Julio, Tua, Giants Highlight 2021 Fantasy Underachievers
NFL Offseason - Not every fantasy draft you enter goes as planned. Every year, someone gets sold on high-end prospects such as Dalvin Cook or Allen Robinson and invests a top draft pick in them, only to watch that player fail to ever put it together on Sunday. These players are the kind that leave a bad taste in your mouth; whenever they appear as the best available on future draft days, you wince thinking about how they cost you the fantasy championship in the past. These are also the kinds of players who woefully underperformed their preseason KUBIAK fantasy projections.
At the beginning of each season, we use our KUBIAK projection tool to forecast how well players will do in fantasy football to help our readers make decisions on who to draft so that they can 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 missed the mark, with a companion piece on the players who overperformed their expectations already out. It is important to note that these players made these lists for performance-based reasons. While injuries are a part of every fantasy season (and they will certainly come up on this list), they cannot be the only reason players ended up underperforming their KUBIAK prediction in an article like this. Players such as Christian McCaffrey and Raheem Mostert did not play enough football this year to qualify as true underperformers. We established a benchmark of a minimum 10 games played when organizing this list. Underperformance will be calculated by subtracting a player's projected fantasy points (using standard scoring) from their actual performance and identifying the largest differences.
Dishonorable Mention: The New York Giants
QB Daniel Jones
Projected Points: 278.1
Actual Points: 165.7
RB Saquon Barkley
Projected Points: 207.4
Actual Points: 107.6
WR Kenny Golladay
Projected Points: 138.1
Actual Points: 52.1
I need to start this list off by just categorizing a team whole-cloth as a fantasy letdown in 2021. The final chapter of the New York Giants' Joe Judge-Dave Gettleman era was one initially defined tepid optimism. After a free-agency spending haul and some promising draft-day maneuvers, there was at least the slightest inkling of a possibility that this would be the year the Giants turned it around. There was a world where offensive line continuity leads to an uptick in production, benefitting both Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones. Then factor in newly acquired weapons such as Kenny Golladay, and all of a sudden this new reality is where Danny Dimes kicks off his third-year burst akin to Josh Allen.
None of those things happened. Of course they didn't. Under an offense run by Judge and Jason Garrett, protected by an offensive line that showed no year-over-year improvement, none of the Giants players came close to the production they were expected to achieve. In fact, Jones, Barkley, and Golladay each posted their least productive seasons of their respective careers. Jones suffered a season-ending neck injury in the team's Week 12 game against the Eagles; despite achieving a career-high 64.3% completion rate and 6.7 yards per attempt, he finished with a career-low 2,248 passing yards and 10 passing touchdowns. Barkley's low-ankle injury suffered in Week 5 was just one roadblock on the road to a 593-yard, two-touchdown season that saw a career-low 3.7 yards per rush attempt (2020 injury season aside). Golladay, despite leading the Giants with a 13.5% target share, caught just 37 passes for 521 yards for a career-low 14.1 yards per reception. He has yet to find the end zone with the Giants.
Considering all this, it should come as no surprise when I say that Jones, Barkley, and Golladay finished as three of the top 11 most disappointing fantasy seasons. Instead of lamenting each of these seasons individually, it felt necessary to group these three together and rip the Band-Aid off all at once. The Giants have been a broken franchise since the twilight of Eli Manning's career, taking missteps and making half-measures in an effort to cling to the idea that they are a competitive football team.
There are things to be genuinely optimistic about going forward, though. New head coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen are a duo who can right the ship. Two top-10 draft picks can help the cause as well. If there is anyone who can help Jones take the uncharacteristic Josh Allen leap, it's the offensive coordinator who was in the building when Allen took said leap. Golladay will certainly lend a hand in helping Jones reach that potential. Any top running back credibility Barkley had has likely expired by this point, but additions to the line and a new offense may revitalize the former No. 2 overall pick.
Well, there I go, giving Giants fans cautious optimism again. Same as it ever was.
10. Miles Sanders, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Projected Points: 154.2
Actual Points: 91.4
One of the most surprising runs of the 2021 fantasy football season (no pun intended) belonged to the Philadelphia Eagles running back group. The combined powers of Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, and Kenneth Gainwell led the Eagles to a 7.0% offensive rushing DVOA, third best in football last season. Each member had their moment to shine: Howard's big Week 8 debut; a two-touchdown performance from Boston Scott in Week 17 to beat Washington; and Sanders' two-week, 251-yard stretch in the back half of the year.
