Bust — how powerful this word is. It’s one we fantasy players know well. It’s the genesis of our draft-day paranoia, the traumas of past picks — the Allen Robinson’s and Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s of last season, the deflated high hopes that end in bitter disappointment as they linger on your starting roster, then your bench, and finally, a cathartic boot to the waivers that you knew you should’ve done weeks prior.
There’s a reason why I have lost so much hair.
Here, I am going to focus on players going in the first four rounds as these are the rounds that are so meaningful toward team building. Just as it’s a great boost to your team to land a breakout, the opposite effect can be felt to the detriment of a bust. The question is how to navigate these pitfalls and opt for other players going around the same draft pick.
I’m not saying these players are not “good” per se, but rather they are not worth their current draft capital. Like everything else this time of year, all is projection. This is not black-and-white. Just as these players have a chance to sink your team, they also have the chance to bolster it. To play fantasy football is to dabble in probabilities.
ADP is reflected by the average of multiple PPR platforms on FantasyPros at the time of writing, and I have included the previous year’s positional finish to give us context of which that player must attain to meet their draft capital.
Cue the funeral march.
1. Derrick Henry (TEN), RB4
(2021’s RB4: Joe Mixon (CIN) — 1205 yards rushing, 13 TDs; 314 receiving yards, 3 TDs)
Derrick Henry is somehow both an outlier and yet the most traditional type of running back out there. While the league (and fantasy football for that matter) is shifting to pass catchers out of the backfield, he still puts up numbers that are comparable not to other backs in this period, but to the likes of Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin and Emmitt Smith and the great backs of yore.
Henry incorporates the best old-school bully football in that opposing defenses know that he is going to get 25 carries a game, but they find themselves at a loss for how to stop him. This type of player grinds down the will of an NFL defense, and one can argue that football — if you take away schemes and talent and simply line up 11 men on both sides of the line of scrimmage—is a battle of wills. Who enforces it upon the other, and who will win this struggle, determines the winner.
Henry is that large stone that grinds down the opposition as if they’re corn for meal. He was one of the reasons the Titans have been so successful the past few years and one of the most fun players to watch the past few years. He was also the most terrifying man to play against in fantasy.
And yet, when does this end?
How many carries can his body take? How will last year’s injury affect him this year? How will the lack of receiving options, the downgrade at the offensive line, the many question marks of Ryan Tannehill ultimately doom his chance to be the player we saw the past four years? When will time have his number?
Enveloped in my argument is the counter-argument: he has overcome similar obstacles in the past, and he will continue his outlier streak in 2022. This is certainly in the realm of possibility, but one cannot say there aren’t significant question marks. Right now, he is going No. 5 overall in ADP, and there are so many other picks that are safer.
I expect Cooper Kupp to have another solid year — Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase too. Joe Mixon will be running behind a re-tooled offensive line and Austin Ekeler may be the biggest part of the best offense in the league. Most of these guys should be available at the No. 5 pick, and all of them are safer and provide at least 90% (if not completely all) of the upside Henry has shown.
2. Najee Harris (PIT), RB5
(2021’s RB5: James Conner (PIT) — 752 rushing yards, 15 TDs; 375 receiving yards, 3 TDs)
When you are going in the first round of a fantasy draft, it means you’re a very talented player and a major piece of your team’s offense. To label Najee Harris a bust then isn’t to say that he isn’t a special player or not integral to the Steelers offense, but rather to look at last year’s RB5 and conclude that he just won’t come close to those numbers.
So much of Harris’s output was generated from Ben Roethlisberger and his insistence to get the ball out as quickly as possible, which led to 94 targets. The last time we saw Mitchell Trubisky leading an offense his lead running back, David Montgomery, was targeted only 54 times. They are different quarterbacks with different styles. Trubisky can rely on his legs to avoid the pass rush or obtain a first down. A 39-year-old Roethlisberger simply was unable to do this.
If Najee is going to come close to RB5, we’d have to see a huge leap in touchdowns. He had 10 last year, so he’d have to hit what James Conner accomplished last year. While this is not outside the realm of possibility, he’d have to get a ton of attempts from inside the five-yard-line to make this happen.
We saw last year that it’s rare for Harris to rip off chunk plays of 20+ yards, so if he’s going to hit paydirt to make up for the lack of receptions, the Steelers will have to be in the red zone regularly throughout the season. Pittsburgh finished 21st last year in points scored, and there’s reason to believe they may not hit that mark again this season with a journeyman quarterback and a rookie likely to lead the team. There are many instances of talented backs and receivers torpedoed by struggling offenses. Proceed with caution here.
