Early Fantasy Football Sleepers (2021)
It’s been an incredible fantasy football season. Whether you are still reeling from a heartbreaking loss in the playoffs or celebrating a triumphant victory, it is never too early to look ahead to 2021. You’ve got to be diligent in your scouting and player analysis if you want to identify high upside players who are flying under the radar. The game doesn’t end just because the games are over; it’s only just begun.
I want to identify several sleepers, four of whom will be for redraft purposes and four others will be for dynasty formats. For the redraft sleepers, these will be guys I think will be going in the later rounds that could see a major uptick in production next season. For the dynasty players, these will be players who barely made an impact in 2020, but could see a spike in value following free agency or the draft.
Joe Burrow (QB – CIN)
In the past, there has been at least one quarterback every year who has had an average draft position in the double-digit rounds, yet finished in the top-five at their position and provided a unique advantage to your roster. In 2018, Patrick Mahomes went undrafted in most leagues and finished as the QB1. In 2019, Lamar Jackson did the same with a 10th round ADP. This past season, Justin Herbert came onto the scene in Week 2 and finished as the QB9 after going undrafted.
Next season, I fully expect Joe Burrow to make the leap. Recency bias makes fools of us all, and it’s going to cause many people to forget how good Joe Burrow actually was to start the season. In his first seven games, Burrow threw for over 300 yards five times and scored 14 total touchdowns. He also never threw less than 30 passes in any game, and as I have preached in every article I have ever written, volume necessitates fantasy production.
Burrow is also not afraid to run the ball, which is a key factor for the success of fantasy quarterbacks. I can’t imagine Burrow being drafted inside the top-15 quarterbacks, and I doubt he finishes outside of that range if he is able to play a full season. If Burrow is ready to start the season, I would be more than happy to make him my starting quarterback and watch him blossom in his second year with Cincinnati.
Tee Higgins (WR – CIN)
Whatever you think Tee Higgins’ average draft position is going to be next year, it’s already too low. Higgins will be overshadowed by other rookie wideouts like Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, and Chase Claypool because they performed just as well on better teams. However, Higgins was the clear No. 1 wideout for a Cincinnati squad that was struggling without their starting quarterback for most of the season. Higgins finished as the PPR WR28 in 2020, but he scored 11.2 fantasy points per game and double-digit PPR points 75 percent of his contests.
As the season progressed, Higgins had surpassed A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd as the Bengals No. 1 wideout, seeing 108 targets and catching 67 balls for 908 yards and six touchdowns. Higgins’ target share should see an even greater spike in 2021, as Green is all but certain to leave for greener pastures in the offseason. With Joe Burrow coming back to rescue Cincinnati from the cellar of the AFC North, Higgins should be in line for a lot of work and could easily finish as a 1,000-yard receiver.
Higgins will likely be extremely undervalued compared to the other rookie wideouts in his draft class, but he should be just as productive. I think Higgins has a shot to finish as a WR1 next season. I know that’s bold, but I truly believe he’s going to be that good in his sophomore season.
Laviska Shenault (WR – JAX)
Laviska Shenault does not get nearly enough recognition. Dynasty folks know all about the rookie wideout for Jacksonville and how well he has played this season, but he’s going to be criminally underrated for redraft purposes. It’s understandable, as the casual fantasy player probably hadn’t watched much of the 1-15 Jaguars in 2020. Still, that should play into your favor heading into next season.
Shenault was a swiss-army knife at the wide receiver position for Jacksonville, lining up all over the formation and even getting carries in the backfield. The 2020 second-round pick averaged over 10 yards per catch and 11.2 PPR points per game. He’s the clear No. 2 option in the offense and will likely maintain his role as the yards-after-the-catch receiver regardless of who Jacksonville signs. Also, let’s not ignore the elephant in the room: Trevor Lawrence is headed to Florida.
Shenault won’t likely be drafted before the double-digit rounds, as everyone will look to select all of the names they have heard before. He won’t be a popular pick, but this sophomore wideout’s draft position will scream “value,” and he could provide WR2 production in 2021.
Curtis Samuel (WR – CAR)
The big names in the Carolina offense this past season were D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. Both receivers were much more well-known and drafted way ahead of Samuel. Yet, the Ohio State product out-produced both this year in many categories. On a fantasy points-per-game basis, Samuel out-scored both Moore and Anderson, as he caught 77 of 97 targets for 851 yards and three touchdowns. He also added 200 yards and two touchdowns on the ground off of 41 carries.
Samuel finished as a WR2 despite being third on the depth chart. Now, I know what you are saying. “But Dan, once Christian McCaffery comes back, Samuel will be utterly irrelevant.” If you are worried about McCaffery stealing volume from Samuel, I totally understand. However, Samuel isn’t a sleeper because of his potential in Carolina next season; he’s a sleeper because of his potential elsewhere.
