2021 Fantasy Football: Top Sleepers at Every Position

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystAugust 9, 2021

2021 Fantasy Football: Top Sleepers at Every Position

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    Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

    There is not a more popular (or overused) term in fantasy football than "sleeper," and it isn't hard to see why.

    Landing a player late who goes on to become a quality weekly starter is how good teams become great. How playoff contenders take the next step to unstoppable juggernaut.

    Cue the fantasy managers who landed James Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars last year nodding enthusiastically.

    It's overused because many of the guys who get labeled as sleepers each year really aren't. More than one fantasy pundit has deemed Trey Sermon of the San Francisco 49ers a sleeper, but with buzz building around the rookie runner from the moment he was drafted, any discount that once came with Sermon is now long gone. He's not making it out of the seventh round of drafts at this point.

    However, there are some legitimate sleepers still out there—players available outside the 10th round who have the potential to become significant contributors for fantasy managers in 2021.

    Let's get this party started...with a veteran quarterback who would be a first-round pick if fantasy leagues awarded bonus points for magnificent facial hair.

         

    ADP data courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator.

    Fantasy scoring data courtesy of My Fantasy League.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Washington Football Team

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    ADP: 158.9, QB23

    Ryan Fitzpatrick has been many things for many teams. The Washington Football team is the ninth for which the 16-year NFL veteran will start. He has long been an inspiration to any of us who aspire to grow a beard that Santa himself would envy.

    Now, Fitzpatrick has the potential to not only make the playoffs for the first time in his career but to also be one of fantasy football's biggest steals under center.

    Yes, Fitzpatrick has yet to officially be anointed the starter in Washington in 2021. But unless his right arm falls off at some point during the preseason, he's going to be orchestrating the first-team offense when the WFT hosts the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1.

    Assuming that's the case, Fitzpatrick will guide an offense that isn't hurting for weapons. There's Terry McLaurin and newcomer Curtis Samuel at wide receiver. Logan Thomas at tight end. Antonio Gibson at running back. And an offensive line that finished the 2020 season ranked sixth in the league, per Pro Football Focus.

    Also, while it has gone largely unnoticed by most fantasy managers, when Fitzpatrick has been out there in recent seasons, he has most assuredly been fantasy-relevant. Per Ian Hartitz of PFF, Fitzpatrick has peeled off stretches of QB1 play in each of the past three years in Tampa and Miami.

    According to Mike Tagliere of Fantasy Pros, Fitzpatrick has posted QB1 numbers in 18 of his last 37 games—nearly 50 percent. Last year, there were 10 quarterbacks who cracked the top 12 in at least half their starts.

    Fitzpatrick is an excellent late-round target for teams that fade the quarterback position early.

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    ADP: 158.4, QB22

    There was a time not so long ago when Tua Tagovailoa was the highest-regarded quarterback prospect in his class. He was a can't-miss superstar in the making. NFL teams were going to "Tank for Tua."

    Then came the dislocated hip that ended his collegiate career. And a pedestrian rookie season in which Tagovailoa averaged just 181.4 passing yards per game and threw only 11 touchdown passes in nine starts.

    If Tagovailoa were to fly any farther under the radar, he'd be off it completely—he's barley being drafted inside QB2 territory in 12-team fantasy leagues.

    However, there are a few reasons to think Tagovailoa is undervalued, that last year's struggles were more temporary setback than true indicator of what Tagovailoa can do.

    The first is simple. Last year, Tagovailoa was coming off a major injury and got zero training camp or preseason reps as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of being surprised that Tagovailoa had a rocky first season, maybe we should have been surprised that he didn't struggle more.

    Now, Tagovailoa has a year of experience under his belt. He's another year removed from the injury. And as Barry Jackson reported for the Miami Herald, Tagovailoa said he's "very comfortable" in Miami's offense.

    "Being able to get with the guys throughout the offseason has helped me tremendously," Tagovailoa said.