3. CeeDee Lamb (DAL), WR6
(2021’s WR6: Tyreek Hill (KC) — 111 receptions, 1239 yards, 9 TDs)
The math is easy. CeeDee Lamb was the WR19 last year, and if you deduct WR27 Amari Cooper from the team he will end up a top-12 receiver. His targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns all went up from his rookie year, and now he’s the primary receiver for Dak Prescott.
The problem with Lamb is that if you draft him as WR6 in the 2nd round, you’re taking him at his peak, and an inconsistent one at that. Consider in 2021 he only had three games in which he scored 20 points or more (PPR scoring), and he had 7 games in which he scored 10 points or less. He disappeared in 2020 as well. One can argue that this will change with Amari gone, but it’s just as easy to argue that this is part of his game. He will have the games where he goes off for 79 yards and 2 touchdowns, but you need to be ready for the ones with 21 yards, 46 yards, and 59 yards with no scores.
Remember that when a large number of receiving targets are lost from one season to the next, a good portion of them can be picked up by the backfield, and it is the Cowboys backfield that’s the strength of the team. Tony Pollard should improve this year, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Prescott run in more touchdowns now that he’s two years removed from a horrific injury.
The Cowboys possess a good offense, but we should not expect them to be the number one scoring team again this year. All of this does not bode well for Lamb, who must hit his ceiling to justify the pick.
4. Tyreek Hill (MIA), WR8
(2021’s WR8 : Diontae Johnson (PIT) — 107 receptions, 1161 yards, 8 TDs)
There is a chance that Tyreek Hill can hit the numbers Johnson did as the WR8 in 2021. If anyone’s capable, it is him. But it’s hard to see his ceiling in this offense being anything more than that. Hill will be facing a significant downgrade at quarterback with Tua Tugovailoa, and although he’ll probably be the primary pass catcher, the Dolphins will still want to involve Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki.
Also keep in mind that this is a first-time head coach that emphasized the run during his time in San Francisco. He’ll likely incorporate more of the RPO’s that Tua is so comfortable with and integrate Waddle and Hill into mesh routes in hopes of capitalizing on YAC, but there’s a high chance this offense is just not explosive enough. The defense on this team is still good, and we may find them relying on that side of the ball more to win games.
5. AJ Brown (PHI), WR11
(2021’s WR11: Keenan Allen (LAC) —106 receptions, 1138 yards, 6 TDs)
At least AJ Brown is going from a run-first team to, well, another run-first team. The problem is that the Eagles attempted the pass much less than the Titans did last year, and that’s saying something. Last year Philadelphia finished last in passing attempts and in the bottom 10 in yards and touchdowns. They were among the top 6 in interceptions, too, which hints at what they’ll want to do on offense: run the ball and limit turnovers.
These are not the conditions in which you except a top-12 fantasy wide receiver to emerge. While Brown will probably be used more in different areas of the field — one can see him lining up in the slot more — where his production could be inconsistent and more likely to produce the big boom/bust games we saw from Lamb and DK Metcalf last year.
There’s still a good chance he ends up with 1000 yards and 6 TDs, but highly doubtful he’ll hit 100 receptions. The highest he’s had was 70 receptions in 2020 and, again, the Eagles may throw the ball less. He has the ability to stretch the field and snag some long touchdowns. The question is how bleak will the week-to-week production be in between those big games.
6. Cam Akers (LAR), RB17
(2021’s RB17: Javonte Williams (DEN) — 903 yards rushing, 4 TDs; 316 yards receiving, 3 TDs)
This call is solely due to the injury Cam Akers suffered last season. An Achilles tendon rupture is one of the worst that a player can sustain because of the effect it has on their explosiveness. There have been many studies on this, including the following researched by much smarter people than me. This is a difficult injury to come back from, and there’s not a lot of history of players who come back to their prior selves.
This is a problem in Sean McVay’s offense where he demands A) the running back is durable and B) they break off chunk plays. We’ve seen him flip through running backs in the past, and it led to their success last year when they moved from Darrell Henderson to Sony Michel, and then to Akers himself.
The good news is that Akers was able to make it back to the field. The bad news is that, in a nod to players past, he did not have his explosiveness. There’s a chance he racks up double-digit touchdowns, but there’s also a chance McVay trades for a running back sometime in November.
7. Jaylen Waddle (MIA), WR15
(2021: Chris Godwin (TB) — 98 receptions, 1103 yards, 5 TDs)
This is the same argument we had for Tyreek. How is Tua supposed to support two top-15 wide receivers?
Jaylen Waddle ended last season as the WR13 because he was the only talented receiver on the team. Will Fuller was forever injured, and DeVante Parker could never stay healthy. Waddle was then peppered with short yardage targets as that was the only way the Dolphins could move the ball. Now he is supposed to compete with Hill for those targets.
If Waddle does not get the double-digit targets he relied on last year, there’s not a conceivable way for him to return on his draft capital.