Devy Fantasy Football: Sleepers in the Big Ten (2021)
Every off-season, devy managers are tested to see if they can determine which players will be breakout candidates in the upcoming year. If you want to succeed as a devy manager, knowing which players have a chance at that breakout and drafting them before their value increases are key to achieving long-term success in these types of leagues. To help you with those tough decisions, I broke down key players at each position that are primed for a breakout type year and are worth drafting in your upcoming devy drafts. In this edition of devy sleepers, I took a deep dive into the Big Ten Conference.
Graham Mertz (SO – Wisconsin) 6’3 215 lbs
Graham Mertz came to Wisconsin two years ago as the number three rated quarterback recruit in the country. To the dismay of many Wisconsin fans, he had to sit behind incumbent starter Jack Coan in 2019. While Coan had an excellent year, many wanted Mertz to get his shot. Well, in 2020, he got his chance when Coan started the year with an injury. Mertz took advantage of this early opportunity and came out firing in his first game against Illinois. He threw for 248 yards and five touchdowns in Wisconsin’s blowout win, and things looked to be trending upward for the young quarterback.
Then COVID hit the program after the Illinois game forcing Wisconsin to cancel multiple games and have multiple players sit out, including Mertz. Once the team came back, nothing was the same, and Mertz finished the year with a pedestrian 1,238 yards, nine touchdowns, and five interceptions.
Even with the lackluster season, I expect better numbers in 2021. Mertz has all the traits you want to see from a quarterback, including a great throwing motion and great mechanics. Look for Wisconsin to open it up next season and use Mertz’s accuracy to push their offense to new heights. Accuracy is one of those traits that quarterbacks either have or not, but Mertz certainly has it. If he can stay healthy for an entire season, he could be one of the fastest risers on NFL draft boards after the 2021 season.
J.J. McCarthy (FR – Michigan) 6’3 195 lbs
Michigan has suffered from a lack of talent at the quarterback position for the last twenty years. Their three best quarterbacks this century have been Chad Henne, Denard Robinson, and John Navarre. For such a storied program, the lack of talent at the position has unfortunately held them back the last twenty years.
Luckily for Wolverine fans, J.J. McCarthy will be stepping on campus next season. McCarthy is the number two rated pro-style QB recruit according to 247Sports. He’s one of the best recruits that has come to Michigan in the Jim Harbaugh era and has Michigan fans feeling confident at the position for the first time in years. McCarthy finished his prep career with a 36-2 record and 7,905 career passing yards to go along with 94 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions.
McCarthy has all the attributes you want to see from a young quarterback. He exhibits poise and exceptional pocket awareness to go along with a strong arm. He is accurate enough and has shown improvement in his ability to make throws in tight windows. The player comp that I keep seeing him as is Matthew Stafford, and quite honestly, if McCarthy can improve his arm strength a bit, it’s the comp that I will be sticking with.
McCarthy should have an opportunity to start right away for the Wolverines. He’ll be competing against incumbent starter Cade McNamara and recent Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman. While both of those quarterbacks have more experience, neither are as talented as McCarthy, and I fully expect him to be the starting quarterback at some point in 2021. This summer will be the cheapest you will be able to draft McCarthy, and I would look to grab him in your devy drafts this off-season.
Taulia Tagovailoa (JR – Maryland) 5’11 205 lbs
Taulia is the younger brother of former Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa. In high school, Taulia threw for 3,728 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior. He rewrote the Alabama high school record books. Becoming the only quarterback in state history to have at least four 400-yard passing performances in his career and became the 10th player in Alabama High School Athletic Association history to throw for 500 yards in a game.
After the completion of the 2019 season, Taulia transferred to the University of Maryland. In his first season at Maryland, Taulia threw for 1,011 yards and seven touchdowns while also throwing seven interceptions in just four games. Maryland’s season was cut short due to Covid related issues, but we did see glimpses of Taulia’s talent in that short time.
As a quarterback, Tagovailoa can drive the ball down the middle of the field and make high-difficulty far-hash throws. His arm strength and improvisational ability help him make creative off-platform plays. He is very accurate and gets the ball out quickly in the short passing game. Tagovailoa also has a dual-threat ability that we like to see from a fantasy perspective and could be playing with the WR1 of the 2023 class in Rakim Jarrett. Maryland could be a dark horse for the Big Ten title this season, and Taulia will be a big reason why.
TreVeyon Henderson (FR – Ohio State) 5’11 195 lbs
If you don’t know who TreVeyon Henderson is yet, you’ll soon be finding out. The number one rated RB in the country from Virginia could be the best running back prospect we have seen in the past few years. He didn’t have a senior season due to COVID but could still rush for over 4,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his prep career.
Henderson can do it all and has the size you want to see from a young running back. He should add fifteen to twenty pounds of muscle onto his frame and is a clear RB1. He comes into a perfect situation at Ohio State, who is losing Trey Sermon to the NFL and, surprisingly enough, has room at the top of the depth chart. Look for Henderson to step right in and get plenty of volume as a True Freshman.
