Samuel's touchdown surplus played a major role in his 2021 overperformance.
For 2022, Samuel is still waiting on a new contract extension as of press time, and his name is being bandied about in trade rumors (that may or may not be realistic) should the 49ers decide against giving him a market-level extension. While it seems very unlikely that Samuel would be able to replicate his level of touchdown production, especially if the transition to Lance at quarterback is a bit rocky, I would not put it past the player who defined the "wide back" position in 2021.