    Tagovailoa's scrambling ability should be improved in 2021. After Miami added William Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle, his passing-game weapons certainly are.

    There's considerable fantasy upside to be had here—on the cheap.

Phillip Lindsay, RB, Houston Texans

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    ADP: 124.2, RB49

    Just two years ago, Phillip Lindsay looked like the future of the backfield for the Denver Broncos. The undrafted free agent out of Colorado topped 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons.

    But then the Broncos signed Melvin Gordon III, and Lindsay spent much of the 2020 season banged up. By the time the 2021 offseason rolled around, Denver elected to rescind its tender on Lindsay, who eventually signed with the Houston Texans.

    According to Matt Young of the Houston Chronicle, Lindsay said the way things played out in Denver left him champing at the bit to show the Broncos made a mistake:

    "Oh, I have a big chip on my shoulder. For me, I feel like I'm always being disrespected. I'm going to go out there and show it. In my head, I'm the baddest dude there is, period. I don't care who else is in the NFL or anything like that, you've still got to deal with me. That's just how I act, but it's not just about me, it's about our team. That's all I care about. As long as we're winning games and stuff like that, accolades will come as time goes along. It's about team, it's about winning."

    As is the case with every fantasy running back drafted in double-digit rounds, Lindsay faces substantial questions—the overall state of the Texans as a team and the presence of David Johnson on the depth chart chief among them.

    But an argument can be made that Lindsay is the best pure runner on the roster, and Johnson has missed at least three games in three of the past four seasons—including four a year ago.

    To his credit, Johnson averaged 4.7 yards per carry in 2020. But it was the first time since 2016 he topped four yards a pop. Conversely, Lindsay has averaged 4.8 yards per tote for his career.

    Worst case, Lindsay is going to significantly eat into Johnson's workload. Best case, he'll take the lead job and (pardon the pun) run with it.

Damien Williams, RB, Chicago Bears

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    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    ADP: 156.0, RB61

    Judging from ADP data, it isn't hard to figure out how fantasy drafters have been approaching the Chicago Bears backfield.

    David Montgomery is the no-doubt No. 1 back. There appears to be significant skepticism that Montgomery can repeat last year's career season and RB6 finish in PPR leagues. But the third-year pro is still being drafted as a higher-end second starter in the third round of drafts.

    Then, there's pass-catching back Tarik Cohen, who made it just three games into the 2020 campaign before tearing his ACL. Despite reports that Cohen could still be "weeks away" from returning to practice in full, he is still being drafted nearly two rounds ahead of free-agent acquisition Damien Williams, who joined the Bears after opting out of the 2020 season while with the Kansas City Chiefs.

    That could be about to change. As Patrick Finley reported for the Chicago Sun-Times, Williams has stood out on the practice field with the Bears.

    "The last time Damien Williams played in a game," Finley said, "he should have been named Super Bowl MVP. After a year off, he doesn’t seem to have lost a step. With Cohen out, Williams has seized his opportunity to be a mismatch nightmare in the pass game."

    Per Larry Mayer of the team's official website, Williams has impressed Chicago head coach Matt Nagy.

    "He's very well-rounded," Nagy said. "It's just a really good fit for our running back room. I was not with Damien in Kansas City, but the coaches that were there spoke really well of him and said really good things. And so Damien's come in here like a true pro and just digested everything that we're doing. He's a great complement to what we're trying to do."

    In that Super Bowl win, Williams piled up 133 total yards and two scores on 21 touches. The 29-year-old has shown he can produce, and if this continues, at the very least Williams could usurp Cohen as the Bears' change-of-pace back.

Boston Scott, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    ADP: 162.7, RB63

    That's right—there are 62 running backs listed ahead of Boston Scott on Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP chart for the position. A week ago, he was off the list altogether.

    The times, as they say, are a-changing.

    Per Eliot Shorr-Parks of 94 WIP Radio in Philadelphia, over the first seven Eagles practice sessions, starting running back Miles Sanders had 35 total touches. Scott had 29.

