Fantasy: Risky picks to gamble on in 2021

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Gambling with your fantasy picks can be stressful, but it can also be exhilarating. If you're willing to take some chances, here are the players who could deliver league-winning performances in 2021 - as long as they don't sink your team first.

Trey Lance, QB, 49ers

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Unlike Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson - the only two players taken above him in April's draft - Lance isn't guaranteed to be the Week 1 starter on his new team.

In fact, it's possible the 49ers try to roll with Jimmy Garoppolo under center until they're forced to make a change. But Lance will get the starting nod at some point in 2021, and the rookie offers a skill set that could swing fantasy leagues.

The North Dakota State product rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns in his last full college campaign while also throwing for 2,786 yards and 28 scores. He offers an incredibly appealing outlook as a dual-threat quarterback surrounded by quality weapons and top-notch coaching in San Francisco.

Think back to 2018, when we saw Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson assert themselves as first-year QBs down the stretch. From Week 10, Allen and Jackson posted top-10 fantasy numbers thanks to heavy contributions with their legs.

Lance will be placed in a better situation than both those guys, surrounded by a Super Bowl-caliber roster and facing the fifth-easiest fantasy schedule, according to our strength of schedule metric.

And it's still possible that Lance impresses enough in training camp to emerge as the opening-day starter. If that doesn't happen, be patient, he'll be worth the wait.

Other risky QB candidates:

  • Justin Fields, Bears - Similar to Lance, Fields is a rookie unsure of when he'll take over the lead job in Chicago. When he does, Fields also provides dual-threat tools, and his receivers and coaches are already raving about his deep ball.
  • Aaron Rodgers, Packers - The standoff between Rodgers and the Packers is likely to last all summer, and the threat of him sitting out the season is a real possibility. That's pushed his ADP to the fringe QB1 range. But as long as he plays somewhere in 2021, he'll be a top-10 fantasy quarterback.
  • Deshaun Watson, Texans - If you aren't interested in rostering Watson due to the allegations against him, that's totally understandable. It does look like he'll miss time one way or another this season. However, he's still a value option as a late-round pick just on the off chance he plays at some point.

Myles Gaskin, RB, Dolphins

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Gaskin was a revelation last season, vaulting up the depth chart early in the year and usurping veterans Jordan Howard and Matt Breida to ultimately become the Dolphins' lead back.

The former seventh-round pick averaged 18.3 touches, 97.2 yards from scrimmage, and 0.6 touchdowns in his 10 appearances, resulting in the 13th-most PPR fantasy points per game (16.4) among running backs.

Unfortunately for him, Gaskin comes with extremely low draft capital and plays for a coaching staff developed in the Patriots' system where starting backs are often interchangeable.

He was also sidelined for a key stretch during the second half of last season due to a knee injury and COVID-19, which might explain why managers seem hesitant to invest in him this year. His current ADP has him going in the fifth round.

However, Miami didn't draft a top RB prospect and failed to spend for an upgrade in free agency. Backup Salvon Ahmed played well in his spot starts last year, but Gaskin was immediately reinstated as the starter once healthy. Even with the additions of free agent Malcolm Brown and seventh-rounder Gerrid Doaks, there's no reason to think Gaskin isn't heading into camp with a firm grip on the job.

Beat writers have suggested he looks faster in offseason practices and might even be a team captain this year.

"I don't think drafting a back or bringing in a back would have changed anything for me," Gaskin told ESPN's Cameron Wolfe. "I'm trying to compete with myself, compete with others, obviously, but definitely compete with myself, make sure I'm the best running back I can be come the end of July whenever camp starts, and then leading up into the season."

As the favorite to handle significant backfield volume in an offense that's primed to take a step forward in Tua Tagovailoa's sophomore season, Gaskin should be viewed as a fantasy RB2 with top-15 upside if he stays healthy.

Other risky RB candidates:

  • Mike Davis, Falcons - The 28-year-old finished as the RB12 last season filling in for an injured Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. Now, he'll enter the year as the unquestioned lead back for a Falcons offense that should put up plenty of points, even after trading Julio Jones.
  • Javonte Williams, Broncos - Denver's front office made its intentions clear when it traded up to draft Williams early in the second round this year. It's only a matter of time before the tackle-breaker passes Melvin Gordon on the depth chart, so enjoy the small discount while you can get it.
  • Trey Sermon, 49ers - After being taken in the third round to be the 49ers' back of the future, the only thing that stands between Sermon and the starting role is 29-year-old Raheem Mostert, who's struggled to stay on the field when given a bigger workload. Rostering runners in Kyle Shanahan's offense is never a bad idea, especially when it's a promising rookie.

