2021 Fantasy Football: Biggest Sleepers You Can't Let Slip Away

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystAugust 30, 2021

2021 Fantasy Football: Biggest Sleepers You Can't Let Slip Away

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    I have a confession to make. At this point in fantasy draft season, there are no "sleepers."

    There have already been thousands of fantasy drafts featuring hundreds of thousands of players. Player values have gone up (and down) with dizzying quickness. A week ago, Los Angeles Rams running back Darrell Henderson Jr. was the next big thing. Now he's old news, and Sony Michel is the flavor of the week.

    There are, however, players who are still slept on but have the potential to become weekly fantasy starters. In this exercise, we'll look at quarterbacks and tight ends who are getting drafted outside the top 20 of their respective position and running backs and wide receivers who are getting drafted outside the top 50 of their position.

    For some, this status is relatively new—it's a product of developments during training camp and the preseason. Others have been slept on most of the summer for whatever reason, be it age or a disappointing 2020 season.

    But each of the players on this list has one thing in common. They could be the kind of value that makes average fantasy teams playoff squads and turns the good ones into champions.

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    ADP: 152.5/QB21

    Life comes at you fast in the NFL. Just ask Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

    Before Tagovailoa had ever taken a professional snap, he was hailed as a generational prospect and the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. There was talk of "Tanking for Tua."

    But then came the hip dislocation that ended Tagovailoa's collegiate career and Joe Burrow's historic season at LSU. Tagovailoa "slipped" to the fifth overall pick, spending much of his rookie season watching Ryan Fitzpatrick start for the Miami Dolphins.

    Add in offseason admissions by Tagovailoa that he didn't have an especially firm grasp of Miami's playbook as a rookie, and the player who was once touted as a can't-miss star is already being labeled a bust in some circles.

    He's also a virtual afterthought in fantasy drafts, with an average draft position at Fantasy Football Calculator in the back half of Round 13.

    But consider this—in addition to rehabbing from a major injury, Tagovailoa had his first NFL offseason wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of wondering why Tagovailoa struggled, maybe the question should be why he didn't struggle more.

    Now, Tagovailoa has nine NFL starts under his belt. The Dolphins added significant passing-game talent in wide receivers William Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle. He's another year removed from that hip injury. Tagovailoa got the training camp and preseason reps in 2021 he was denied as a rookie—and has drawn praise for his improvement.

    All the ingredients are there for a significant leap forward statistically for Tagovailoa in 2021—and excellent value for fantasy managers who grab Tagovailoa late as a QB2.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    ADP: 159.5, QB23

    From a fantasy perspective, drafting Kirk Cousins is about as exciting as having your taxes done. It's a pick with all the sizzle of a popsicle.

    But it's still rather ridiculous that the 33-year-old is barely being taken inside QB2 territory in 12-team leagues.

    Last year. Cousins threw for 4,265 yards and a career-high 35 touchdowns on the way to a QB11 finish in fantasy points. Those aren't numbers that give fantasy managers the vapors, but it's low-end QB1 territory. In 2018, Cousins threw for 4,298 yards and 30 touchdowns on the way to a 12th-place finish in fantasy points.

    That's two top-12 fantasy finishes in three years with the Vikings. In 2019, Cousins' passing yardage was lower (3,603 yards), but he still finished inside the top-15—and 10 full spots higher than where he's being drafted in fantasy this summer.

    It's not like Cousins is hurting for passing-game weapons. Youngster Justin Jefferson set a rookie record for receiving yards in 2020. Adam Thielen is an excellent veteran wideout who set a career high with 14 touchdown catches a year ago. Irv Smith Jr. is an athletic young tight end who some have tabbed a breakout candidate. Dalvin Cook is one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league.

    Cook, Jefferson and Thielen are all gone on average in fantasy drafts by the middle of Round 5, but the player who is largely responsible for their production (especially Thielen and Jefferson's) is still sitting there in Round 14.

    Cousins won't single-handedly win your fantasy team's matchups, but if you're in the market for a dirt-cheap backup or platoon option, he is absolutely worth a look.

Tevin Coleman, RB, New York Jets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    ADP: 142.5, RB55

    Here's an unfortunate reality about fantasy running backs. The odds of hitting on a running back drafted in Round 7 aren't especially good.

    Running backs drafted in Round 12? Good luck with that.

    There are essentially three directions you can go with late-round running backs. You can draft a low-ceiling veteran who you know has a role to begin the season. You can draft a youngster who shined in the preseason, hoping he carries that momentum over to games that count. Or you can draft a backup that is one injury away from lead-back duties.

    Selecting Tevin Coleman of the New York Jets means traveling down that first route.

    Coleman will open the season as the nominal No. 1 back for the Jets. But as Mark Cannizzaro wrote for the New York Post, head coach Robert Saleh was clear that Mike LaFleur's offense will employ a committee approach.

    "It's an unknown group in that people look at the names and assume there's not much there," Saleh said. "They all have a dynamic trait to them that can be pretty good in the system and the way the zone scheme works. We're excited about this group."

