Last year, two of the five most frequently owned players on ESPN fantasy football playoff teams — James Robinson and Justin Herbert — were players who largely went undrafted as a result of the weeks and weeks of research that fantasy team owners put in ahead of the season. In fact, Robinson was the most frequently owned player on teams that made it to their league's postseason.
Robinson was also someone who likely was scooped off the waiver wire after Week 1, seeing as he rather unexpectedly totaled 90 yards against the Colts. It wasn't a game-changing performance by any means, but it was a sign of things to come, and he soon established himself as one of the most consistent forces in all of fantasy football.
This is all to say that the waiver wire is really, really important, especially early in the season, when certain trends are established and we learn whether or not our offseason expectations were right or are in massive need of adjusting.
As usual, the first week of the 2021 NFL season offered a lot of intrigue in terms of injuries, last-second twists in certain teams' game plans, unexpected workhorses and more.
Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers | RB
Yahoo: 1% owned | ESPN: 0% owned
By Week 5, Trey Sermon will probably be the lead running back, with JaMycal Hasty filling in as the change-of-pace back and Elijah Mitchell riding the pine for most of the game. No, not really, but it's hard to rule anything out when you're dealing with a Kyle Shanahan backfield, especially after the guy that seemed like the lead back — Raheem Mostert — became sidelined for at least eight weeks.
Mitchell was the one who stepped up in Week 1, finishing with 104 rushing yards and a touchdown, so he's the one that we're going to go with here. That doesn't mean you should drop Trey Sermon — you absolutely should not do so — but a considerable chunk of FAAB on Mitchell might pay off if it means you get the lead running back in this potent attack.
Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles | RB
Yahoo: 8% owned | ESPN: 4%
Gainwell surprised everyone — even optimistic Eagles fans who were intrigued by the rookie's talent — by completely taking Boston Scott out of the game script. The Memphis product was in for 35 percent of snaps, while lead back Miles Sanders was in for 66 percent of them, and Gainwell even got the work during a full two-minute drill at the end of the first half. It was also nice to see him get goal line work after Sanders did most of the heavy lifting throughout the drive.
If Gainwell can keep up his workload — or even see it increase? — he's definitely worth a roster spot and could even warrant FLEX consideration in future weeks.
Mark Ingram, Houston Texans | RB
Yahoo: 20% owned | ESPN: 11% owned
Two running backs had 25 or more carries in Week 1. Joe Mixon, which isn't all that surprising, seeing as he's a bellcow in Cincinnati so long as he stays healthy. The other was a bit less expected: Mark Ingram. The 31-year-old signed joined the Texans this year along with Phillip Lindsay, and both of them joined David Johnson in an old, crowded Houston backfield.
But instead of a somewhat-equal split, Ingram completely dominated the touches. Though all three backs found the end zone, you've got to go with the guy who had the most opportunities, and though Ingram wasn't all that efficient, he sure got a lot of touches.
For what it's worth, I'd also keep an eye on Lindsay. Should he run with more efficiency going forward, he might be the Texans back to own — if there even is one worth owning as the season moves forward.
James White, New England Patriots | RB
Yahoo: 33% owned | ESPN: 47% owned
Ol' reliable did what he does in Week 1, hauling in six receptions for 49 yards and adding 12 more in the ground. It's boring, but it's perfectly usable as a fill-in running back, especially when so many fill-in options have low floors. As one of just eight running backs this week with seven or more targets, White seems to have the same role for this iteration of the Patriots, with Mac Jones at the helm, as he has had in other years with the team.
Pick him up if you don't have a lot of depth at the position or need a safe player to replace Raheem Mostert or, going back to the preseason, J.K Dobbins and Gus Edwards.
Nelson Agholor, New England Patriots | WR
Yahoo: 33% owned | ESPN: 30% owned
In what was by no means an easy matchup against the Miami Dolphins, Agholor stepped up and provided Mac Jones with another reliable receiver (like the aforementioned White). Leading the team with 72 receiving yards and a touchdown, Agholor picked up right where he left off after a strong 2020 season and could foreseeably be the Patriots' top pass-catcher on the outside going forward.
Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals | WR
Yahoo: 13% owned | ESPN: 4% owned
This feels like an obligatory suggestion, seeing as Kirk hauled in two touchdowns in Week 1, but that doesn't mean we're just going off of past production and not looking toward what he can do in the future. In fact, the future could hold a lot for Kirk, especially if games like this one help his cause as the Cardinals' WR2 behind DeAndre Hopkins. With Kyler Murray looking like a real star as he begins Year 3 in the NFL, picking up his WR2 in a high-powered offense would be a no-brainer.
Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears | TE
Yahoo: 34% owned | ESPN: 22% owned
Kmet dominated the snap count at the tight end position for Chicago, and the offense can only go up from here (especially if Justin Fields takes over sooner rather than later). That bodes well for Kmet, who finished Week 1 with a respectable stat line of five catches for 42 yards on seven targets. Seeing as the Rams are an especially stingy defense and the Bears can't possibly have a less exciting passing effort too many more times this year, I like Kmet's chances to be a relatively safe TE option.