Fantasy Football 2021: Ranking Justin Fields and Top Breakout Sleeper Candidates
Fantasy football sleepers come in all varieties.
Some could be rookies with a ton of promise that do not have defined roles yet, while others could be players expected to take the next step in their respective offenses.
Fields will make a push to start the regular season under center, but that decision may not be made in time for some fantasy football drafts.
The uncertainty around Fields’ potential starting spot and his stock compared to other quarterbacks across the NFL makes him a mid-round fantasy draft selection at best right now.
Trevor Lawrence should be chosen around the same time as Fields. He could be off the board a bit earlier because he is going to be the starting quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While Lawrence has all the attention as the No. 1 overall pick, he comes with questions about how productive of a fantasy football player he can be in his rookie season.
Across the league, rookies and other young players will be met with similar concerns. There is potential for Myles Gaskin, Laviska Shenault and others to be the best potential fantasy sleepers, but they are sleepers for a reason.
Whether it be injury concerns, a lower spot on the depth chart or uncertainty about some offensive systems, sleeper picks carry that designation for a reason.
Below is a look at some of the best potential sleeper picks to choose in your fantasy football drafts over the next few weeks.
1. Justin Fields, QB, Chicago
Justin Fields is one of the most intriguing fantasy football quarterbacks for the 2021 season because he possesses so much potential.
The Chicago Bears staff could be pressured into starting Fields in Week 1 over Andy Dalton if he thrives in the live-game action he receives in preseason.
Bears head coach Matt Nagy confirmed that Fields would play into the second half of Chicago’s first preseason game, per Pro Football Talk.
While it is typical for players listed as backups to receive more run out in preseason, Fields is a unique case to that strategy,
At some point, the Ohio State product will take over as the Bears’ starting quarterback. The move could come soon if he eclipses Dalton in preseason, or if the veteran signal-caller struggles in the opening weeks of the regular season.
Chicago opens with two difficult assignments in its first three weeks, as it visits the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns. Nagy may be more inclined to start Dalton to navigate the tough defensive lines of both teams. A case could be made for Fields’ elusiveness in the pocket to be used in those games because Aaron Donald and Myles Garrett could be in the pocket on a consistent basis.
The best spot on the schedule to introduce Fields would be in October, when the Bears take on the Detroit Lions and Las Vegas Raiders in Weeks 4 and 5.
Whenever Fields enters the lineup, he will have some strong weapons at his disposal, starting with David Montgomery and Allen Robinson.
Darnell Mooney is expected to slide into a bigger role and Cole Kmet has the potential to be one of the best young tight ends in the league.
If you mix all of that with Fields’ dual-threat ability, you should see a fairly exciting offense coming out of the Windy City.
But until Fields is confirmed as the starter, his fantasy football draft stock will be low and he will start out as the second quarterback on many rosters.
2. Damien Harris, RB, New England
The New England Patriots running back situation is always one of the toughest to figure out from a fantasy perspective.
Damien Harris finished as the team’s leading rusher in 2020, but he only had 691 yards. Sony Michel chipped in 449 yards in nine games, while Rex Burkhead and James White took away just enough from Harris to keep him away from one of the top fantasy tiers.
Michel and White are back in the fold this season, but they are also a year older and Harris is the more dynamic member of the trio.
Even if Harris takes the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, his fantasy value will take a hit because White is one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL. White had 49 receptions on 62 targets last season. Harris was only targeted seven times in the passing attack.
If he earns the majority of the rushing shares over Michel, Harris will be a solid No. 2 running back that could add value in touchdowns.
With that in mind, Harris should be a decent mid-round selection and one that could outplay his draft position if he reaches his full potential.
3. Laviska Shenault, WR, Jacksonville
The Jacksonville Jaguars have a ton of intriguing pieces in their offense, but none of them will command a ton of fantasy attention because of the unknowns of Urban Meyer’s system.
Laviska Shenault displayed some promise as the team’s third-best wide receiver in 2020 with 600 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 58 receptions.
Shenault could be used as a potent deep threat for No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence.
The Colorado product may also be a candidate for a high volume of touches in the first few weeks since D.J. Chark is dealing with an injury.
Chark is expected to be back from his broken finger surgery for Week 1, but that injury could have a lingering effect on him at least to start the season.
If that is the case, Shenault and Marvin Jones Jr. will be called upon to get Lawrence into a rhythm right off the bat.
Even when Chark is healthy, Shenault carries some fantasy value because he could be used as the down-field speed burner that takes advantage of the attention paid to Chark and Jones.
It would be wise for Jacksonville to spread the ball around to as many players as possible to allow Lawrence to feel comfortable, which would then turn into some more competitive games.
No one knows if the Meyer experiment will work, but in order for it to do so, Shenault needs to at least maintain his totals from last season and potentially add a few more touchdowns.