    Coleman's 2020 season was miserable—53 yards in 28 carries over eight games with the San Francisco 49ers. But he has experience in the zone-running scheme the Jets will employ, including over 1,000 total yards with the Atlanta Falcons in 2018.

    Two years ago with the Niners, Coleman amassed 724 total yards and scored seven touchdowns, numbers that put him inside "flex" territory in PPR points per game in 12-team leagues.

Devontae Booker, RB, New York Giants

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    ADP: 158.7, RB60

    If going the "No. 2 back one injury away from a lead role" path is more your speed with "sleeper" running backs, then Devontae Booker of the New York Giants could be more your speed.

    As Michael Eisen reported for the team's website, Booker knew when he signed with the Giants that it was as the backup to Saquon Barkley. But the sixth-year veteran said he's ready to help the team any way he can.

    "I just go out there every day and just try to be a better running back and be better on how I can help our group be better," he said. "I don't know what else is going to happen. I just go out there and work hard. Like I said, just try to be the best I can be every day, and just do whatever I can do to help our team out."

    Booker has demonstrated the ability to be a capable No. 2 back—he gained 4.5 yards per carry last year backing up Josh Jacobs in Las Vegas. Barkley only just returned to practice a few days ago after his 2020 season was ended by an ACL tear, leaving his early-season workload in question. He has also played in just 15 games over the past two years.

    At the very least, fantasy managers who spent a first-round pick on Barkley should be using a late pick on Booker as an insurance policy. And even if you don't have Barkley rostered, Booker has some value as a late-round dart throw.

Chris Evans, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Susan Walsh/Associated Press

    ADP: Not Listed

    At this point, we are admittedly into deep sleeper territory. There is as much chance that rookie running back Chris Evans of the Cincinnati Bengals will be on fantasy waiver wires by the middle of October as in the starting lineup. Maybe more.

    But fantasy managers are always on the hunt for a youngster who could come from nowhere and become the next James Robinson.

    A sixth-round pick out of Michigan, the 5'11", 211-pound Evans has flashed as both a runner and receiver in training camp and preseason action. After piling up 58 total yards and a score on 16 touches in the preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Evans drew praise from head coach Zac Taylor.

    "I thought Chris Evans did some really good things in the pass game," Taylor said via Geoff Hobson of the team's website. "He had some good runs, too. Maybe his yardage didn't show up, but he had some good, tough runs that put us in good situations."

    Now, there's a difference between gouging scrubs in a preseason game and grinding out yards against a first-team defense in the regular season. Joe Mixon is also the unquestioned lead back in the Queen City.

    But Mixon has had some durability issues in the past, including 10 missed games a year ago. Backup Samaje Perine was OK last year, but he's a middling talent at best.

    Were Mixon to get hurt, Evans would get a chance to show what he can do in games that count. And given what we saw from him in the preseason, vaulting past Perine on the depth chart is a real possibility.

    That gets him on the fantasy radar in deep leagues.

Jakobi Meyers, WR, New England Patriots

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    ADP: 127.4, WR51

    Have you ever bitten into a gummy bear expecting a burst of sweetness, only to get a blast of ultra-sour, why-do-people-put-that-in-candy flavor?

    That's the facial expression that the New England Patriots passing game elicits.

    However, someone has to lead the New England wide receivers. Last year, it was youngster Jakobi Meyers who hauled in 59 passes for 729 yards. Despite the signing of Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in free agency, Meyers has remained Cam Newton's top target among receivers.

    Per Isaiah Houde of Patriots Wire, New England wide receivers coach Troy Brown credited Meyers' improvement as a player to him watching another quarterback-turned-receiver in Julian Edelman.

    "I think he just sat back and he watched Julian do it for the last two or three years. Took down some notes and he incorporated it into his game," Brown said. "It took a lot of hard work for him to get to a point where he felt comfortable going in there to work it."

    The Patriots don't have the passing-game volume to make a fantasy star of Meyers, especially with the arrival of tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. But both Newton and Mac Jones continue to show confidence in targeting Meyers, and Agholor's vertical speed should help keep opposing defenses honest and open up space underneath for Meyers to work.

    He isn't going to morph into Edelman and crack the top 20 PPR receivers, but he could be something of a poor man's version and a viable fantasy WR3.

Bryan Edwards, WR, Las Vegas Raiders

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    ADP: 151.5, WR59

    Preseason hype is nothing new in the NFL—every year, just about every player is having the best camp of his career and looks like a star in the making.

    But the hype surrounding second-year wide receiver Bryan Edwards in Las Vegas this year has gone next-level.

    First, as NFL.com reported, it was this tidbit from head coach Jon Gruden about the third-round pick in 2020.

    "(Bryan) Edwards has great ability," Gruden said. "He's got great ability. I'm excited about him. You see he looks like T.O., he looks like one of the number one wideouts in the league."

    But wait, there's more!

    Levi Edwards of the team's website then insisted that Gruden's comparison was off.

