This past week, the NFL rolled out its full 18-week calendar for the 2021 regular season. Now that we know the exact sequence of games, let’s take a look at 10 players who will benefit most from Wednesday’s schedule drop.
Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Football Team
McLaurin gets a really nice end-of-season schedule to allow him to have a major impact in the fantasy playoffs. This stretch starts in Week 14 with a primetime game against the Seattle Seahawks, who lost cornerback Shaquill Giffin this past offseason. After that, they take on the Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys twice, and Philadelphia Eagles twice.
Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers’ offensive line doesn’t look great, but Harris’s NFL career opens with an intriguing stretch of games. Over the first six weeks, he’ll run against suboptimal defensive lines belonging to the Buffalo Bills, Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, and Seahawks. Pittsburgh then goes on its bye week and proceeds to have a tough slate of games, but a strong first six weeks could be just what Harris needs to kick off his stint as a professional.
Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have a very enticing slate of opponents this season, starting with duels against the Detroit Lions, Eagles, Packers, Seahawks, and Arizona Cardinals. He then goes up against a few challenging secondaries but should bounce back in Week 11. That’s when he kicks off a seven-game stretch against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings, Seahawks, Bengals, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, and Houston Texans. Perhaps most sweet of all is that the 49ers face the Los Angeles Rams, who possess the league’s best secondary, in Week 18 when most fantasy leagues’ playoffs have already concluded.
Sam Darnold, QB, Carolina Panthers
Darnold’s stint in Carolina begins with an intriguing stretch. Four of his first six games come against the New York Jets, Texans, Cowboys, and Eagles. He also gets the New Orleans Saints in Week 2 and Minnesota Vikings in Week 6, which could lead to impressive performances from Darnold thanks to Carolina’s wide span of weapons. Of course, only the start of the season is good for Darnold. He does take on the Falcons twice from Weeks 8 to 14, but outside of that, it’s a tricky end to the year. He’ll be a good sell-high candidate in mid-October.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers’ tight end room is somewhat crowded, but Gronkowski is the clear alpha. He also gets a really intriguing schedule during the end of the fantasy regular season and the entire span of the playoffs. Tampa Bay takes on the Indianapolis Colts in Week 12; they just lost safety Malik Hooker after choosing not to re-sign him. After that, they get the Falcons. The Saints and Panthers are on tap for Weeks 15 and 16, though Week 17 against Marcus Maye and the Jets is less than favorable.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans
It remains to be seen if Deshaun Watson even plays in 2021. If he does, he’ll get a very favorable end-of-season schedule. After a Week 10 bye, he’ll oppose the Titans in Week 11. Tennesse replaced Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler with Caleb Farley, which isn’t a terrible move but isn’t anything truly noteworthy considering how bad the secondary struggled in 2020. After that, the Texans take on the Jets, Colts, Seahawks, Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers, and 49ers. Week 18 features another clash with the Titans. All in all, the back half of the season presents an incredible opportunity for Watson to produce.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts
Taylor burst onto the scene in 2020, posting elite numbers to close out the season after a slow start. He’ll have very stingy matchups throughout the first seven games before the schedule gets a bit easier. Eight of his last 10 games come against the Titans, Jets, Jaguars (twice), Bills, Texans, Patriots, Cardinals, and Raiders. The other two are against the Buccaneers and Cardinals, who do pose significant threats defensively. Still, this is quite the intriguing end-of-season slate for Taylor, who is a dual-threat back poised for a big year with Carson Wentz delivering the football to him.
George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
Kittle’s case is not dissimilar to Aiyuk, though it centers around safety matchups more than cornerback. Whereas Aiyuk was lucky that he only had one matchup against the Rams and Jalen Ramsey, Kittle will be grateful he gets to take on Los Angeles, which lost safety John Johnson this past offseason. His games between Weeks 11 and 17 (Jaguars, Vikings, Seahawks, Bengals, Falcons, Titans, Texans) aren’t the best possible, but there are still a handful of matchups that present significant fantasy intrigue for the star tight end.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
The NFC West looks a lot friendlier for Rams receivers after Shaquill Griffin and Patrick Peterson both departed to different decisions in free agency. It appears quite possible that Richard Sherman doesn’t return to the 49ers, either. That poses as a huge leg up for Kupp and complementary receiver Robert Woods. Kupp isn’t a super exciting option for the fantasy playoffs (Vikings in Week 16, Ravens in Week 17), but the games surrounding that point are rather intriguing. From Weeks 10 to 15, he gets the 49ers, Packers, Jaguars, Cardinals, and Seahawks. Los Angeles’ regular season concludes against the 49ers in Week 18.
Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
Ekeler was already underrated entering this offseason. Now, he gets a good-looking schedule to complement his phenomenal play style? Oh, boy. Look out. For starters, neither the Chiefs nor Broncos were necessarily stingy when defending the run last season. Las Vegas struggled in that regard, too. Just like that, Ekeler has six games with terrific upside. Further, from Weeks 8 through 18, Ekeler will run against the Patriots, Eagles, Vikings, Steelers, Broncos (twice), Bengals, Giants, Chiefs, Texans, and Raiders. Of all these matchups, only the Steelers and Giants present significantly legitimate concerns. Translation: Ekeler should rush with ease this year, especially in the back half of the season.
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