Fantasy Football 2021: League-Winning Sleepers You Need to Know
Fantasy football managers don't need to hit big on draft picks in the first few rounds to win their leagues if they can dig deep and find some middle- to late-round gems.
As the preseason ramps up, you'll see first-round mock drafts and top-50 rankings that highlight the biggest fantasy stars, but that's slim pickings with everyone eyeing the same players.
Find out where you can separate from the pack and get an edge on the competition with some sleeper picks.
Using Fantasy Football Calculator, we'll profile eight under-the-radar players with an average draft position (ADP) in the eighth round or later in 12-team point-per-reception leagues. These selections could solidify a league-winning lineup for the 2021 season.
QB Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
ADP: No. 97 (Round 8, Pick 10)
The Tennessee Titans have fielded a run-heavy offense, which ranked 10th and second in rush attempts in 2019 and 2020, respectively, but that could change in 2021.
The Titans lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who held the position for the last two campaigns. He accepted the Atlanta Falcons' head coaching job, and Tennessee promoted Todd Downing to take over play-calling duties.
Downing will likely continue to feature two-time rushing champion Derrick Henry as the workhorse ball-carrier, but he could implement a more balanced attack with a dynamic wide receiver duo in Julio Jones and A.J. Brown.
Under Smith, the Titans had the second- and third-fewest passing attempts in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Now, with Jones in the fold, quarterback Ryan Tannehill could take on a bigger role and rack up a lot of yards.
Before an injury-riddled 2020 campaign, Jones recorded 1,300-plus receiving yards in six consecutive years. The Titans have limited his offseason work to ensure he's healthy heading into the 2021 season.
Over the last two years, Tannehill performed efficiently, averaging 234.3 passing yards per contest with a 67.3 percent completion rate. In the upcoming campaign, he could post gaudy numbers with a pair of explosive starting wide receivers who both average at least 15.2 yards per catch for their careers.
Don't discount Tannehill's ability to score on the ground. Last year, he logged seven rushing touchdowns—five within 10 yards of the goal line.
WR Laviska Shenault Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
ADP: No. 98 (8.11)
Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer told reporters that DJ Chark Jr. had surgery on his hand, but he expects the wideout to suit up for Week 1.
In the big picture, that's good news for the Jaguars and a potential boost for Laviska Shenault Jr. and Marvin Jones Jr. As Chark recovers, rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence could build a strong rapport with both wideouts through three preseason games.
While Jones has nine years of NFL experience, Shenault draws intrigue.
Brian Sexton of the Jaguars' website praised Shenault for his offseason strides and presented the possibility that the wide receiver could grow into a featured role:
"Every time I look in Laviska Shenault Jr.'s direction I am impressed with the second-year receiver. He's clearly stronger; because he has been around for a year, he has a much better sense of what the NFL is about. But he looks so comfortable in a new offense; coaches are moving him all over the formation and throwing him all kinds of passes. He looks so smooth and comfortable that I can't help but think he might be the go-to receiver for rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence instead of the big play guy in DJ Chark or the savvy veteran in Jones."
DraftKings lists Lawrence as the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year at +300 (bet $100 to win $300). If the Clemson product posts impressive passing numbers, Shenault may reap the benefits.
If the receiver builds chemistry with Lawrence in the exhibition games, his ADP will surge before Week 1. Grab him now while he's available in the eighth round.
RB Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders
ADP: No. 99 (9.01)
This offseason, the Las Vegas Raiders signed Kenyan Drake to a fully guaranteed (for injury) two-year, $11 million contract, which raised some eyebrows, considering 2019 first-rounder Josh Jacobs is on the roster.
While skeptics may question the Raiders' lucrative investment at a disposable position, fantasy managers should take a closer look at their acquisition. Head coach Jon Gruden could field an offense that maximizes the talent of his top two running backs.
Last year, Drake didn't see much action in Arizona's passing game, hauling in 25 of 31 targets for 137 yards, but he anticipates a more expansive role in Las Vegas (h/t ESPN's Mike Clay).
"Good interview with Kenyan Drake on @SiriusXMNFL just now. While respectful of Kliff [Kingsbury]'s plan, you can tell he wasn't thrilled about being pigeonholed as a 1st/2nd down back. He expects to play a more versatile role (including some WR) with the Raiders," Clay tweeted.
Drake caught 50-plus passes in each of 2018 and 2019. He could reach that threshold again in 2021 if he's right about his prospective workload.
Jalen Richard will miss an indefinite amount of time with a foot injury, per The Athletic's Tashan Reed. With him out, Drake could assume primary third-down pass-catching duties and see snaps at wide receiver.
Considering his contract, expect him to steal some carries from Jacobs and see a handful of targets every week. He's a possible PPR-league steal at the top of the ninth round.
QB Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
ADP: No. 104 (9.06)
The Philadelphia Eagles haven't officially named Jalen Hurts as their Week 1 starter, but he's the clear-cut front-runner to win the job over Joe Flacco and Nick Mullens, the latter of whom signed with the team in June.
Through training camp, Hurts has taken reps with the starters. He took the field first in Thursday's preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and completed three of seven pass attempts for 54 yards.
More importantly, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen told reporters that the team will tailor the scheme to Hurts' strengths.
The Eagles will likely use run-pass option designs because of Hurts' ability to pick up yards on foot. Dating back to his collegiate years at Alabama and Oklahoma, he's gashed defenses on the ground, rushing for 3,274 yards and 43 touchdowns between the two schools.