    "Jon Gruden said on NFL Network Bryan Edwards has been looking like Terrell Owens, but he’s looking more like Randy Moss to me," Edwards tweeted. "He’s been catching balls with corners draped over him all Training Camp."

    Think that's it? Nope!

    As Kyle Martin of the team's website reported, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr had yet another comparison for Edwards.

    "Bryan is a very violent route runner and that's a good thing," Carr said. "He's very violent, he's very aggressive in his cuts, he reminds me — when the ball is in the air — of [Green Bay Packers wide receiver] Davante [Adams], great ball skills."

    To be clear, Edwards is not Ranvante Mowensams, nor is he going to catch 150 passes for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Those comps are camp hype run amok.

    But Edwards, by all accounts, had a fantastic offseason and appears slated for a starting spot. And youngster Henry Ruggs III didn't exactly light the league on fire as a rookie.

    There's a legitimate part to Edwards becoming the No. 1 receiver for the Raiders in 2021.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    ADP: 156.1, WR61

    Most fantasy managers are familiar with the concept of "garbage time." Simply put, garbage time is the late portion of games where bad teams getting the brakes beaten off them rack up stats against a defense that is in full-on "who cares?" mode.

    Garbage time is why Blake Bortles of the 5-11 2015 Jacksonville Jaguars was a top-three fantasy quarterback.

    It's also why rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown of the Detroit Lions will be fantasy relevant in 2021.

    It's not that the first-year player from USC isn't talented, as Christian Booher reported for All Lions, St. Brown has consistently impressed in both practices and preseason action.

    "For a rookie, St. Brown looked lightyears ahead of where he's expected to be," he said. "He ran good routes, contributed with blocks and competed at a high level. If he continues to perform in this fashion, many will view St. Brown as the first real steal of the Brad Holmes/Dan Campbell era."

    However, it's the situation that really sets up St. Brown well. The odds of the Jared Goff-led Lions playing catch-up with regularity are—let's go with robust. In Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams, the Lions have quite possibly the weakest starting duo at wide receiver in the NFL—and after an injury-marred offseason, there are those who believe that Perriman's roster spot could be in jeopardy.

    There is a clear path to targets for St. Brown in the Motor City and to garbage-time fantasy production.

Blake Jarwin, TE, Dallas Cowboys

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    ADP: Not Listed

    Last year at this time, Blake Jarwin of the Dallas Cowboys was generating more than a little "sleeper" buzz at the tight end position.

    Then he tore his ACL in Dallas' season-opener, and that was that. This year, the fifth-year veteran is going undrafted more often than not. But per Neil Dutton of Yahoo Sports, the folks disregarding Jarwin in 2021 could be making a big mistake.

    "I just think that the offense that they had last year was-- you split it into two parts. There was the before Dalton, and there was the after Dalton. So when Dak Prescott was there, they were targeting the tight end 17% of the plays. That tight end was Dalton Schultz. Now, bless him, Dalton Schultz was solid. He put up occasional numbers. He was a streamer at the position and one of the very few who remained streamer-worthy because he got picked up and then dropped by everyone. Blake Jarwin is an upgrade on Dalton Schultz."

    In case you were wondering, Schultz was 16th in PPR points among tight ends last year—and that was with the Dallas offense collapsing around him.

    Yes, there are a lot of mouths to feed in the Dallas passing game. But the flip side of having Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup running around at the same time is that Jarwin will be a matchup afterthought for opposing defenses. Most of the time, it will be favorable matchups against linebackers and safeties.

    If that tight end target share stays close to the same in 2021, Jarwin could easily crack the top 15 tight ends—and possibly break into the top 10.

Jared Cook, TE, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    ADP: Not Listed

    I have talked up veteran tight end Jared Cook of the Los Angeles Chargers as a fantasy value more times than I can count this summer. His ADP has actually gone down since I started doing so.

    That hurts, y'all.

    Yes, Cooks is 34 and playing for his sixth team. But he can still play—as recently as two years ago, Cook posted a 43/705/9 line, finished seventh in PPR fantasy points among tight ends and made the Pro Bowl. He also reportedly got along swimmingly with Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in camp.

    Last year, Hunter Henry was targeted 93 times by Herbert in 14 games—an average of 6.6 targets per game. Over a 17-game season, that would equate to about 113 targets for Cook.

    For argument's sake, we'll drop that number to 100. That's a number Cook has eclipsed just once—in 2018, he was targeted 101 times and finished as a top-five fantasy option in Oakland.

    Again, for argument's sake, we'll multiply those 100 targets by Cook's career average yards per target of eight yards and his career catch percentage of 60 percent—numbers he has met or surpassed in each of the past four seasons.

    Even at those relatively modest catch percentage and YPT numbers, we're talking about 60 grabs for 800 yards. Throw in the six touchdowns that Cook has averaged the past four years, and you have 176 PPR fantasy points.

    That would have landed Cook sixth at his position a year ago.


    ADP data of Fantasy Football Calculator.

    Scoring data courtesy of My Fantasy League.

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