Fantasy Football 2021: Sleeper Cheat Sheet and Strategy Tips for Mock Drafts

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IIAugust 3, 2021

Fantasy Football 2021: Sleeper Cheat Sheet and Strategy Tips for Mock Drafts

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Over the next month, a ton of fantasy football drafts will be taking place. The 2021 NFL season is quickly approaching, with the first preseason game taking place Thursday. It's time to start researching so you're prepared for the upcoming fantasy season.

    Even if you're a fantasy veteran, it's always important to participate in a few mock drafts, read up on potential sleepers and develop some strategies for your draft. Otherwise, things could take a bad turn when another manager takes a player you had been targeting and you are then unprepared when you're on the clock.

    Here are some fantasy sleepers and strategy tips to consider when selecting your team during your league's draft. (Average draft positions per Fantasy Football Calculator.)


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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Sleepers to Target

    Daniel Jones could take a big step forward in 2021, after struggling a bit during his first two NFL seasons. The Giants added Kenny Golladay to their receiving corps and running back Saquon Barkley will return from injury, so Jones will have better playmakers around him and could put up bigger numbers as a result.

    Cam Newton disappointed fantasy managers with his first season in New England. He threw only eight touchdown passes, three of which came in Week 17 after most fantasy leagues had ended. Maybe another year in the system and having better players around him will lead to a bounce-back season.

    Tua Tagovailoa still has a ton of potential even after he struggled in 10 games as a rookie in 2020. He's reunited with wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who the Dolphins drafted out of Alabama, and Miami's offense has the potential to take off with Tagovailoa at the helm.

    None of these three quarterbacks are players you should count on in Week 1, but they're strong options to consider for your bench in the second half of your draft.


    Strategy Tip: Don't Draft a QB in First 4 Rounds

    Other fantasy managers in your league will likely take Patrick Mahomes before the end of the second round. Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott and Lamar Jackson are the quarterbacks with an average draft position in the first four rounds. Pass on all of them.

    While your leaguemates reach on these QBs, others such as Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady will be among those likely waiting for you from the fifth round on. Draft one of them and pair him with a late-round sleeper.

Running Backs

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Sleepers to Target

    • Michael Carter, New York Jets
    • AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
    • Phillip Lindsay, Houston Texans

    These three running backs all have an average draft position in the eighth round or later. If any of them remain on the board at that point in your draft, try your best to scoop one of them up.

    Michael Carter could end up taking over as the Jets' lead running back during his rookie season. He's already been working with the first-team offense early in training camp, per Connor Hughes of The Athletic, which is a good indication of what the team thinks of its 2021 fourth-round draft pick.

    AJ Dillon will be the primary backup to Aaron Jones in the Packers backfield this year, which should give him more opportunities than in 2020, when he had only 48 touches as a rookie. He's also a great handcuff in case Jones gets injured.

    The Texans have a crowded backfield picture, with David Johnson, Lindsay, Mark Ingram II and Rex Burkhead all on their roster. If Johnson and Ingram continue to underperform, Lindsay could end up earning a large share of the touches, making him an intriguing fantasy option.


    Strategy Tip: It's OK to Not Draft an RB in the 1st Round

    A lot of running backs will come off the board in the opening round of your draft. And unless you have a top-four pick (when you should take one of Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry or Alvin Kamara), it's OK to use your top pick on a wide receiver or even tight end Travis Kelce.

    There have been years when taking a running back in the first round seems like a necessity because of the drop-off in quality, but that's not the case in 2021.

    Young, high-potential backs such as Najee Harris, Antonio Gibson and Clyde Edwards-Helaire should be available in the second round, and others such as Josh Jacobs, David Montgomery and Miles Sanders will likely fall into the third round.

    Still make sure you have at least two clear starters at running back on your roster, which likely requires taking both in the first three or four rounds. But it'll be fine to pass over the RBs in Round 1.

Wide Receivers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Sleepers to Target

    • Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos
    • Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts
    • Henry Ruggs III, Las Vegas Raiders  

    Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs IIIformer Alabama standouts who were first-round draft picks in 2020 haven't lived up to their potentials yet. But both could make a ton of progress this season and may become legitimate fantasy flex options down the line. Their teams will be relying on them to take steps forward, considering the Broncos and Raiders didn't do much to upgrade their receiving corps this offseason.

    Michael Pittman Jr. seemed to be on the verge of a breakout midway through his rookie season in 2020, but his production waned down the stretch. Once he develops a connection with new Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, he could overtake T.Y. Hilton as the top receiving option in Indianapolis.

    These sleepers are the types of players who could end up helping you win your league. None of the three should be taken before the ninth round, though, as their production could easily exceed what you'd expect from players selected at that point.


    Strategy Tip: Wait for the Middle Rounds to Stack Up on Receivers

    There is a ton of receiving depth this year, which means it's not necessary to add a bunch of wide receivers early in your draft. Unless you're taking a star like Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill or Stefon Diggs within the first two rounds, you'll be good to wait a few rounds later to start building your starting receiver group.

    For example, Chase Claypool was the WR14 in standard scoring leagues last season, and his average draft position isn't until the 12th pick of the sixth round. That's the kind of talent that should still be on the board at that point.

Tight Ends

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Sleepers to Target

    • Anthony Firkser, Tennessee Titans
    • O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    • Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings   

    Jonnu Smith is now with the New England Patriots, meaning Anthony Firkser will take over as the top tight end in Tennessee. Most of his 2020 production came in one game, when he had eight catches for 113 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Texans. That's what Firkser could be capable of in 2021.

    Now that we've seen Rob Gronkowski isn't quite the dominant force he once was, there should be plenty of targets for O.J. Howard, who will be coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. The risk with Howard is always his health, but he clearly has talent and potential.

    Irv Smith Jr. will be the Vikings' No. 1 tight end with Kyle Rudolph gone, and the team may need him to step up if opposing defenses are constantly double-teaming the wide receiver duo of Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. Smith impressed at times in 2020 and should build off that with more opportunities.


    Strategy Tip: If You Miss the Top 3, Wait It Out

    Three tight ends are worthy of being drafted within the first three rounds: Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and George Kittle. If you miss them, don't plan on taking a tight end for a while.

    No other tight end has proved to be reliable, and you're probably going to end up streaming or playing the matchups anyway, so don't waste a high draft pick on a player who could be a bust. Take your starting tight end in the second half of the draft and be prepared to pivot throughout the season.