Henderson is a three-down back and has the receiving ability to be a threat in the passing game. His jump cut at the line of scrimmage and cut back ability is exceptional, and his burst is up there already with some of the best backs in the country. He’s a natural when it comes to running the football and exhibits a high football IQ on the field. Out of all the running back recruits in the 2024 class, Henderson is someone who will be hearing his name called in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Noah Cain (JR – Penn State) 5’10 226 lbs
Noah Cain came to Penn State as a top 10 recruit in 2019. Since then, he has dealt with the emergence of Journey Brown and injuries that have derailed the start of his career with the Nittany Lions. Fortunately for Cain, Brown is no longer on the roster because a medical issue forced him to retire from football. It would also appear that the leg injury that he suffered in the first quarter last season that forced him to miss the remainder of the year is now fully healed. Penn State’s depth chart at the position is also wide open, so it looks to be Cain’s job assuming he can stay healthy. If he can stay healthy, he may be the biggest value in devy drafts right now.
As a freshman, he showed flashes running for 443 yards on 84 carries and scoring eight touchdowns. As a runner, he exhibits strength and the ability to have positive gains no matter where he gets hit on the field. He’s got a big frame and enough quickness at the line of scrimmage to evade would-be tacklers. Cain may not have the speed that many would like, but he shows just enough lateral quickness to make an impact.
Another positive for Cain is that the 2022 running back class is wide open after the top two spots, and if he can have a big season, we could see his name rise on draft boards because there are a ton of question marks in the class. Cain is a player to keep your eye on as the Big Ten season progresses.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba (SO – Ohio State) 6’0 196 lbs
Ohio State has slowly turned into “WR U” in the college football landscape. They recruit some of the top guys in the country and help develop them into NFL-ready prospects by the time they leave Columbus. A big reason for that is they have one of the best wide receiver coaches in the country in Brian Hartline. Hartline has become one of the hottest names among coaching circles throughout college football and is one reason why every devy manager should be taking stock in Ohio State receivers right now.
While others will undoubtedly be going after receivers like Garrett Wilson, Julian Fleming, Gee Scott Jr., Chris Olave, and Emeka Egbuka, the receiver I think can be a sleeper in that core is Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Smith-Njigba was one of the best receivers to come out of Texas in recent years, where he complied 5,346 receiving yards and scored 82 touchdowns in his prep career. He was an absolute monster and produced all those numbers against Texas’s largest classification (Class 6A). He’s an elite talent with elite skills.
Smith-Njibga could have the best hands on the Ohio State depth chart, and he can be lined up anywhere on the field. He’s a versatile receiver who has the speed to play on the outside but is also a technical route runner who can excel at the slot. Not to mention he’s one of the best athletes at the receiver position. Just look at his touchdown against Nebraska, and you’ll see his complete athletic profile on display. Jaxon can be Ohio State’s second-leading receiver next season, and based on his current ADP in devy leagues, he is one of the biggest values out there.
Zavier Betts (SO – Nebraska) 6’2 200 lbs
Nebraska has had a very rough off-season with transfers, and with the recent news they were trying to opt-out of their game against Oklahoma next year. While the game is reportedly still on, those transfers won’t be coming back. Nebraska has seen its biggest hit come at the wide receiver position. Their leading receiver from last season, Wan’dale Robinson, transferred to Kentucky, and his departure has left a giant hole at the position for the Cornhuskers. Aside from Omar Manning, the only other receiver I have high hopes for on that roster is Zavier Betts.
Betts came to Lincoln as one of the highest-rated recruits out of Nebraska since the early 2000s. In his prep career, he accumulated just over 3,300 yards receiving and scored 46 touchdowns. Betts saw the field sparingly as a true freshman, catching 12 passes for 131 yards, which surprisingly ranked third on the team. That should tell you everything you needed to know about how bad that offense was. Regardless, Betts should see a volume and usage increase next season.
As a prospect, Betts is a physical specimen and runs a pretty decent 40 time (4.59). When he gets the ball in space, he shows enough elusiveness to create yards after the catch and can be dangerous with the ball. He’s a Redzone threat because of his contested catch ability and athleticism. Look for him to outperform his 2020 numbers significantly and is a breakout candidate heading into the 2021 season.
Theo Johnson (SO – Penn State) 6’6 251 lbs
Penn State lost All-American tight end Pat Freiermuth to the NFL draft after the 2020 season but don’t feel too bad for the Nittany Lions because Theo Johnson may be even better. Johnson is a 6’6 athletic prospect from Windsor, Canada, and the number four rated tight end in the 2020 class.
Johnson checks all the boxes as a prospect playing the tight end position. He has the size and pass-catching ability you need at the position. He can catch the ball wherever it is thrown to him, and that alone will be enough to get him drafted to the NFL.
Johnson is also a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, especially up the seam. Look for him to be Penn State’s go-to target in the Redzone, just like Freiermuth was in his career. Johnson could very well lead the Nittany Lions in touchdowns next season.
He is also coming into an ideal situation at Penn State, where he should be entrenched as the starter moving forward. Penn State has also shown to be able to develop the position, which will undoubtedly help his draft stock moving forward. Johnson is my TE3 in his current class, just behind Michael Mayer and Arik Gilbert, but with all the uncertainty surrounding Gilbert, Johnson may be the better value pick. Look for Johnson to help Penn State bounce back from a terrible season in 2020.
Whether you’re new to fantasy football or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Football 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with Starting Your Own Fantasy Football League or head to more advanced strategy – like What is the Right Amount of Risk to Absorb on Draft Day? – to learn more.