As a full-time starter, Hurts should become one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in fantasy leagues if the Eagles commit to his style.
While Hurts must improve his 52 percent completion rate to maximize the Eagles' pass-catching group, which includes rookie first-rounder DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, he's capable of rushing for a ton of yards.
If you're concerned about Hurts' passing performances, his ability to run for 50-plus yards and a touchdown every week can compensate for low totals in passing yards and scores.
WR Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs
ADP: No. 105 (9.07)
Tight end Travis Kelce and wideout Tyreek Hill will likely remain the top two targets in the Kansas City Chiefs' aerial attack, but Mecole Hardman has generated enough buzz to warrant attention in the middle of drafts.
According to The Athletic's Nate Taylor, Hardman improved his route running and pass-catching consistency over the offseason.
Taylor also took note of Hardman's budding rapport with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
"The chemistry and timing between Hardman and superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes is one of the biggest subplots for the Chiefs' offense, perhaps the one that has the most impact on the unit's continual evolution," Taylor wrote.
While fantasy managers shouldn't read too much into unofficial depth charts during the preseason, Hardman lists as the No. 2 wide receiver.
With wideout Sammy Watkins' departure to the Baltimore Ravens, Hardman could take advantage of more targets. Last season, the former started in nine out of his 10 games and played at least 72 percent of the offensive snaps in eight of those outings.
In an expanded role, Hardman has a pathway to a breakout. Through two seasons, he's averaged 16.4 yards per catch as a big-play wideout. Bet on him to top his career highs in receptions (41) and yards (560).
RB Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions
ADP: No. 110 (9.11)
Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell served as an assistant on the New Orleans Saints' staff from 2016 to 2020. He had a front-row seat to a couple of effective running back combos.
Campbell saw Alvin Kamara coexist with Mark Ingram II and then Latavius Murray. He has a vision for the Lions' backfield, which compares closely to the dynamics in New Orleans over the past four years.
While talking to reporters after a late-July practice, Campbell didn't designate a true lead running back among D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.
"It's a one-two punch," Campbell said. "We're going to use both of those guys, they know that. A guy gets a hot hand, he's rolling. If Jamaal is in there, we're rolling. Jamaal is going to be rolling, and we'll use Swift for other things."
While fantasy managers would prefer a clear pecking order, Williams has draft-day steal potential in the ninth or 10th round.
With a hot hand, Williams could easily rack up 100 scrimmage yards in any given week. As primarily a backup through four seasons with the Green Bay Packers, he registered 2,946 yards (1,985 rushing and 961 receiving) and 18 touchdowns from scrimmage.
According to MLive.com's Kyle Meinke, Swift has missed "significant practice time" with a sore groin, so Williams may have a stronger grasp of the new offense going into the regular season.
RB Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
ADP: No. 131 (11.06)
Rashad Penny will go into a prove-it season in the final year of his rookie deal, as the Seattle Seahawks didn't exercise his fifth-year option.
Since Seattle selected Penny in the first round of the 2018 draft, he's battled injuries, missing 21 outings. Going into 2021, the San Diego State product has shed weight, per Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News Tribune.
"He looks great," head coach Pete Carroll said. "He worked out here all throughout the offseason, and it really paid off. Best he's looked since we've seen him."
At 5'11", 223 pounds, Penny is still a bigger tailback, but his ability to make quick cuts between the tackles could help him eat up chunk yardage on the ground. He's also familiar with the new offensive system under play-caller Shane Waldron, who headed over from the Los Angeles Rams.
Penny told reporters:
"It's everything I've done in college. It's the same exact playbook. It's nothing different than what I did. I love the perimeter game. They love to get me on the outside, and that's the majority of what this playbook is. Then, to open up the pass game with the talented receivers we have and trying to create a one-two punch with Chris, that's the biggest thing. ... I think it fits me very well."
Penny's leaner frame could allow him to hit the outside lanes in Waldron's run scheme. Even at a lower weight, he's still a viable threat near the goal line.
Because of Penny's draft pedigree, he'll likely have every opportunity to complement Chris Carson out of the backfield. Furthermore, with a free-agent bid looming, the fourth-year pro has the motivation to post big numbers.
TE Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
ADP: No. 146 (12.05)
Based on offseason reports, Irv Smith Jr. has raised his fantasy stock. He's one of the stars at the Minnesota Vikings' practices.
According to SKOR North's Judd Zulgad, Smith has established a strong rapport with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
"One thing that stood out the past two days is how much Irv Smith Jr. is getting the ball," Zulgad wrote. "It's become clear that Kirk Cousins is very comfortable throwing to Smith—more than he was throwing to Kyle Rudolph—and that could result in a big season for the tight end entering his third season."
With Rudolph's departure to the New York Giants, offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak told reporters that Smith will have "more opportunities." So, the third-year tight end could see an uptick in targets (43), catches (30), yards (365) and possibly touchdowns (five) from last season.
In her training camp observations, ESPN's Courtney Cronin highlighted Smith's red-zone presence after the second day of padded practices.
"Rudolph was a strong threat to score any time he was in the red zone. That role looks like it's being passed on to Smith," Cronin tweeted.
For reference, in 10 seasons with the Vikings, Rudolph scored at least six touchdowns in four of those campaigns.
With a bigger role, Smith could see a lot of action in all areas of the field as a breakout tight end in 2021.
Fantasy scoring courtesy of FantasyPros.
Average draft positions are courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator and are current as of Saturday.