This multiple-back approach was never the plan in Philadelphia, at least not headed into the season. Sanders was supposed to be the lead back from this group, but the success of his teammates meant fewer opportunities went Sanders' way. KUBIAK projected Sanders would dominate the carries among Eagles running backs with a 41.5% share. Sanders finished with just 24.8% of the Eagles' carries, with Gainwell, Scott, and Howard all receiving above 12.2% of carries. Those carries became especially sparse near the goal line, where Scott and Howard were much more effective runners. Sanders never found the end zone despite being projected for 6.2 rushing touchdowns and 0.8 receiving touchdowns by KUBIAK.
The biggest disparity in opportunity came in target share. This is the second year Sanders has been able to come close to his 50-reception mark set during his rookie season. KUBIAK predicted Sanders would see a 7.2% target share; it actually nailed it down to the decimal. That mark just happened to fall well below Kenneth Gainwell's 10.5% target share, nearly a six-point increase over his preseason prediction.
Things should continue to trend upward for the Eagles run game in 2022. Philadelphia was able to convince Jason Kelce to stave off retirement for at least another year. The Eagles have two first-round draft picks, and while they do have more pressing needs on the other side of the ball, they could certainly spend some draft capital on maintaining their offensive line. The good news for Sanders: Jordan Howard appears to be out of the picture. That's one less mouth to feed, and Howard's departure will hopefully lead to more defined roles for the rest of the running back room. The lingering question: how much will second-year running back Gainwell eat into the Sanders-Scott carry split?
9. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City
Projected Points: 168.8
Actual Points: 98.6
The biggest storyline out of Kansas City during the 2021 offseason came from the Chiefs' fully revamped offensive line. The Chiefs invested big money into signing Joe Thuney, made a splash by trading their first-round pick for Orlando Brown Jr., then hit on both Creed Humphrey and Lucas Niang in the draft. While the rebuild was done to protect Patrick Mahomes after the debacle in Super Bowl LV, it was also had the potential to pay dividends in the run game. The Chiefs did improve in offensive rushing DVOA year-over-year, moving from -5.7% (13th) in 2020 to 0.8% (10th) in 2021. That improvement just didn't manifest for second-year running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Things moved slowly out of the gate but took a quick turn into the positive with back-to-back 100-yard games in Weeks 3 and 4. That momentum was almost immediately halted the following week after Edwards-Helaire suffered a sprained MCL that landed him on injured reserve for five games. Darrel Williams stepped up into the starting role during his absence. While Williams averaged fewer rushing yards per attempt than Edwards-Helaire, he more than made up for it with his effectiveness in the passing game. This earned Williams a permanent portion of carries upon Edwards-Helaire's return. Edwards-Helaire's projected 48.1% carry share dwindled down to 27.4%, second to Williams' 33.2%. It didn't help that Derrick Gore, who was elevated from the practice squad following Edwards-Helaire's injury, proved to be an effective depth running back for Kansas City. Gore continued to stick around Kansas City's running back rotation, eventually carving out an 11.8% share of Chiefs carries.
Has Edwards-Helaire lived up to his first-round selection two seasons ago? No, but he has a unique opportunity to rebound heading his way in 2022. The Chiefs were one of the most pass-heavy teams in 2021. With Tyreek Hill now on the Miami Dolphins roster, though, things could change. Ronald Jones replaces Darrel Williams as the RB2 for the Chiefs, and he has 76 receptions in his four-year career. For comparison, Edwards-Helaire has 55 in just two seasons. This is the year that Edwards-Helaire could cement himself as an every-down back in the Chiefs offense, maximizing his time behind the bolstered Kansas City line and getting involved as a pass-catching back. It remains to be seen whether that is something Edwards-Helaire can do with any sort of consistency; time could be running out for him to prove it.
8. Darren Waller, TE, Las Vegas Raiders
Projected Points: 150.6
Actual Points: 78.5
For all the jokes that get made about the three-ring circus that took place last year in Jacksonville, the Las Vegas Raiders went through a very serious, even more tumultuous season. The fact that they made the playoffs is a testament to the fortitude of some of the players on their roster, Darren Waller included. All that considered, Waller ended up as the biggest under-performer among tight ends in last year's fantasy season.
The year started out red-hot for Waller, kicking things off with a 10-reception performance for 105 yards and a touchdown on Monday Night Football. Things essentially peaked in Week 1, though. Waller never eclipsed that 10-reception game, cracking 90 yards just two more times all season. Waller missed time with a knee injury, a back injury, and a brief stint on the COVID list, and a five-week stretch of missed games in the back half of the schedule slowed down momentum for what could have been a solid season.