    "I think Sanders and Scott could end up basically splitting touches this season," Shorr-Parks tweeted. "Scott has been great in the passing game."

    Fantasy managers have significant expectations for Sanders in 2021—he's being drafted as a top-20 running back and coming off the board at the back end of Round 3 on average. But durability has been an issue for the third-year pro from Penn State, who missed four games in 2020.

    For his part, Scott has done well when afforded the opportunity in the past. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry on a career-high 80 carries in relief of Sanders last season, adding 25 catches for another 212 yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns.

    It's not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Eagles limit Sanders' workload in an effort to keep him on the field. Or a scenario in which Sanders gets nicked up and misses time.

    And as things stand at present, it's Scott (and not rookie Kenneth Gainwell) who stands to benefit.

Michael Gallup, WR, Dallas Cowboys

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    ADP: 131.7, WR53

    Two years ago, Michael Gallup had a coming-out party—66 catches on 113 targets for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns. The 25-year-old finished that season as a top-30 fantasy receiver and appeared headed for a bright future.

    Then, the Cowboys drafted CeeDee Lamb. And quarterback Dak Prescott got hurt. Gallup's numbers dipped to 59/843/5 in 2020, and this summer he's all but a fantasy afterthought, with an ADP of a WR5.

    That's a mistake—or an opportunity for value. Depends on how you look at it.

    Even in the midst of last year's supposedly awful season, Gallup still finished 36th in PPR fantasy points—close to 20 slots higher than where he's being drafted. Even with Lamb and Amari Cooper on the roster, Gallup was still targeted over 100 times. Prescott will be back in 2021, and as the team's third wide receiver, Gallup is going to see a ton of single coverage.

    Per Andrew Hall of Pro Football Network, Gallup is low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked by savvy fantasy managers:

    "He's going behind players like WR Curtis Samuel, who is on a new team in Washington, and Jaguars WR Laviska Shenault, who has a new quarterback to adjust to. Gallup, meanwhile, gets QB Dak Prescott back and should see much easier defensive schemes as the team's third WR option. He's not Justin Jefferson or anything, but grabbing a guy like Gallup as your WR4 is a solid way to win a title. Don't overthink this one."

    Gallup is something of the poster dude for the late-round depth available at wide receiver in fantasy drafts.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    ADP: 156.6, WR60

    Let's see, how to be delicate about this…

    The wide receiver situation in Detroit is hot garbage.

    After watching both Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. leave in free agency, the Lions were staring at a ground-up rebuild at the position. What the team wound up with isn't striking fear into the hearts of opposing defensive backs—the team's top two wide receivers in 2021 are a pair of wholly underwhelming veterans in Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman.

    The Lions also added USC's Amon-Ra St. Brown in the fourth round of the 2021 draft, and the youngster has wasted no time making a positive impression on his new coaches.

    "I like him," offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said, per Kyle Meinke of MLive. "I like him. He's tough, man. He'll get in there and mix it up. He's great route-savvy. He's doing a good job."

    St. Brown is seeing a lot of time in the slot. As Frank Dyevoich wrote for Rotoballer, that could mean big things given Jared Goff's propensity for throwing shorter passes over the middle:

    "Goff has made his living off of targeting the slot receiver. Tight end T.J. Hockenson figures to be the primary weapon in the passing game and running back D'Andre Swift will be used plenty, but the other receivers on the roster are Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, and Quintez Cephus, and they all play on the outside. Goff will usually throw the ball to any receiver who is wide open because he does not like to throw into tight coverage and that bodes very well for St. Brown."

    St. Brown won't be the No. 1 rookie receiver in 2021. But he's going to finish a lot higher on the list than where he's being drafted.

John Brown, WR, Las Vegas Raiders

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    ADP: Not Listed

    There may not be a late-round wide receiver I am targeting with more enthusiasm than John Brown of the Las Vegas Raiders.