Shenault could be an intriguing early waiver-wire selection, or a player to stash in the late rounds to benefit off his potential.
4. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville
Speaking of potential.
No one has more potential in the NFL right now than the Jacksonville quarterback and No. 1 overall draft pick.
Lawrence was anointed as one of the stars of the league years before he landed in north Florida because of how well he played at Clemson.
Lawrence finally has his chance to show what he can do in the NFL. As we mentioned above, he has some intriguing skill players around him to put up some decent passing totals.
Jacksonville brought in Jones from Detroit to provide some veteran experience alongside Chark and Shenault.
The Jaguars added Lawrence’s Clemson teammate Travis Etienne to a running back room that already had James Robinson, who was last season’s breakout fantasy star.
Lawrence has two running backs that are strong in the passing game and one he is more than comfortable with from his time at Clemson. That should help ease the transition from dealing with ACC defenses to ones littered with NFL stars.
Even though he comes with a lot of potential, Lawrence should not be worth an early reach in fantasy drafts. He is still a mid-round pick at best, but he could turn into a reliable player in Year One and one that could make you think about your starting quarterback decision later in the campaign.
5. Myles Gaskin, RB, Miami
The Miami Dolphins were an incubator for flash-in-the-pan fantasy stars last season.
Myles Gaskin, Preston Williams, Mike Gesicki and a few others were solid additions for a few weeks, but they either suffered injuries or came on too late in the season to become fantasy stars.
Gaskin’s stock should be on the rise on the running back rankings, but is not as high as he may be in December because there are some questions regarding Miami’s offense as a whole.
Tua Tagovailoa was not too convincing in the pocket and he needs to take a major step up to put Williams and Gesicki in spots to be big-time fantasy contributors.
As Tagovailoa works into the offense, Gaskin could be vital to helping him find a comfort level in the pocket.
Gaskin had over 15 carries in six of his 10 appearances in 2020 and he caught 41 of his 47 targets for 388 yards.
The third-year running back could be perfect for the role of depth player in a points-per-reception league and he could elevate himself to a week-by-week starter if he remains healthy for 17 games.
6. Gabriel Davis, WR, Buffalo
There are almost too many good wide receivers in Buffalo.
Gabriel Davis developed as a third option for Josh Allen to throw to in the Bills offense behind Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley last season.
Davis got buried a bit on the depth chart with the addition of Emmanuel Sanders, but he could still have late-round fantasy value if he outperforms Beasley in parts of the season.
Beasley’s body took a beating last season and the Bills may try to be cautious with how many short routes he runs to keep him fresh for a 17-game campaign and the likely postseason games to follow.
Davis may be used in the slot, or as a down-field threat that keeps opposing secondaries honest while they defend Diggs and Sanders.
In his first season, Davis wracked up 599 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but he caught 35 of his 62 targets,
If Davis improves on his catch rate, he could end up as a flex or No. 3 wide out option that could make him more than worth his late-round draft slot.
7. Cole Kmet, TE, Chicago
The Bears have a roster full of potential breakout stars.
If Kmet, Mooney or one of the other skill position players steps up in support of Montgomery and Robinson, the Bears could have a fairly productive unit.
Kmet has the potential to explode in the major stat categories if he develops a connection with Fields and takes away Jimmy Graham’s red zone snaps.
The Notre Dame product should also benefit from the added familiarity within the Bears offense. Kmet and every second-year player across the league had a full offseason with little interruptions to feel more comfortable in their systems. That was not possible with the COVID-19 protocols in place last year.
Kmet caught 28 of his 44 targets and chipped in 243 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers barely sniffed the fantasy football radar.
A year ago, Graham held a clear advantage in the tight end room with 50 receptions, 456 yards and eight touchdowns.
If Kmet develops a connection with Fields and Dalton and is able to become a massive red zone threat, he could turn into one of the mid-to-late-round steals of fantasy football drafts.
8. Adam Trautman, TE, New Orleans
Adam Trautman could be the ultimate come-out-of-nowhere fantasy contributor in 2021.
Trautman is expected to be the No. 1 tight end for the New Orleans Saints, who are dealing with all sorts of issues in the passing game.
Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith are not currently practicing, which leaves Marquez Callaway as the top healthy wide out.
Trautman could be a valuable piece in the New Orleans offense for Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill to work with to pick up important gains across the middle.
The 24-year-old caught 15 of his 16 targets last season for 171 yards and a touchdown.
Trautman needs to do much more in the New Orleans offense to be considered for a fantasy roster, but the high catch rate is notable.
If Trautman catches anywhere above 80 percent of the balls with a higher volume of targets, he could turn into one of the unlikeliest sleepers in fantasy football.
Statistics obtained from Pro Football Reference.