The biggest pivot came from the departure of Henry Ruggs. The selfish decisions of Ruggs and the tragic incident that followed meant, from a football perspective, that the Raiders had lost their only true deep threat in their offense. This allowed defenses to play Las Vegas differently, compressing down into the box and dedicating more attention to Waller. This worked to varying degrees of success. In the four-game stretch between the Raiders' bye and Waller's extended absence, he had two of his best games of the season but also two of his worst. He came back to help the Raiders punch their playoff ticket in Week 18 but was held to a paltry pair of catches for 22 yards on nine targets in the wild-card loss to Cincinnati.
This should just be a blip for one of the best pass-catching tight ends in football. The hiring of Josh McDaniels means the Jon Gruden circus has officially left down. In place of Ruggs is Davante Adams, arguably the best receiver in football. He is going to command considerably more attention from defenses, which couldn't be better for Waller. I doubt Waller will see the 22.7% target share he was projected to get in 2021, but those targets he does get will be much more productive than last year's.
7. Mike Davis, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Projected Points: 180.2
Actual Points: 95.3
Someone had to fall for Cordarrelle Patterson to make his meteoric fantasy rise.
After his stints in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and then filling in for an injured Christian McCaffrey in Carolina in 2020, the 2021 season seemed like it would be Mike Davis' best chance at becoming a bona fide RB1. It looked as though it would shake out that way early on. While he wasn't doing anything earth-shattering in his first three weeks, Davis put together a decent resume of 37 carries and 14 receptions for 197 total yards. His slide into bad play—a 14-yards-on-13-carries performance against Washington—just happened to coincide with Patterson's breakout three-touchdown performance. From there, it was over. Patterson went on to have one of the most surprising fantasy performances in recent memory, and Davis ends up among our most disappointing players.
Here's the rub: Davis didn't woefully underperform his projected numbers from an efficiency standpoint. Davis was projected to average 3.8 yards per attempt, and he ended up averaging 3.6. He was projected to catch 46.5 passes for 298.9 yards, and he finished with 44 receptions for 259 yards. The difference came down to running volume and scoring opportunities. His 53.2% projected carry rate ended at 35.1%, with Davis receiving almost 100 fewer rushing attempts than projected. That big gap in targets hurt him in scoring situations, finishing with six fewer touchdowns than projected.
Unfortunately for Davis, he is officially relegated back to backup status. Patterson has officially re-signed, and Davis is now competing with Damien Williams for additional snaps. There is some hope for Davis truthers. The departure of Falcons legend Matt Ryan and the dearth of receiving talent left on the roster could lead Atlanta to lean more heavily on the run game going forward. That being said, I think the days of Davis being considered a quality fantasy running back are behind us.
6. Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
Projected Points: 137.9
Actual Points: 47
Allen Robinson has traditionally been seen quarterback-proof throughout his NFL tenure. He has provided the likes of Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky with a quality WR1 option. His performance has never seemed to drop despite who's throwing him the ball. Off the heels of his second-consecutive 1,000-yard season, the Chicago Bears handed Robinson the franchise tag instead of extending him. Suddenly, the trend of being "quarterback-proof" met its match: the combination of Justin Fields and Andy Dalton.
Whether the ensuing drop-off was due to a lack of continuity between Robinson and the two quarterbacks, or if Dalton and Fields failed to hold up their end of the bargain, Robinson had the worst statistical season of his career. Granted, he missed time with a hamstring injury, eventually playing 12 games on the season for Chicago, but the problems started well before that. Robinson had just three games all year with more than 50 yards receiving, with a season-high total of 68. His only touchdown of the year came in Week 2, in a game where Robinson had just one other reception for a total of 24 yards. The drop-off in his final season with the Bears led him to finish third in team target share behind Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet. Robinson fell short in every statistical projection, failing to surpass 40% of his projected receiving yards total.
There's considerable hope that Robinson bounces back from this outlier season, as he struck a three-year deal with the Los Angeles Rams this offseason. With Robert Woods headed out of town, Robinson will take on a WR2 role, sharing targets with Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson. Arguably, this career-low almost ended up as a reward for Robinson, like phoning it in at your old job after handing in two weeks' notice. Robinson moves on from a rebuilding Bears team with question marks all over the offensive side of the ball. He instead walks onto the reigning Super Bowl champions, where he will get easier defensive matchups playing alongside Kupp. The best part? Robinson finally has a top-tier quarterback throwing him the ball. If the Rams can get literally any version of Robinson other than this year's iteration, Rams fans and fantasy owners alike should rejoice.
5. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Projected Points: 331.1
Actual Points: 239.6
Russell Wilson's swan song in Seattle did not go how anyone expected it to. After rumblings Wilson wanted out last offseason, any qualms were seemingly satiated by the Seahawks trading a fifth-round pick for Gabe Davis. While a bolster to the offensive line certainly helped things, Wilson needed more to remain effective. Wilson opened the season with some impressive solo stat-lines in early losses, but he was sidelined after sustaining a significant finger injury during Seattle's Week 5 game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Wilson was originally given a timeline of six to eight weeks to recover, but the miraculous healer needed only four before he returned to action in Week 10. The numbers say Wilson probably should have taken some extra time to heal up. In the nine games Wilson played after returning from his finger injury, he completed 61.4% of his passes, averaging 213 passing yards per game, and posted just 16 total touchdowns over that stretch. Wilson was also heavily limited as a runner, falling short of his projected rushing yards total by over 300 yards. Originally projected to be QB8 headed into the season, Wilson finished the year as QB16.
Despite being limited by injury, this isn't the last we've seen from Mr. Unlimited. Now rocking some new orange duds, Wilson looks poised to bounce back in his first season with the Denver Broncos. Things have improved for Wilson in almost every capacity: offensive scheme, offensive line, running back, and defense are all major improvements for Wilson, with wide receiver serving as the only potential downgrade. Throwing himself into the AFC West arms race may prove to be a boon for Wilson's fantasy stock. Competing against elite offenses for six games a year may pump his passing volume to new heights, making this appearance on the underachievers list a one-time blip.
4. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Projected Points: 336.8
Actual Points: 240.1
The Baltimore Ravens were plagued by the injury bug in historic fashion. Their 191.2 adjusted games lost was the most by a team in the 20-year history of our database. That included Lamar Jackson, who missed a total of five games from an ankle sprain. The injury merely truncated his counting stats, marks that Jackson was already on pace to hit if not exceed. The ankle injury, coupled with a weakened offensive line, led him to average nearly one less yard per attempt than initially anticipated. His total passing yards for the season, however, were right on pace for their projected total of 3,148.6.
The biggest difference in Jackson's game came from scoring effectiveness. Jackson was limited to 16 passing touchdowns and just two rushing touchdowns in 2021, a far cry from his respective projections of 24.6 and 6.8. That may have just been the circumstance of the season, though. The Ravens had one receiver who stayed consistently healthy all year in Marquise Brown; he and Mark Andrews combined for 15 of Baltimore's 21 passing touchdowns last season. The Ravens instead leaned on a heavy rushing attack in the red zone, ranking second in red zone rushing DVOA. Even when J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards went down with season-ending injuries, the likes of Devonta Freeman, Latavius Murray, Ty'Son Williams, and Le'Veon Bell answered the call.
2022 should be a bounce-back year for Baltimore across the board, but for Jackson especially. Playing on his fifth-year option should provide some additional motivation, obviously. In general, though, Jackson and his receivers will benefit from another year together. Each of Baltimore's starting wide receivers is currently on a rookie deal, with Brown being the most senior member with three years of NFL experience. As players such as Brown, Rashod Bateman, and Devin Duvernay find their footing in the league, Jackson will hopefully return to form.
3. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Projected Points: 286.5
Actual Points: 180.6
Dalvin Cook had a solid year as a fantasy running back. Why is he on this list, then? Headed into the 2021 season, Cook was projected to be the top running back in football, making him by extension the top overall pick in most fantasy leagues. When the expectations are high, even above-average performance can be considered a letdown. A season with 1,300 total yards and seven touchdowns made him RB11 on the year. Good? Yes, but a far cry from the best overall option in fantasy football.
Part of the sky-high expectations for Cook came from projections assuming he would dominate the Minnesota Vikings offense. Cook was slotted into a team-leading 65.8% carry share and a 13.2% target share, third-most among Vikings players. Cook's numbers missed their mark, finishing at a 55.4% carry share and 8.3% target share. Cook lost a lot of carries to Alexander Mattison, who leapt from an estimated 16.9% carry rate to a final share of 30.0%. Mattison was a far less effective back than Cook, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. While Cook missed four games this season, it was enough to sneak Mattison into the fold and give him consistent reps in the Vikings offense.
