Dynasty Sleepers: Wide Receivers (2021 Fantasy Football)
The depth of the wide receiver position is a persistent refrain throughout the fantasy game. To paraphrase Lloyd Christmas: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.” In a weekly pinch, WR provides the most opportunity for unexpected points. It is an inherent exercise in volatility; you will more often find yourself staring at a dud.
NFL targets fall into an established hierarchy. Passing games that produce more than two consistent contributors are rare, relying on enhanced volume or manufacturing touches in unique situations.
An example is the 2020 Carolina Panthers, as three WRs (D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Curtis Samuel) cracked the top 30 on a points-per-game basis. The primary driver was Samuel adding two points per game via rushing. While that weekly average may seem small, it proved the difference in placing him just outside WR2 territory vs. knocking him well outside WR3 range.
To identify sleeper WRs, look for undervalued players in primary roles or players boosted by unique situations. Time to dive in.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR – PIT)
Rewind to 2018. Life was different. Black Panther was a worldwide sensation, and the idea of masking up involved comic conventions. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster was the toast of the dynasty world after completing a top-10 WR season at 22 years old.
Life comes at you fast. He followed up the breakout 2018 with a dreadful 2019 season that landed him outside the top-50 WRs. 2020 was better. At 14.6 PPR PPG, he finished inside the WR2 range, but his stock remains tainted. His current Expert Consensus dynasty ranking sits at WR30.
Smith-Schuster had a disappointing experience on the free-agent market. Despite rumors of other offers, he ultimately returned to Pittsburgh on a one-year deal. That’s not the ideal outcome for a 24-year-old player with his production history. The motivation to reclaim his once-promising potential is evident.
Pittsburgh’s crowded WR room is a factor in his current value. Diontae Johnson led the team in targets with 144, and Chase Claypool emerged during his rookie season. However, the Steelers joined the Panthers as the only teams to yield three top-36 WRs. They found creative ways to use Claypool (two rushing touchdowns), and Ben Roethlisberger attempted the third-most passes in the league.
Despite the team drafting Najee Harris, a questionable offensive line will lead to continued pass-game results. Smith-Schuster is still young enough to realize his potential and represents a buy-low opportunity.
Brandin Cooks (WR – HOU)
The Texans are a mess. Even outside Deshaun Watson’s uncertain future, the team is depleted through trades of draft picks and several years of mismanagement. Those issues are well known, along with Cooks’ advancing age and injury history. Combined, they have dropped the bottom out of his value, placing him at WR42 in FantasyPros’ dynasty ECR. There is nowhere to go but up.
Cooks’ production last season was in line with his career bests. He grasped his role as Houston’s primary weapon en route to a WR17 finish. The imbalance was magnified when Will Fuller’s season ended due to suspension. Over his final four games, Cook’s 107.8 yards per game would have placed him in a position to lead the league in receiving yards if sustained throughout a full year.
Despite Watson’s future, there are reasons to buy. Fuller is now in Miami. In his stead, the team brought in third-round pick Nico Collins and little other support. The WR room belongs to Cooks, who saw nearly three times as many targets as any returning player.
Defensively, the Texans finished 2020 with the sixth-most points allowed per game and lost longtime anchor J.J. Watt this offseason. Houston did not address defense in the draft until pick 170, and cap trouble contributing to Watt’s release prevented any significant acquisitions. Even if Tyrod Taylor or rookie Davis Mills plays a large portion of the season, the game script will prop up the passing game.
Veteran status is a death knell to dynasty value. However, Cooks should still have multiple useful seasons left. There is ample reason to take a chance and capitalize on the potentially low acquisition value.
Michael Pittman Jr. (WR – IND)
The Colts have the most underrated wide-open WR room in the league. New draft picks and free-agent signings have cast conversation and attention on Baltimore, Miami, and the Jets. Still, the Colts will rely on exciting young players in Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell to finally step forward.
There is no question a changing of the guard from T.Y. Hilton is happening, but who will ascend into the role as the Colts’ new top WR remains uncertain.
Campbell has had extreme difficulty staying on the field, casting doubt on his future in the league. Pittman showed flashes of earning the trust of his coaches after dealing with a mid-season calf injury. He ultimately led Colts WRs in targets (10) and snaps during the team’s Wild Card Round loss to Buffalo.
Pittman’s ability to handle the lion’s share of targets is unproven, but he displayed that potential while at USC. In 2019, he finished fourth in the country with 109 receptions. A 6’4″ frame portrays him as a classic NFL volume hog, and his skill set is unlike any other on the Colts’ roster.
Every rookie paled in comparison to the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson in 2020, but Pittman particularly lost the dynasty rookie shine quickly. As a result, he has plummetted to WR44 in the current ECR. The opportunity to buy so low on a second-year player with a fantastic chance to emerge as the number one WR on a productive offense is rare.
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