Brandin Cooks, WR, Texans

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If you could get a receiver who broke 1,000 yards in five of the last six seasons - including an 81-1,150-6 stat line last year - in the eighth round, you'd be all over it.

So, why is Cooks' ADP pushing him so far down draftboards?

The obvious reason is a Texas-sized level of uncertainty at the quarterback position, as Deshaun Watson could miss the entire year depending on how his legal situation and unhappiness with team management play out. That leaves Tyrod Taylor as the most likely replacement.

While it's a massive downgrade, the veteran Taylor has proved capable of leading an NFL offense in the past, and Cooks has very little competition for targets in the receiving corps now that Will Fuller is gone.

Third-round rookie Nico Collins has garnered some hype, but outside of him, the starting lineup could feature a past-his-prime Randall Cobb or the intriguing-yet-inconsistent Keke Coutee. There's no real volume threat at tight end, and the backfield consists of 29-year-old David Johnson, 31-year-old Mark Ingram, and Phillip Lindsay who the Broncos didn't trust as a pass-catcher.

In the four games Cooks suited up for without Fuller in the lineup last year, he saw at least eight targets and totaled 18 catches, 307 yards, and three touchdowns over his last two outings of the season.

One look up and down the Texans' roster on both sides of the ball tells you this team is going to compete for the first pick in the 2022 NFL Draft - meaning a lot of time spent playing from behind.

Perhaps that's a situation you want to avoid altogether, but Cooks' track record of production across four teams is hard to ignore, regardless of who's playing quarterback this season.

Other risky WR candidates:

  • Curtis Samuel, Washington - The 24-year-old has averaged top-30 fantasy numbers for the better part of the last three years. He now heads to Washington where he'll be reunited with Ron Rivera and Scott Turner - only this time, they have a quarterback capable of connecting with him downfield.
  • Mecole Hardman, Chiefs - With Sammy Watkins gone, the battle to be Patrick Mahomes' No. 2 receiver (technically No. 3 if we count tight end Travis Kelce) begins. Hardman has game-breaking speed but has yet to carve out a consistent role in one of the league's best passing attacks.
  • Henry Ruggs, Raiders - The first receiver off the board in last year's NFL draft failed to make much of an impact in his debut campaign. The departure of surprise standout Nelson Agholor, combined with better injury luck and a full offseason gives Ruggs another chance to prove himself.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Buccaneers

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There's plenty of talented pass-catchers to feed in the Bucs' offense, so projecting target shares can be challenging.

On top of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown, Tampa has a trio of young receivers fighting for playing time in Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller, and Jaelon Darden. They'll also have O.J. Howard back in the fold after he missed the majority of last season with an Achilles injury.

Gronkowski was held to two receptions or fewer in three of the first four games. It was during that opening month when he famously joked he had only come out of retirement to block.

But the reality is Gronk needed to shake off the rust, and once he did, the future Hall of Fame tight end went on a tear, posting the sixth-most fantasy points per game from Week 5 until the end of the regular season.

A big part of that resurgence can be attributed to his end-zone connection with Tom Brady, which led to seven touchdowns over that span.

This isn't the Patriots' version of Gronk. The 32-year-old won't be recapturing his elite fantasy form. However, he's more than qualified to still produce top-10 stats at his position.

Other risky TE candidates:

  • Blake Jarwin, Cowboys - After a strong finish in 2018, Jarwin had his playing time blocked when Jason Witten came out of retirement. Once the path cleared, he suffered an ACL tear early last season. Assuming he's ready for Week 1, Jarwin will finally have an opportunity to start in a dangerous Cowboys aerial assault.
  • Jared Cook, Chargers - It's unclear how much the 34-year-old has left in the tank, but he did average the 10th-most fantasy points among tight ends as a member of the Saints last year. Now, Cook has wisely hitched his wagon to Justin Herbert, hoping to extend his career.
  • Hayden Hurst, Falcons - The arrival of rookie Kyle Pitts was a tough blow for Hurst's fantasy stock. However, the departure of Julio Jones opens the door for Hurst to remain heavily involved if the team opts for more two-tight end sets. An injury to Pitts would also thrust Hurst back into the fantasy TE1 conversation.

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Fantasy: Risky picks to gamble on in 2021
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