Cook also failed to find the end zone as frequently as initially expected. Cook finished with seven rushing touchdowns, just over half of his 13.8 expected rushing touchdowns. Chalk that one up to a systemic issue instead of blaming it on Cook. Minnesota finished 29th in red zone rushing DVOA and third in red zone passing DVOA. Misusing Cook in scoring situations killed his ability to perform as a top-end fantasy talent.
Be wary of Cook as a No. 1 overall draft selection, but there should be no concern over his ability as a top-end fantasy running back. The extension offered to Kirk Cousins is at least a temporary vote of confidence in the Vikings' passing attach (it's easy to have confidence when your weapons are Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen). Minnesota may not be as run-heavy as initially anticipated, but that doesn't mean Cook won't be heavily involved in the Vikings' success going forward.
2. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins
Projected Points: 288.7
Actual Points: 172.9
On paper, Tua Tagovailoa has all the qualities to make it as a modern-day dual-threat quarterback. He can escape with his legs, hit players on the run, and sling it deep if he has the time to throw. After getting nine games of Tagovailoa in 2020, it can be easy to buy into the potential instead of the on-field product. He showed flashes of what could one day be throughout his rookie campaign. After acquiring Will Fuller and drafting Jaylen Waddle over the offseason, picking up some additions for the offensive line, there was a thought that maybe these moves could fuel a second-year surge.
The 2021 season came and went, and that potential has yet to manifest. Tagovailoa averaged 6.9 yards per pass attempt and 3.0 yards per rush attempt, both 0.6 below his projected average. He threw for 2,653 yards, just 62.5% of his projected total. Tagovailoa was also taking a beating playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Tua finished with an average time to throw of 2.52 seconds, third-quickest in the NFL last season, per Next Gen Stats. Tagovailoa took 20 sacks in 13 games, failing to play a full season after missing three games with fractured ribs and another with a fractured finger. The Dolphins fizzled out, ending the season with just as many questions about their young quarterback as they entered the season with.
Last offseason, the Dolphins took their first steps to improving the situation around Tagovailoa. This year, Miami pulled out all the stops. Concerned about Tua's fragility? Sign Terron Armstead to a long-term deal. Worried that Tua doesn't have enough weapons? Trade for Tyreek Hill. Think Tua isn't developed enough? Hire Mike McDaniel, the next iteration in the "boy-genius offensive-guru" line of head coaches. The ball is squarely in the court of Tua Tagovailoa at this point. Drafting Tagovailoa in this year's fantasy season is not for the faint of heart, but there is incredible upside to be had. If the 4,500-total-yard, 30-total-touchdown season projected for Tua last season was ever in the cards, this would be the year it happens. That's a mighty hypothetical to wager on, but it could be quite the payout if it hits.
1. Julio Jones, WR, Tennessee Titans
Projected Points: 157.0
Actual Points: 49.4
The Tennessee Titans made a splash last offseason, sending second- and fourth-round picks to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for Julio Jones. The move was supposed to be a win for all sides. The Falcons needed to clear cap space and earned some draft capital at the expense of moving on from a franchise icon. The Titans thought they were gaining a WR2 behind A.J. Brown who could help add an extra dimension to one of the most run-heavy offenses in the league.
Instead, Jones had one good game before things went south. In Week 2, Jones caught six passes on eight targets for 128 yards. He finished his first three weeks with 204 yards on 12 targets before being sidelined for two weeks with a hamstring injury. That was the same hamstring that sidelined Jones for stretches of his last season with the Falcons. In his one year in Tennessee, Jones never played more than three straight games for the Titans before eventually being sidelined with another injury. Jones went on to finish the year with the fewest receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns of his career. That promise of additional firepower in the passing game never manifested. The Titans fell from a fourth-ranked 39.5% offensive passing DVOA in 2020 to a 21st-ranked 5.8% DVOA in 2021.
Jones remains unsigned at this moment, and he's the only player on this list I can't paint some kind of picture of optimism for. He turned 33 in February, and as he enters his 12th season in the NFL, it's clear Jones has lost a step. Father Time comes for everyone at some point. Despite the poor performance, Jones did average 14.0 yards per reception last year, which technically isn't a low for him. Scoring four touchdowns in two years doesn't help matters, either. He still seems as though he can be a depth receiver on an NFL team if he wants to stick things out, but he doesn't seem like a viable week-to-week starter in typical fantasy leagues.