Curtis Samuel is a free agent this offseason, and I find it hard to believe the Panthers are going to pay to bring him back. They have too many needs elsewhere on the roster, and they are already over-paying two skill position players. Watch out for Samuel’s landing spot in free agency, because if he lands somewhere like Baltimore or Washington, he could be a tremendous value in 2021 drafts.
Gus Edwards (RB – BAL)
Gus Edwards will be a restricted free agent this offseason, but I’d bet he’s back in Baltimore given how friendly his contract will be. Nonetheless, he’s going to be a value regardless of where he lands next season. Edwards was phenomenal in 2021, averaging over five yards per carry for his third consecutive season and finishing the year with over 850 total yards. More importantly, his touchdowns went up, as he got into the end zone a career-high six times.
While Edwards will never be the RB1 in Baltimore, he could be a viable fantasy RB3 given he averaged over 10 touches per game in December. For most running backs, 10 touches wouldn’t mean much. However, in Baltimore’s elite rushing offense, that’s more than enough to provide a decent floor. Also, he’s probably going to be one of the most valuable running back handcuffs in 2021.
If he happens to land with another team, that means he’s going to receive a featured role and improve on his volume; as a starting running back, Edwards could be a valuable RB2. You could likely pry away Edwards from another fantasy manager for a late 2021 rookie draft pick. That’s well worth the price for the upside Edwards provides.
Gabriel Davis (WR – BUF)
His price certainly increased this past weekend, but I think we are all still underestimating how great Davis could be in 2021. Right now, Davis is fourth on the Bills’ wide receiver depth chart, but he saw a lot of opportunities to end the year thanks to injuries to Cole Beasley and John Brown. Davis finished his rookie campaign with 35 catches for 599 yards and seven touchdowns, making crucial catches for Buffalo down the stretch.
Davis might not be too far down the depth chart for long, however, as Buffalo will need to extend a lot of their players this offseason and may not have the luxury of keeping four great wideouts. Buffalo is going to have to open up the checkbook for guys like Josh Allen, Matt Milano, Dion Dawkins, and Micah Hyde; Brown or Beasley could easily become a cap casualty. Even if they do remain on the squad, Davis’ ceiling is sky high so long as he’s tied to Josh Allen.
After making two beautiful toe-tap catches in Buffalo’s playoff win over Indianapolis, his price probably saw a decent bump. Still, I’d be more than willing to pay a late second-round pick to get Davis on my roster. If he’s able to elevate to the Bills’ WR2, he has the potential to be a top-24 wide receiver.
Tyron Johnson (WR – LAC)
Over the last three games of the regular season, in which Tyron Johnson played at least 50 percent of the snaps, the rookie averaged 12.7 fantasy points per game. We didn’t get to see much from Johnson this season, as he was way too far behind on the depth chart to even get on the field; however, he thoroughly impressed when he did get playing time.
Justin Herbert has proven he can be a pass-heavy NFL quarterback; he can chuck the ball downfield and support multiple fantasy skill position players. Still, the cabinet isn’t fully stocked with weapons in Los Angeles. Aside from Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler, who else is going to catch passes from Herbert? Hunter Henry will be an expensive free agent, Mike Williams has greatly disappointed over his past four NFL seasons (and may not be retained), and the other wideouts leave much to be desired.
Now, the Chargers could easily sign or draft other skill position players. Still, I think Johnson warranted a spot on the roster and could see increased playing time in 2021. Johnson’s cost in dynasty leagues will also be minimal. If he’s not currently on your waiver wire, the most he would cost is a rookie fourth-round pick. Johnson is a solid dart throw if you want a piece of this Chargers’ offense.
Cole Kmet (TE – CHI)
The tight end position is typically a fantasy wasteland, but it has been more barren than ever as of late. If you didn’t have Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, or Robert Tonyan on your roster this season, you were disappointed from the production you received at the spot. While there are bound to be tons of tight end sleeper options entering 2021, I think the one going most under the radar is rookie tight end Cole Kmet.
Kmet played behind veteran Jimmy Graham for most of 2020, but his snap share saw a huge spike following the Bears’ Week 9 loss to Tennessee. From Weeks 1-9, Kmet averaged 34 percent of the snaps; from Week 10 on, he averaged 85 percent of the snaps. During that seven-week stretch to end the season, Kmet averaged over five targets per game and became a reliable option for Mitch Trubisky. He didn’t “wow” anyone with his numbers on the stat sheet, but he clearly looked to be the best tight end on the Bears’ roster.
Jimmy Graham could be a cap casualty heading into this offseason, as Chicago will need to shell out a lot of money to solidify the quarterback position. Even if Graham remains on the Bears’ roster, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kmet surpass the veteran on the depth chart. Given he underwhelmed in his rookie season, you could probably acquire Kmet on the cheap this offseason.
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