    Per BD Williams of Silver and Black Pride, Brown said it was an easy decision to join the Raiders in the offseason, because he wanted to play with quarterback Derek Carr.

    "Who would I like to play for? And when I was with Buffalo," he said, "watching Derek Carr play last year and seeing the style of offense, I fell in love with it right then and there and I wanted to be a part of it."

    It should be an equally easy decision to target Brown late in drafts.

    For starters, we've seen that the 31-year-old can put up numbers. Brown has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards twice, including as recently as 2019 with the Bills. That year, Brown was a top-15 fantasy option in PPR scoring systems.

    Also, the Raiders depth chart at the position isn't exactly loaded. Tight end Darren Waller is the unquestioned top target in the Sin City passing attack, but young wideout Henry Ruggs III didn't exactly light up the league as a rookie in 2020.

    It's not at all implausible for Brown (and not Ruggs) to emerge as the top wide receiver for the Raiders in 2021. If that's the case, WR3 numbers are an absolutely attainable goal.

    And getting a third starter essentially for free is how fantasy drafts are "won."

Jared Cook, TE, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    ADP: 159.3, TE19

    Ryan Fitzpatrick may be the king of the journeymen, but tight end Jared Cook isn't far behind. When he takes the field against Washington in Week 1, it will be for his sixth team in the Los Angeles Chargers.

    At 34, Cook isn't getting any younger. The 2021 season will be his 13th in the NFL. But as Gavino Borquez reported for Chargers Wire, just because Cook is old doesn't mean he's finished—at least in the opinion of his new offensive coordinator.

    "Jared's a very easy guy to throw to," Joe Lombardi said.

    Cook and Justin Herbert have reportedly wasted no time developing a rapport—a rapport that could mean big things for fantasy managers.

    Last year, Hunter Henry was targeted 93 times in 14 games on the way to a 60/613/4 stat line and eighth-place finish in PPR points among tight ends. Extrapolated over a full 17 games, that works out to about 113 targets, which would seem a reasonable expectation for Cook in 2021.

    Cook has only surpassed 100 targets once in his career—in 2018 with the Raiders. That year, he racked up 68 catches for 896 yards and six scores on the way to a Pro Bowl nod and top-five fantasy numbers at his position.

    If the high price tag for guys like Darren Waller of the Raiders and George Kittle of the 49ers gives you pause, Cook is a name to keep in mind late on draft day.

Anthony Firkser, TE, Tennessee Titans

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    ADP: Not Listed

    The passing game for the Tennessee Titans is undergoing some significant changes in 2021. Wide receiver Corey Davis is gone. So is veteran tight end Jonnu Smith. Tennessee replaced the former with a trade for Julio Jones. The latter will be replaced by young tight end Anthony Firkser.

    With Jones now in Tennessee, fantasy managers have paid very little attention to Firkser this summer. But as Ben Arthur reported for the Tennessean, Titans safety Kevin Byard doesn't expect Firkser to remain a relative unknown much longer:

    "Firkser, he's a top-flight tight end in my opinion. I went against Delanie (Walker) my first couple years. Jonnu (Smith) as well. I would definitely put Firkser right up there. I think that the dynamics of our offense right now, when you got Julio (Jones) and A.J. (Brown) and you got Derrick (Henry), that's the main focal point. I think working that middle of the field, I think Firk is going to have a day or have a year."

    Firkser has shown the ability to post a fat stat line. In a Week 6 win over the Houston Texans last year, he hauled in eight of nine targets for 113 yards and a score. He also appears to have the trust of Ryan Tannehill. Per Jackson Sparks of Sporting News, Firkser ranked second among tight ends in targets per snap in 2020—one place ahead of Travis Kelce.

    With defenses trying to contain running back Derrick Henry by loading the box and attempting to keep Jones and Brown under wraps on the outside, Firkser is going to be roaming open over the middle—a lot.

         

    Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year. Follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.

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